Terrouge E-zine Archives
Literary Recommendations: Les MisÚrables By Victor Hugo
By: Grant C./Brock Strongpaw
In my time with Firebird, I have avoided calling a book a “masterpiece.” I might refer to some of the writing as masterful, or heap praise upon a book, but I have not used the word “masterpiece.” It is a heavy word, not to be used in vain. But, when I finished Les MisÚrables, there was only one word in my mind which properly described this book. Masterpiece.
In Les MisÚrables, Victor Hugo weaves an enthralling tale, set in a tumultuous time in the history of the nation of France. The story opens in the hard winter of 1795, and closes in 1835, a period of some forty years. The story is equally epic and personal, redemptive and accursed, and uplifting and depressing. The novel covers a broad spectrum of human conditions, emotions, and viewpoints.
The main characters of this book come from one class, les misÚrables—which can mean the poor, downtrodden, and disenfranchised of France or the morally bankrupt and wretched. Some are impoverished because of their actions, some are born to poverty, and some rise above it, while others are destroyed by it. Some allow their lot in life to control them; they lose their humanity in this dark underworld of Paris, and drag others down into the darkness in their struggle to leave them. Others shine out in the darkness, beacons of goodness that uplift those around them.
The story is a tale of destiny and choice. Some, like the tragic characters of Eponine and Fantine are destined to a hard life, though their choices still determine their character. Others, like Jean Valjean, by their choices, or perhaps their fate, or divine grace, are redeemed from their horrible circumstances.
There are several storylines in this book, which are all woven together into the fabric of the story. The main thread seems to be the tale of Marius and Cossette. These two young lovers only come together in the middle of the novel, but everything before their meeting prepares them for the rendezvous. It seems obvious their story must be the main story line. But there is also the story of the convict Jean Valjean. His redemption spans the entire book. He initially goes to jail for stealing bread to feed his family. Later, he suffers in the galleys with a life sentence due to his escape attempts. He finally breaks free of jail—as a hardened criminal. Yet the actions of a single man lead to the beginning of a remarkable transformation—from convict to saint. Or perhaps the story is about those trapped in the dark underbelly of Paris, those les misÚrables for which the book is named. Instead of being a confusing mash of stories which could have resulted from the novel’s broad approach, the elements are all brought together during the ultimate climax of the book.
The themes of the book are as ambitious as the scope of the story. My father once told me as I entered college that writing analyses of French-authored books was easy—Man’s inhumanity towards Man. While a cursory examination of Les MisÚrables might suggest this is the case with Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, a closer look reveals a deeper story with many lessons.
Monsieur Hugo primarily deals with the mistreatment of the poor by society. Jean Valjean’s only actual crimes are two counts of petty larceny: a loaf of bread and a few sous (the equivalent of a few dollars). For these petty crimes, he is condemned to a lifetime of hard labor. M. Hugo points to prejudices that prevent the formation of a truly “free” society, barricades which must be torn down. Barricades such as social inequities, prejudices, and injustices.
The “evil of good” the “monstrous Saint Michael” Javert, serves to demonstrate another aspect of the novel’s story. M. Hugo shows that goodness can become evil through a simplistic, black-and-white morality. Javert goes mad in the end due to the unexpected goodness of a supposedly evil man. This worldview-shattering experience drives him to suicide.
The overarching theme of the book is redemption. A kindly bishop rescues Jean Valjean from capture and imprisonment. Later, the ex-convict is gradually transformed into a good man. He overcomes the prison-taught violence first, then slowly his pride, and finally his selfishness. In the end, he is willing to sacrifice his own chance at happiness to ensure the happiness of others.
ThÚnardier serves as a tragic foil to Jean Valjean’s rise from the murk of France’s underbelly. He is first introduced as a somewhat respectable and law-abiding, if selfish and cruel, innkeeper. When the book ends, he is a thief, murderer, extortionist, and con man who cares for no one but himself. He abandons his sons and is even willing to allow his eldest daughter to be murdered to save his own skin. His descent results from his selfish attitude and actions, just as Jean Valjean’s rise comes from unselfishness.
Critics often complain about the huge number of coincidences that occur throughout the story. Hugo views these coincidences as divine Providence, which is one of the final main lessons of the novel. The Acts of God plays a major role in all the characters’ lives, and the actions of it are often revealed by a peculiar grammatical turn; Hugo uses a noun to modify another noun, which is grammatically incorrect, but it clues the wary reader into the fact that something out of the ordinary is happening.
All of these events occur before the turbulent backdrop of Early Restoration France as the government swings from a republic to a monarchy. The climax of the novel includes a civil war and the raising and defense of a barricade by a group of revolutionaries. In this finale, all the characters are brought together, sometimes tragically, sometimes joyously. Even minor characters, seemingly introduced for comic effect find themselves here at the barricades, fighting for their lives.
I have only scratched the surface of the story of Les MisÚrables. This novel is rightly called “France’s National Novel.” The story is deep and compelling; it is an emotional masterpiece. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.