Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.
Review by Michael Connery
In his preface for Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wrote, “[So] long as misery and ignorance remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” The story is only one of a number of works written by Hugo, but it is arguably his most recognized. Published in 1862 and partly based on the events of the June Rebellion of 1832, Les Misérables is not only one of the longest books ever written but it is also considered one of the most important novels ever written.
Though the novel has numerous subplots, the story is at heart a social commentary on the injustices faced by the vulnerable and poor. Les Mis was an artistic endeavor meant to spur the radical change that the French Revolution promised but failed to deliver. It was an attack on the class structures that allowed extreme poverty to exist and the politics that allowed undeserved power to perpetuate and corrupt. Hugo’s commentary is modern in its stance, postulating that wretched situations beget desperate, and at times reprehensible, actions.
As in many of the nineteenth century classics, childhood is a raw, dangerous time in Les Mis, but Hugo also presents the idea that youth is a transformative force in society once they find something about which to be passionate. Family is presented as both a luxury and a burden, and it is more than blood that builds the bonds of family. Only the strong and tenacious survive in Hugo’s France, and appearances are often untrustworthy.
Moralistic and sympathetic in tone, the novel is written from an omniscient third person perspective with authorial interjections. Hugo oft times steps in to instruct the reader on what to think of several of the characters. The author’s style is eloquent and observational, lyrical and vivid, and the realism of the tome is gripping as the hardships and ugliness of humanity are explored.
Hugo’s novel is a brilliant social commentary and an epic character drama. The tale provides the reader with a stunning glimpse into the society, politics, and economy of nineteenth century France. A story of suffering and resilience, love and sacrifice, justice and abuse of power, Les Misérables is a lesson in compassion and mercy that continues to resonate.
Highly recommended for fans of monumental classics, novels heavy on social commentary, and the history of nineteenth century France