Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo

220px-EbcosetteI wonder if Victor’s work is diminished by the commercialization of Jean Valjean’s story, the goodness of man in an unending battle with the worst of man – want, envy, indifference.

The story is a well written tale of redemption that does suffer a little by the many coincidental events that bring key players together again and again as if it were a story really titled “Trois Degrés de Séparation“. But Jean Valjean’s story is only a portion of Victor’s work. Victor is a philosopher and historian, and at his core, a humanitarian.

It seems that everyone knows the story of Les Misérables if only by societal osmosis. But everything I knew about the story – the stolen loaf, Fantine, the galleys, Cosette – occurs very early in the book. With 20% of the novel behind me and most of the story I knew concluded, I squinted at the remaining work, shades of War and Peace darkening the edges of my vision. Turns out Victor created a very successful hook in Jean Valjean, one that kept me coming back while I patiently listened in on the author’s thoughts on France, French history, and humanity’s stuttering attempts at building a just society. He is relevant even today, his views on the dangers of complacency in the middle class and the dangers in disparity of wealth for example.

He ties his lofty thoughts back into Jean Valjean’s story with only the most tenuous of threads.

We learn that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo because of the sunken road that decimated the French cavalry assault. One of those dying cavalry men filling the ravine is Marius’s father who is saved by the Thénardiers (soon to be Cosette’s evil step parents). We hear why the monastery and convent are bad for society and then watch as Cossette and Jean find refuge in one. And we hear too much about the Paris sewage system before Jean Valjean escapes into one with Marius on his back.

Also during my reading of Les Misérables, I learned that the normal response at a dinner party to the statement, “I am reading Les Misérables” is an eye roll and a comment along the lines, “Oh, I read that when I was thirteen”.


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