“Red – the blood of angry men! Black – the dark of ages past! Red – a world about to dawn!”…since seeing the film of the musical of Les Misérables, reviewed in dazzling terms on this site by Ollie Velasco, who described it as “incroyable”, I am quietly confident that I am not the only denizen of PGS who has carried the songs in her head whilst navigating the school site.
At first touch, the novel seems impossibly chunky and those who have seen and loved the film or the musical will be astonished that such a weighty tome could be compressed into 158 minutes of cinema, however shameless its tugs on our heart-strings are. And yes, it’s a long novel – depending on the translation, it boasts of approximately 530,982 words (although this puts it a mere sixteenth in the Guinness list of the world’s longest novels). So how, amidst the frenetic daily life of a sixth former, is such a book attempted?
As with all things in life that seem enormous at first sight, such as a rich slice of chocolate cake, revising for a Physics exam or eating the apocryphal elephant, the answer is to tackle it little by little. Snatch the odd ten minutes here and there to progress through the work chapter by chapter. Speaking of the chapters, they are remarkably short and mean that the novel really can be consumed in minuscule doses.
The second factor that makes the novel less daunting than its size would suggest is that the cast of principle characters is not that large. Les Misérables is a multi-plot narrative but the focus remains persistently upon Jean Valjean and hence also on Cosette, Marius and Javert. Ultimately, it is a story of Valjean’s redemption: his fear of further incarceration and his moral and physical strength are what dominate the plot.
An essential qualification for the prospective reader of Les Misérables is a love of digression. Hugo’s novel does relate the story of Jean Valjean and those he loves and encounters, but there is so much more to the book than a simple story. Whole chapters are dedicated to ephemera, from the differences between various Catholic religious orders, to the characteristics of Parisian street slang. At times, particularly in the more lengthy chapters dedicated to attitudes towards the Battle of Waterloo, it is not clear if what we are reading makes any contribution to the plot whatsoever…but the trick is to regard yourself as a reader along for the ride as well as the destination, and enjoy.
The title Les Misérables is hardly subtle and yet Hugo’s approach to social and sexual injustice is remarkably understated. After Fantine, the grisette (working class girl) has been materially spoiled and impregnated by the wealthy student, Tholomyès, we are told proleptically, “We shall have no further occasion to mention Monsieur Félix Tholomyès. It is enough to say that, twenty years later…he has become an influential, rich and portly provincial attorney, a prudent voter and stern magistrate; but always a man of pleasure.” As we then proceed to witness Fantine’s poverty and degradation, from a factory worker dismissed for her “sin” to a prostitute who has sold her hair and her two front teeth to support her illegitimate daughter, finally dying without being reunited with Cosette, Hugo keeps his word and does not remind us of Tholomyès’ comfortable life but we are mindful of the contrast.
Fantine is but one character who is judged by society and yet displays a moral fibre distinctly lacking in those in authority. Many of the characters in Les Misérables sin and yet it is clear that the greatest harm is done not by theft, extra-marital sex or even cruelty, but by inflexibility. Fantine is exposed as being the mother of an illegitimate daughter by Madame Victurnien, who spends thirty-five francs travelling to set eyes upon Cosette as proof of the mother’s infamy, and is “highly gratified” when she sees Fantine dismissed and condemned to an existence of abject poverty as a result. Marius and his grandfather come close to being parted by death unreconciled despite their love for one another.
The greatest antagonism of the novel, that between Javert and Valjean playing out a continuous drama between hunter and hunted is perpetuated because of Javert’s inability, “to see more than one straight line” and acknowledge that, whatever Valjean may have been, it is not what he has become. Equally, the religious figures of the novel who personify goodness understand when to commit a small sin for a higher good. Sister Simplice, “who in all her life had never told a lie” understands that it is right to do so to help Valjean delay his capture by Javert and the saintly Bishop of Digne will lie to protect a thief from earthly retribution as there is a chance to save the convict’s immortal soul.
Les Misérables is a panorama that encompasses comfortable houses, carts of convicts, convents and the barricades. It is not dictatorial and we are invited to make our own moral judgements upon the characters forging their lives in the changing society of nineteenth century France. If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Castle on a Cloud” or wept at the latest film, give Les Misérables a try…of all the versions of the story, the novel really is the original and the best.