(tagged) (spoilers, i guess, if you have escaped the plot until now)
where to even start?
well here’s where victor hugo starts: not with a chain gang, nor even with Our Hero Jean Valjean, but with a bishop. the bishop who, yes, first offers a convict shelter then shows mercy when said convict is arrested for stealing his candlesticks, but that comes later. the first sixty pages of this 1463-page behemoth are dedicated to detailing the bishop’s doings in his small quiet village, drawing for us what a paragon of virtue this man — once rich and now living, with the sole exception of the candlesticks, by a religious vow of poverty — is in all aspects of his life and practice, which to him are really no different.
this is important. not every book begins with a mission statement, but les miserables is a profoundly moral text, and in the bishop we can see what morality means to VH: compassion. a lack of judgment, meaning an acceptance even of those who are elsewhere shunned for what they have done. humility. generosity. mercy. and perhaps above all, to do all these things without expecting anything back. to do good turns because they are good, without waiting for someone to pay back the favor. it’s a rigorous vision of morality and one very rooted in VH’s christianity. not that i know much about his theology but speaking generally his view of christianity isn’t far from the episcopalianism i grew up surrounded by, and one pleasure of the book, even though i’m basically an atheist, was being exposed again to a vision of christianity so far removed from the stuff of depressing headlines. not to mention a vision of ideal manhood — while his heart sings for determined soldiers and glorious/doomed martyrs, acts of kindness, even or especially to the “undeserving,” are what receive his ultimate blessing, and isn’t that nice? isn’t that refreshing, to think that a man with respect for heroes of the battlefield could also pay highest honor to men utterly without aggression? perhaps the simplest way of summing up my reaction to VH’s morality is that while certainly on many points we diverge, i do basically think the world would be a better place with more people who approached the problem of being human like he did.
but there is a plot, and it is ABSURD, because nineteenth century. this is the most nineteenth century book i’ve ever read, i think, full of ecstatic authorial swooning; endless digressions towards philosophical, moral, political, and historical thought; a combination of sentimental idealism and a hunger for justice that leads inevitably to an at times brutal exploration of the lives of the people who, after all, give the book its title, those to whom the world is least just; and an endearingly melodramatic plot filled with near-impossible feats, close escapes, love at first sight, crises of conscience, night-time chases, disguises, fake names, misunderstandings, family feuds, twists of fate, and lots of dying. if “restraint” and “subtlety” and “concision” are important for you this is maybe not your book, but i LOVE ALL OF THIS SHIT.
the thinky bits make the plotty bits incredibly exciting, because do you know when jean valjean carrying a wounded marius through the paris sewers, risking death or capture, is really exciting/nightmare-inducing? when it follows 20 pages on the history of the parisian sewer system. valjean escaping from prison after confessing his identity to save a wrongfully arrested man and subsequently being arrested by javert is followed by 60 pages about the battle of waterloo, which is both very annoying and supremely effective because by the end of it you have NEVER WANTED THE NEXT PART OF A STORY TO COME SO BADLY. i won’t lie and say the digressions are never boring or a slog to get through (though i will mention the story only rarely was), but they are ultimately worth it, both for the aforementioned reward of arduous pacing, and because most of them actually have some pretty interesting aspects. his ruminations on convents are weird but provide insight into his view of society; his thoughts on argot, the language of the streets and criminals, are both historically cool and philosophically sound because who doesn’t love someone standing up for the vernacular (jerkfaces, is who); and even the waterloo thing, once you get past the talk of military strategy and endless parade of soldiers’ names i just have to assume a french person in 1862 could have been reasonably expected to know, culminates in his crowning as the true hero of waterloo the leader of the last french group standing (don’t know military words sry), who when told by the british to surrender looked at the enemy and said, merde (shit). that’s pretty great, right? a bajillion words on military glory on all sides, and his #1 idol is a guy who, minutes away from certain gory death and defeat, cursed out the enemy.
because that showcases what really shines through this novel, above all else: VH’s love of people, of humanity, of the grand but even more of the common. his compassion comes across so sincerely that it softens all faults. in particular i adored his belief, expressed most fully in his construction of valjean but in that of javert too, that it is neither reasonable nor just (and certainly not moral/christian) to expect those the world has never shown kindness to somehow pick it up on their own. the mercy the bishop shows valjean (which is paralleled in valjean to javert, much later) is transformative because it has literally never happened to him before, because he has never lived in a world where kindness was the supreme law, and it is such a revelation that from that point on he makes kindness his supreme law, even when it hurts. one key piece about valjean’s imprisonment that didn’t make the musical is that part of the reason it was so long is because he kept trying to escape. you read that and you’re like, “jesus, dude, what’s your problem,” but then you (i) feel (felt) ashamed because isn’t that every horrible conservative line about poor people keeping themselves poor through bad choices and no willpower and etc. etc.? what VH grasps, and preaches, which is key, is that living a life of survival, a life where you are robbed of basic rights and respect (which is how javert’s life begins, which is also key), DOES NOT SET YOU UP TO BE A RATIONAL HUMAN BEING. and it wouldn’t set you, personally, you, the reader up to do that, either, so stop patting yourself on the back about it.
& i already talked about this but to recap quickly, you can also see this in the parallel of fantine and cosette — the fact that someone’s youthful love ended up ruining her life says nothing about her except that she is human, she was open-hearted, she thought perhaps the world wouldn’t abuse the love she gave it, but it says A LOT about the guy who fucked her over. VH’s sympathy is always with the abused.
speaking of, i mentioned this too but he does some pretty incredible things with child abuse/abandonment/poverty but i can’t talk about them much because i will get too sad to finish. when we meet wee cosette she has like, a stick that she’s fashioned into a doll and VH is like “because dolls for little girls are a fundamental human right” and i can’t even get mad about the gender stereotype because this too, right? shut up that poor people should only ever buy necessities! ALL LITTLE KIDS DESERVE THINGS TO PLAY WITH.
and i brought this up also but his love of france and ESPECIALLY of paris is also gorgeous. one of the most stunning sequences is when he takes us essentially on a tour of paris by following a gamin, basically a street urchin, through its streets, its smells and tastes and the theater the gamin never pays money to get into because he knows the actors. the gamin in question is gavroche, abandoned third child of the thenardiers, and he is maybe my favorite character in the book. the obvious comparison feels like oliver twist but i’ve never read it so instead i’ll say he reminded me of huck finn: one of those child tricksters who is so alive on the page, so full of spark and personality, such fun, that you almost forget, at times, that he is, you know, a homeless twelve-year-old victim of child abuse.
but then all of the characters are wonderfully drawn. in broad, sentimental nineteenth century strokes, yes; but with a real anchoring humanity that makes them recognizable even as they tend towards the larger than life. eponine, although she hardly appears in the book, is a wonder, awkward and jarring and sweet and petty and ugly and beautiful and heartbreaking (her death was, like i said, the thing that made me cry the most). the thenardiers, and the rogues’ gallery of criminality they associate with, are vivid in their idiosyncratic cruelty, kind of like the better depictions of batman villains. valjean and javert and fantine i’ve talked about, all marvelous (javert especially — my mother said of the musical, which she doesn’t care for, that the thing she could least forgive was that they failed to make javert as unforgettable as he is in the book). marius is frankly a silly rich twerp who winds up at the barricades because he is sad about his girlfriend — and VH is very upfront about this, as he is about HOW STUPID the sad failed non-revolution of 1832 was — but his story is interesting to me nonetheless (and his awful mean old rich uncle managed to break my heart because lonely old people kill me). cosette is probably the least interesting character, to be frank, but the scenes of her as an abused child are DESTRUCTIVELY SAD, and her later sections are very pretty. i also loved seeing the transformative (that word again! sorry, it really fits!) power of parental love blooming in a dude, for once — beyond the bishop’s mercy, beyond the love of a town, it is adopting cosette, finding a single human to love with all his soul, that is the most important thing in valjean’s life, and it was wonderful to see that narrative without the weird condescending patriarchal baggage that accompanies almost all tellings of it.
anyway, it’s a wonderful (as in full of wonders), ridiculous, sweet, brutal, epic, intimate, messy, beautiful book and i cried like a baby at the end and i am so glad i read it.