I will admit, this is an intimidating post to write.
Not only because Les Miserables is such an incredible, life-changing book, but because Victor Hugo happens to be one of my favorite authors. His mastery of prose, of story, and of character blew me away when I first read this book.
Also, he was the sass master of the ages.
I swear, there was a reason that man was exiled. Whatever explanation is in the history books is only partially true. Really, it was because the rich and powerful were tired of how sarcastic and mocking he was whenever he wrote about them.
The man had no filter.
If you have read Les Miserables yourself—or spoken to someone who has—undoubtably you have heard about how long-winded it is. To be fair, there are at least two—very long—chapters devoted entirely to describing the Battle of Waterloo and the complete workings of the Paris sewers, neither of which had more than a passing significance to the story. They were unnecessary and very misplaced in the more modern view of storytelling.
I loved them both.
The Battle of Waterloo was fascinating simply because I knew almost nothing about it, and much preferred learning the particulars in Hugo’s style of writing rather than the dates and facts of a history book. As for the sewers of Paris—perhaps the less said about that the better. Let’s just say, it gave me several marvelous story ideas. Someday, when I do not have a full fantasy series and a biography hanging on me and begging for my attention, I shall write them.
It may be a while.
Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, a Frenchman in the early nineteenth century. A convict, in fact, who, because of a loaf of bread, has been condemned to spend the rest of his life as an outcast of society. Nineteen years, he served for a loaf of bread—and for attempting to escape. His time in prison left him bitter and broken, and he continues to live out of that bitterness, taking what he can from life and stealing where nothing is offered.
Until he finds himself on the doorstep of the Bishop of Digne. The man invites him in, gives him food and a bed where most offered a bullet and a dog’s teeth. That night Valjean steals his silver and all the money in the house and disappears.
A few hours later, he is brought back, ready to be sent straight back to prison if only the Bishop will identify him.
The Bishop refuses. He informs the guards graciously that Jean Valjean is not a thief, and that everything in his bag was given to him. More than that, he takes the only silver left in the house, two silver candlesticks, and offers them as well, insisting that Valjean must have forgotten them.
This gesture of grace, something that is so far out of Valjean’s experience, turns his life on its head and begins a journey of epic proportions to become, as the Bishop makes him swear, an honest man. From this point, the story leads through a labyrinth of characters, including the daughter of a prostitute who becomes Valjean’s ward, a police inspector driven by an almost fanatical desire for justice, and a poor, threadbare student standing on the barricades of the French Revolution. Grace and the law are put on trial together, and the failings of the law are covered by the redemption of grace.
Long-winded or not, this is a book for the ages, and one I recommend to anyone looking for a new favorite classic to read.
I promise not to judge if you decide to skip the chapter about the sewers.
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”