When that which appears insurmountable slowly appears not just surmountable but positively conquerable, there is a great feeling of joy, followed quickly by amazement. What I am referencing here, of course, is my personal accomplishment in finishing Victor Hugo’s tome of a book, Les Miserables.
Set in the mid-nineteenth century in the sprawl of Paris and its surrounding villages, the basic plot– for the uninitiated– is that of a man called Jean Valjean. Valjean had lived with his sister and her family in extreme poverty in France after the French Revolution. In one act of desperation, he breaks a window to steal a loaf of bread. He is put away in prison and released only 19 years later. But doing his time in prison does not take away the stigma of having been a convict once, and the treatment that he receives is testament to the small-mindedness of good folks everywhere. Eventually, it is an act of grace and forgiveness by a bishop that is the most transforming event in Valjean’s life. Long story short: Valjean turns his life around, and it would seem his life was set on a new course of usefulness and happiness, only, there’s a dark cloud on this silver lining! Javert, a former prison guard recognizes Valjean. Intersecting Valjean’s story is that of Fantine, a young, naive girl who has been disabused of every good thing in life, including the one thing she prizes above all: Cosette, her young daughter whom she has had out of wedlock. Valjean becomes Fantine’s benfactor and eventually Cosette’s guardian, and the rest of the book details the pursuit of Valjean by Javert, and of Cosette turning into a young woman.
That is the basic story, but there are so many more layers, subplots, and characters in Les Miserables. There are discussions of poverty, politics, French history. One of the major themes is the righteousness of the law, as represented by Javert, versus the righteousness of grace, represented by Valjean. One can’t help but draw parallels to the Christian themes of redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice, and selflessness that come through in the characters of Valjean.
And for all of Hugo’s wordiness, there are moments of clever, succinct, descriptive phrasing such as these:
“For dowry, she had gold and pearls; but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth.”
“A torn conscience leads to an unraveled life.”
“There is a way of falling into error while on the road of truth. He had a sort of willful implicit faith that swallowed everything whole.”
“Skepticism, that dry rot of the intellect.”
“He suffered the strange pangs of a conscience suddenly operated on for a cataract.”
“This man…was…still bleeding from the lacerations of his destiny.”
This is a tome for the ages– timeless in its themes, and rich in insight of the world and France, in particular, at that time. It is a story rich for its language, and it is a story that educates and illuminates, all at once.