I finished reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for the second time some years back. The first time I read it was in high school. I liked it then, I love it now, even after all this time.
I guess everyone knows about Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread and being pursued by Javert. But, my God, does this book ever deserve its title. Everyone is wretched, in one way or another. How can we ever forget the grinding poverty and dehumanization of Fantine? And how Cosette, her little girl, must live as a slave under the monstrous Thenardier family?
There are enduring images which have survived over the centuries. Fantine selling her front teeth so Cosette has enough to eat, the fight on the barricade, the flight through the sewers. This is a huge book in more ways than one. The writing is fantastic and there are little “Hugoisms” sprinkled throughout that make you put the book down and marvel either at the turn of phrase or the beauty of the writing itself. Like these:
“Gravediggers die. By dint of digging graves for others, they open their own.”
“There is a moment when girls bloom out in a twinkling and become roses all at once. Yesterday we left them children, to-day we find them dangerous.”
“Hunger comes with love.”
“Humanity is identity. All men are the same clay.”
“Women play with their beauty as children do with their knives. They wound themselves with it.”
“When we are at the end of life, to die means to go away; when we are at the beginning, to go away means to die.”
“Certain flames can only come from certain souls; the eye, that window of the thought, blazes with it; spectacles hide nothing; you might as well put a glass over hell.”
“Robber, assassin….these words fell upon him like a shower of ice.”
One of the main ingredients of this novel is the depth of human emotion. It’s never overdone, which is an easy thing for a writer to do. We are often moved, such as the scene when Cosette marries and Jean Valjean must disappear from her life to protect her from his past. He goes home, takes out the little dress she used to wear as a child, and pressing it against his face sobs uncontrollably. And I challenge anyone to read Valjean’s monologue at the end of the novel and not get a little weepy. Strong stuff. Memorable.
This is a great book. I’m glad I reread it and as I think about it more maybe I will read it a third time. It might be one of those books I read again every twenty years or so. But even if I do not I’m a better person for reading it in the first place, that’s for sure.
If you haven’t read this novel, you should. If you have, do so again. It’s great.