This tome is surely among the ten greatest novels ever written.
For a half century or so, I have been enjoying the challenge of tackling a book or so a week, more or less, but, every now and then, I encounter one that throws me far off schedule, one that demands weeks, a month or even more: a Don Quixote, Tale of Two Cities, Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, all “elephants”, to quote a Russian critic, but so brilliant as to demand studied reading at a measured cadence, savoring the nectar of every nuance, and, now, at this late date, again I was similarly arrested by that epic, Les Miserables. Such books defy speed reading and demand laboring over original profundities, slowly contemplating the revealing metaphors, and gazing into the night, pondering, absorbed and possessed by an afterglow of rewarding reflections. Enter Les Miserables.
To be forthright, despite its infinite virtues, Les Mis is monstrous, infuriating, exhausting, meandering, unduly protracted, irritatingly contrived with maddening twists to multiple plots, often nearly compelling abandonment, but, in the end, I couldn’t leave it, because its virtues, its sublime prose, its revealing descriptions, its endless profundities about the social ills of France and of life in general, all of this and more, forged an Eternal Giant among Novels. After 1,000 pages or so, my irritations evolved into anticipations, a longing at day’s end to re-immerse myself into Hugo’s beautiful web of artfully crafted words, ideas and social messages, not to mention plots that needed to be finished. If the reader will persevere, he/she will learn and grow and thrive — and experience literary greatness close-up.
Les Miserables (“Les Mis”, pronounced “Les Miz”), published in 1862, is Victor Hugo’s 1500-page epic tale of the early 1800’s poverty and cruelty in France, especially as those social ills then related to women and children; Hugo showed that poverty, especially through debtor’s prisons and the threat of them, became slavery in all of its forms, including prostitution. In prostitution, the woman experiences everything, mourns everything, becomes indifferent to everything. Life becomes death. Society purchases slaves from hunger, starvation, destitution, loneliness, and misery: a soul for a morsel of bread. Brutal Society offers; misery accepts. This dominant theme struck a chord so resonant in French society and then throughout Europe, that it soon resulted in legislation from the French Assembly. As with Dickens and other literary giants, but none more so than with Hugo, a great novel brought even greater social change.
Les Mis, which has been the subject of major films in the 1990’s, 1970’s and prior, and, of course, of the longest-running musical in the history of Broadway, defines the term “literary greatness”. Sadly, it is far too vast, too great in scope, too complex in message, too beautifully written, to be done justice in any film, and much less so in any musical; however entertaining the musical, it can offer only an insultingly inadequate glimpse into the treasures of such a masterpiece.
When it comes to themes, morals, and social messages, few books can rival Les Miz, which gave us an endless stream of poignant, unforgettable messages: “There are no natively bad people, only bad cultivators [teachers],” and people are those cultivators. Also, Hugo joined an endless chorus of great writers by reminding us that a loving heart and the deeds and the life that flow from them, are the only keys to happiness and personal salvation. In addition to revolutionizing the social laws of France, consider a few exemplary messages: About love: “The supreme happiness of life consists in the conviction that one is loved – loved for one’s own sake, rather than loved in spite of one’s self…To be indispensible to another who is necessary to us…Soul seeks soul…The heart, that obscure, celestial flower blossoms when reached…When one feels that one is adored, it is paradise…The reduction of the universe to a single being…the salutation of angels to the stars…What a grand thing it is to be loved! What a far greater thing I is to love…About absolutes: “Every good quality tends towards a defect: economy borders on avarice, generosity on being profligate, bravery rubs elbows with braggadocio, piety with bigotry; there are just as many vices in virtue as there holes in Diogenes’ cloak…[Diogones, the Greek philosopher (c. 400BC) who emphasized uninhibited behavior and disregard of social conventions] About negativity: “Nihilism [a belief that all values are baseless and that nothing is knowable] has no point. Nothing is nothing. [Everything is something.] Zero doesn’t exist, as it represents nothing. Everything is something. Faith is necessary to man. Woe unto him who believes nothing. To think is to act. Thales sat motionless for four years; he founded philosophy.” [Actually, he is credited with founding physical science and geometry, c. 600BC.]
Hugo understood love between two lovers, as did Shakespeare and the Romantic Poets. Consider his commentary when Cosette and Marius first embrace: “How did it come to pass that their lips met? How comes it to pass that the birds sing, that the snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn grows white behind dark trees…A kiss, and that was all…Their eyes sparkled…their hands clasped unconsciously…their knees touched and they shivered…their souls fluttered; lightening had touched their lips…Little by little, they began to talk to each other. Effusion followed silence…Each was permeated with the other…” Those who have not experienced these feelings can never understand such emotions or Hugo’s incredibly accurate depiction of such divine moments. Perhaps his ultimate words on point:
“Their past travails formed a halo around their happiness. The long agony of their
love was terminating in an ascension…an ineffable mixture of dream and reality…
The delights of two hearts overflowed upon the crowd, inspiring cheerfulness among
passers-by. Destiny to them seemed a ceiling of stars…Cosette was the sun for Marius’
and Marius the universe for Cosette…their fine weather was each others’ smile, the
rain was the other’s tears…The best way to adore God is to adore one’s spouse. I love
thee and that is my catechism…It is impossible that this sacred festival should fail to
give off a celestial radiance…where true marriage is, that is to say, where there is
mutual love, devotion and fealty, the ideal is achieved…and when those lips kiss
above that apotheosized kiss there is a quivering throughout the immense mystery of
the stars…There is no greater joy than this. Such love is sublime ecstasy. All the
rests weeps in comparison. To love like this, or to have done so, suffices. Demand
nothing more. There is no greater pearl to be formed in the shadowy fields of life.
Total love is total fulfillment.
For those who have a philosophical bent, consider this: “Nothing is small, in fact; anyone who is subject to the profound and penetrating influence of nature knows this. Although no absolute satisfaction is given to philosophy, either to circumscribe the cause or to limit the effect, the contemplator falls into those unfathomable ecstasies’ caused by these decompositions of force terminating in unity. Everything toils at everything. Algebra is applied to the clouds; the radiation of the star profits the rose; no thinker would venture to affirm that the perfume of the hawthorn is useless to the constellations. Who, then, can calculate the course of a molecule? How do we know that the creation of worlds is not determined by the fall of grains of sand? Who knows the reciprocal ebb and flow of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, the reverberations of causes in the precipices of being, and the avalanches of creation? The tiniest worm is of importance; the great is little; the little is great; everything is balanced in necessity, an alarming vision for the mind. There are marvelous relations between beings and things; in that inexhaustible whole, from the sun to the grub, nothing despises the other; all have need of each other…All birds that fly have round their leg the thread of the infinite. Germination…places on one level the birth of the earthworm and the advent of Socrates…” On and on he goes, for pages of timeless, provocative observations, challenging, stimulating and fascinating the reader. Such a mind boggles the lesser powers of mere mortals.
Who hasn’t passed through a dark forest at night alone and not had these feelings but who, other than a divinity, could express those feelings this way, as the ethos of the forest that the wee Cosette experience when dispatched into it at night to fetch water:
“No one walks alone in the forest at night without trembling, shadows and
trees – two formidable densities. A chimerical reality appears in the indis-
tinct depths. The inconceivable is outlined a few paces distant with a spectral
clearness. One beholds floating, either in space or in one’s brain and knows
not what vague and intangible thing, like the dreams of sleeping flowers. There
are fierce attitudes on the horizon. One inhales the effluvia of the great black
void and is afraid to glance behind, yet desires to do so. The cavities of night,
things grown haggard, taciturn profiles which vanish when one advances, ob
scure dishevelments, irritated tufts, livid pools, the lugubrious reflected in the
funereal, the sepulchral immensity of silence, unknown but possible beings,
bendings of mysterious branches, alarming torsos of trees, long handfuls of
quivering plants – against all of which one has no protection. Every fiber of
one’s being shudders and feels the anguish and is conscious of something hideous,
as though one’s soul were being amalgamated with the darkness, all being all
the more sinister in the case of a child. Forests are the apocalypses and the
beating of the wings that a tiny soul produces, a sound of agony beneath their
Or, consider this masterful expiation of the venerable giant, Jean Valjean:
“This man, in his attire, in all his person, evinced the well-bread mendicant,
extreme wretchedness combined with extreme cleanliness, a rare mixture
which inspires intelligent hearts with that double respect which one feels for
the man who is at once very poor but very worthy. He wore an old, well-
brushed round hat; a course coat, worn threadbare, of an ocher yellow,
a color not the least eccentric in that epoch; a large waistcoat with pockets
of a venerable cut; black breeches, worn gray at the knee, stockings of
black worsted and thick shoes with buckles. He would have been pronounced
a preceptor in some good family, returned from emigration…and taken for
more than sixty from his perfectly white hair, wrinkled brow, livid lips and
a countenance which breathed depression and weariness…”
Or this dark-of-night view of the Seine:
“Javert was standing over the rapids of the Seine, above that formidable spiral of
whirlpools which knot themselves like an endless screw…A sound of foam was
audible…a gleam of light appeared and undulated vaguely…the light vanished
and all became indistinct once more. Immensity seemed thrown open there.
What lay below was not water; it was a gulf…No thing was to be seen, but the
hostile chill of the water and the stale odor of the wet stones could be felt. A
fierce breath arose from this abyss. The flood in the river, divined rather than
perceived the stealthy whispering of the waves, the melancholy vastness of the
arches of the bridge, the imaginable fell into that gloomy void, into all those
shadows full of horror…”
Hugo’s endless, gripping descriptive passages, leave us speechless and afford no doubt that Victor Hugo deservedly sits alongside Dickens, Shakespeare and all other literary giants. Consider this presumptively benign but unforgettable description of the Parisian garden of “mistress of the house”, Cosette, and her “father”:
“This garden was no longer a garden; it was a colossal thicket, something as
impenetrable as a forest, as peopled as a city, quivering like a nest, somber
as a cathedral, fragrant as a a bouquet, solitary as a tomb, living as a throng.
Within four walls, this enormous thicket engaged in the secret labor of
germination, quivered in the rising sun, like an animal which feels the sap
of April rising and boiling in its veins, and shakes its enormous, wonderful
green locks in the wind, sprinkled on the damp earth . . . flowers like stars,
dew like pearls, fecundity, beauty, life, joy, perfumes. At midday, a thousand
white butterflies took refuge there; it was a divine spectacle to see, that living
summer snow whirling in the flakes amid the shade. There, in those gay,
verdant shadows, a throng of innocent floral voices, spoke sweetly to the soul,
and what the twittering forgot to say, the humming completed. In the evening,
a dreamy vapor exhaled from the garden and enveloped it; a shrowd of mist,
a calm and celestial sadness covered it; the intoxicating perfume of the honey-
suckle poured out of evey part of it; the last appeal of the woodpeckers were
audible, as they dozed among the branches; one felt the scared intimacy of
the birds and the trees; by day, the wings rejoiced the leaves; by night, the
leaves protected the wings. In winter, the thicket was black, dripping, brist-
ling, shivering and allowing some glimpse of the house…long silvery tracks
of the snails will visible on the cold, thick carpet of yellow leaves; but, in any
fashion, under any aspect, at all seasons, spring, winter, summer autumn,
this tiny enclosure breathed forth melancholy, contemplation, solitude, liberty,
the absence of man, the presence of God; and the rusty old gate that protected
it had the air of saying, “This garden belongs to me.”
Revealing the attitudes of chauvinistic males (not those of the author), he writes, “Woman is perfidious and disingenuous. She detests the snake due to professional jealousy…A pretty woman is a flagrant misdemeanor…” These words reflect the abuse that Hugo may have suffered at women’s hands, but his words about young, heterosexual love reveal a deep appreciation of women.
Then, whoever described the past more compellingly than this: “…that vague swarm of shadows called ‘the past’…” or the rapture of young love more lucidly and laconically than this: “Each saw Paradise in the other’s eyes…”
What makes a great novel?
A fascinating plot, one that absorbs and possesses us and will give us no rest until we finish it?
A theme, message or moral that educates and/or elevates our lives?
Characters so real that they leap from the pages and breath their tepid breath into our nostrils, who make us love them, hate them, understand them, accept them, see them as real as are we?
Descriptive passages of people, places, things, events, nature, objects, everything, that are so vivid as to enable us to really SEE these things for the first time in all their colors, depths, shades, nuances, layers and complexities?
Learning facts about places, people, and things that we did not know: to really learn the Civil War, we read GWTW; to learn the Communist Revolution, Dr. Z; the French Revolution, Tale of Two Cities; England and its social problems in the 1800’s, all of Dickens; a history of religions from the most primitive forward, The Source; India today, Shantaram, and on and on.
Les Miserables gives us all of these things in prodigious abundance. It is disturbing, educational, philosophically profound, politically astute, entertaining, rewarding, comforting, of dauntingly Gothic girth, unforgettable; it changed all of France within ten years of its publication, and it’s still as timely as if written yesterday, and, above all, A Must Read for All Adventurous Readers.