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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

What struck me most about Les Miserables is just how much of it there is. I don't mean page or word count per se; it is just so much novel. So much plot, so much exposition, so much philosophy, and so so much misery. Victor Hugo intended for this novel to carry weight, and the emotional heft of Les Miserables is more than any novel I have read before. My edition of the novel opens with a note from Hugo that I will print here, in its entirety, because I don't know that there is anything I can say that is more true about this work:

“As long as social damnation exists, through laws and customs, artificially creating hell at the heart of civilization and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century—man's debasement through the proletariat, woman's demoralization through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness—are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view, as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are, perhaps, not entirely useless.”

Not entirely useless... I love that phrasing. The difficulty with a story like the one Hugo is telling, one that is wholly emotional and human, is that it may veer into melodrama. Melodrama is easy to ignore. Because it is so over the top and so full of itself melodrama eclipses its message. With this simple phrase (whether Hugo intended it as irony or it was merely a faux humility) Hugo has taken his reader to task. The novel being “not entirely useless” begs the reader to to insist upon its importance, the place of the novel in alleviating the ails Hugo describes. Art is the lens through which we view our world, and what Hugo has done with Les Miserables is hold up a cracked and dirty mirror that it is difficult to like the looks of.

However, on the reverse of that idea we have the more popular view of the novel (thanks in part to the musical) as an epic love story. This view is somewhat necessary; had the story been an entirely hopeless one I doubt its message would have prevailed, but in my opinion the stage version of the story moves very heavily into melodramatic territory without the context Hugo provides to ground it in the novel. The bulk of Hugo's story is lost in the “love story” version of the musical and heavily abridged versions of the text.

Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean's guilt and courage, of Cosette and Marius' love, and of Fontine's tragic circumstances yes, but more than that it is the story of humanity and of Hugo's philosophy regarding such. I may have gotten a little bogged down in hundred page ruminations on sewage and the values of convents, but without them the novel cannot come into itself. The novel is a complete look into Hugo's worldview, one that is both wary and loving. Hugo feels for humanity with a passion that is not often seen; his passion moves through the novel and elevates the reader. You simply cannot read this novel without questioning your place in the world, and as our world continues to suffer from the problems of Hugo's century his novel remains as he claims “not entirely useless.”

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