What can I say about Les Misérables that hasn’t already been said? For seventeen days I carried this brick around with me. It became my ink-and-paper security blanket, and I was so surprised at how quickly I was able to be sucked into the story. When I finished I got really sad and felt like I couldn’t let it go, so attached had I become to 1830s Paris and to the characters and to this rich, multi-layered, murky, often depressing world. Hugo creates such vivid characters and gives them all their due. I closed the back cover and couldn’t believe I had finished, and I felt bereft at leaving it. I wanted it to be twice as long, believe it or not. When I finished I went back to beginning and read the first few chapters, soaking in the feeling of knowing the whole story, of becoming a part of something so beautiful.
I guess this review can’t function without acknowledging the musical, which inspired me to take the time to read the book in the first place. It’ll be hard not to discuss this book in terms of “what the musical doesn’t tell you,” but that’s sort of how I felt when I was reading it: I felt gypped that I had experienced the story without knowing the whole thing, with all its nuances and its vibrant detail, without really grasping what this story is all about, which, in my opinion, is the power and merit of pure human kindness. Helping your fellow man unselfishly, despite their flaws and vices, despite your own dire straits. This book is about pursuing goodness in yourself and sharing that goodness with others, often at great risk to yourself.
Who is Jean Valjean? That’s a central theme of both the musical and the novel. The musical would have you believe he is only a disadvantaged man, but in the book, he is so much more. Jean Valjean is a man consumed with hatred for the world and everything in it. Having spent nineteen years in prison doing manual labor for a petty crime (and many failed escape attempts which elongated his sentence), Valjean has little humanity left to speak of. He is, for lack of a better description, truly a dangerous man and a hardened criminal. Society has so ostracized him that he can only feel hatred for others. He has never known transporting love, compassion, or kindness.
Enter the Bishop of Digne. You may or may not know the story: after being turned away from multiple inns (and inns’ stables) for his known identity as a convicted felon, the only shelter he can obtain is at the cottage of the beloved Bishop of Digne. The Bishop extends every kindness to Valjean, treating him like an equal and letting him stay the night. Trusting to a fault, the Bishop never locks his valuables at night and Valjean struggles with himself, then decides to steal the Bishop’s silver. When Valjean is caught soon after, the Bishop tells the police that he had given the silver to Valjean, and what’s more, the Bishop also gives his silver candlesticks to Valjean.
This one act of kindness within itself contains the power to change a man completely. Valjean is not a gentle man; he is full of hatred and unbridled strength, but he allows himself to be redeemed by the power of the Bishop’s unselfish gesture. The act of kindness throws Valjean into a turmoil and he emerges from his emotional chaos with one overwhelming thought in mind: to dedicate himself to improving the lives of others, improving the lives of les misérables.
The entire story revolves around this central theme. Valjean sheds his identity and becomes the beloved Monsieur Madeleine, mayor and benefactor of the town of Montreuil-sur-mer. He becomes every bit as kind, unselfish, and generous as the Bishop was, and is constantly critical of himself. He denies all material comforts and gives alms to the poor without second thought. Constantly throughout the story Valjean makes strides to better himself, become more unselfish, more generous, more understanding. He sacrifices his own happiness and well-being repeatedly, not only for the betterment of others but also to atone for his sins, which he believes will always tarnish his soul.
I could go on for years about Valjean and how much I adored him as a character. I also adored the naive Fantine, who gave her love to a callous man and pulled out her own front teeth to feed her daughter (that wouldn’t make for a pretty sight onstage). I shivered every time the word “Thernardier” popped up on the page, but most of all I was struck with the kindness Hugo shows to all his despicable characters, Thernardiers included. Hugo shows such understanding about the horrid underbelly of humanity and how poverty can turn good people bad. At the heart of this book is the knowledge that love and kindness are transformative if you allow them to change you.
And the characters. By the end you feel like you have actually walked with them down the streets of Paris, you know how they think and why they act the way they do, and you want to follow Gavroche into his makeshift home in the Bastille. Paris becomes alive to you as well, and before you know it, you’ve unknowingly taken sides in a political battle that took place almost two hundred years ago. You watch the Battle of Waterloo and come to admire Napoleon Bonaparte. You learn about the mindset of the royalists and why Louis-Philippe was a good Restoration king. You wait for the June Rebellion and the building of the barricades.
This is a book about love, more than anything else. Victor Hugo believed in love at first sight and in the power of books like these. So do I.
“You who suffer because you love, love still more. To die of love, is to live by it.”
“He never went out without a book under his arm, and he often came back with two.”