Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
- Method of Obtaining: I purchased my copy.
- Published by: Carefully Crafted Classics
- Release Date: 11/28/2012 (This edition)
In this story of the trials of the peasant Jean Valjean–a man unjustly imprisoned, baffled by destiny, and hounded by his nemesis, the magnificently realized, ambiguously malevolent police detective Javert–Hugo achieves the sort of rare imaginative resonance that allows a work of art to transcend its genre.
- Preparation for the upcoming movie release.
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It’s always a daunting task to write a review of a book not only widely read but also extremely popular. Especially after one read of the primary text (and no knowledge whatsoever of the musical, aside from the minute or so of the previews shown for the upcoming release). So rather than wax poetic about Hugo’s insanely thorough, beautiful writing as many others have done, let me simply give you my impression of Les Misérables.
The first 10% or so of the Kindle edition that I read dealt primarily with a description of Bishop Myriel. About 5% in I was a bit confused, wondering why all this information was necessary for a character that, admitted by Hugo, was not an integral part of the book. However, I managed to fall in love with that sacrificing Bishop and felt I knew him so intimately that by the time Jean Valjean arrived on the scene, I could predict the good Bishops movements. And aside here, the letter and actions of the Bishops sister and housekeeper had me laughing and thoroughly enjoying myself, mostly because I, as an unmarried woman in today’s society, would never have been able to so meekly assist my brother in that way.
Jean Valjean – such a character. 19 years spent in horrific conditions all because he stole some bread. After his run-in with the Bishop, his encounter with Petit Gervais, and his arrival in Montreuil-sur-Mer I began to get an idea of why the Bishop was such an important character to begin the book with. It was a beautiful thing to see the changes being wrought in Valjean.
And then there comes Fantine. Honestly, I think Fantine is my second favorite character of the book (second to Bishop Myriel, I really did love that old man). She is the perfect tragic figure: mother to a beautiful child, abandoned by her lover, trust-worthy to a fault, abused, neglected, self-sacrificing, and all of it unrewarded until she lay on her deathbed… but even then happiness is denied to her. As miserable as Valjeans life was throughout the book, I think Fantine’s situation is what really gives weight to the title that Hugo chose.
And from Fantine there comes Cosette. Although there is plenty in the book about the girl, and then the young woman Cosette, I came away with less of an impression of her than of the other characters. In fact, I felt more connected to Marius than Cosette – although that might have been simply because Cosette comes off as a bit of a wimp, not due to anything that Hugo does, necessarily. It’s just strange to read about her passive behavior from a 21st century perspective.
The only other main character I want to touch on is Javert. Javert was the epitome of fear to me. He had a nasty habit of always showing up in a city filled with people, leaving the correct impression that he and Valjean were connected in a way that could never be broken. I appreciated Hugo’s treatment of the torment that filled Javert at the end of the book and thought that his story ended in a most fitting manner.
Hugo spends time not telling the stories of these main characters by elaborating on everything from an incredibly detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo (of which I now know more information than I know how to deal with), slang, the street urchin or gamin, the sewers of Paris, religious orders, and politics. Of these I found Waterloo, the religious order description, and the information on slang to be the most interesting. I read the Hapgood translation of the book for Kindle, and was rewarded with a lengthy introduction and beautiful illustrations throughout the book that enhanced the reading. I laughed, cried, felt sympathy, and completely immersed myself in this story and came away from it feeling richer – and that feeling is how I know I just read something incredible.
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