My review of Les Miserables

 Written for YLCF’s March of Books

Cosette, a little girl who softens the heart of a convict. Javert, a strict inspector who places duty above all else. Marius, a passionate young man who believes in liberty. Jean Valjean, a strong man who is constantly faced with contradictory struggles. These are Les Miserables, “the miserable ones,” the characters of Victor Hugo’s timeless classic.

I’ve known and loved these characters for the last ten years of my life. On frequent road trips, our family would listen to Focus on the Family’s radio drama of Les Miserables. Javert’s stern voice always scared me, and I never knew whether to trust Jean Valjean.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to read the book. For several months, a loaned copy sat in my room untouched, waiting until the rest of my reading list was completed. Finally I made the plunge when I realized that such a feat would never be accomplished.

Having read titles like David Copperfield and Ben-Hur, I’m no stranger to long books. But 1450 pages seemed slightly daunting, especially to a conscientious reader like me who would never, ever dream of skipping a sentence, heaven forbid an entire paragraph.

Page by page, I waded through the epic, digging deeper into the well-loved story. Victor Hugo amazes me. While many complain about his long-windedness—legitimately, it is true—I savored the details. Many passages filled with names of historical and mythological figures passed over my extremely unknowledgeable head. But all these references led me to appreciate the intelligence of Hugo and many other learned people of his day.

The French Revolution provides an emotional backdrop to this epic. As a lover of the French language, I appreciated gaining a greater insight into French history. (A substantial number of pages are dedicated to Napoleon and Waterloo—be forewarned!) I still waver on which side was “more right”, a question the French argue today much as we argue the American Civil War.

The pages contain insightful discussion about a myriad of topics. Although I don’t agree with some of Hugo’s philosophy, he wrote from numerous perspectives. The wisdom astounds me. Yes, perhaps some passages are unnecessary to the story as a whole. (I do not recommend reading the lengthy, in-depth description of Parisian sewers when recovering from the stomach flu. Ahem.) But one cannot help being left with much food for thought, almost an overload of ideas swirling in one’s brain.

It seems strange that a fairly normal, 21st century teenage girl would share anything in common with a 19th century French criminal. But in Hugo’s exploration of Jean Valjean’s soul, I found parallels to my own life, and circumstances I’ve witnessed in others’ lives. The struggle of choosing between right and wrong when the path is unclear. Between conscience and duty when the two seemingly contradict each other.

Would I recommend reading Les Miserables to everyone? Probably not. Unless you want to commit several months of both your reading life and brainpower, I would suggest a summarized version such as the radio drama or the incredible opera. (You must, absolutely must, go listen to On My Own and Do You Hear the People Sing, which features the Jean Valjean actors from seventeen different countries. I get chills every time I listen.) I do most definitely recommend learning about this classic in some way, whether by summary or the 1500 page journey.

The story powerfully represents the struggles of each individual soul. Out of all the people in the world, your story is unique. As a Christian, I am reminded of the song Sea of Faces. I am not lost in a sea of faces. I am loved by a Savior who “traded His life for mine.” Although I’ll never have an epic written about my life, my life is a story. And it matters to God. The theme of the whole book is almost summarized by this quote: “There is one spectacle greater than the sea: That is the sky. There is one spectacle greater than the sky: That is the interior of the soul.”

Favorite quotes from Les Miserables:

About children:
 “Children at that age are simply copies of the mother; only the size is reduced.” page 156

“The doll is one of the most imperative needs, and at the same time one of the most charming instincts of feminine childhood.” page 405

“The fist is no mean element of respect….To be left-handed makes you an object of envy. Squinting is highly esteemed.” (Talking about boys who lived on the street, les gamins) page 585

About God:
 “Oh Thou who art! Ecclesiastes names Thee the Almighty; Maccabees names Thee Creator; the Epistle to the Ephesians names Thee Liberty; Baruch names Thee Immensity; the Psalms name Thee Wisdom and Truth; John names Thee Light; the Book of Kings names Thee Lord; Exodus calls Thee Providence; Leviticus, Holiness; Esdras, Justice; Creation calls Thee God; man names Thee Father; but Solomon names Thee Compassion, and that is the most beautiful of all Thy names.” page 19

“Progress is the aim, the ideal is the model. What is the ideal? It is God. Ideal, absolute, perfection, the infinite. These are identical words.” page 520

About nations:
“History ignores almost all these minutiae: it cannot do otherwise; it is under the dominion of infinity. Nonetheless, these details, which are incorrectly termed little—there being neither little facts in humanity nor little leaves in vegetation—are useful. It is the feature of the years that makes up the face of the century.” page 119

“The history of morals and ideas penetrates the history of events, and vice versa. They are two orders of different facts that answer to each other, that are always linked together and often produce each other.” page 984

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Talia
    Mar 25, 2012 @ 16:14:50

    Great review, Jessica!I've never read the book or seen the Les Miserables movie, but I hope to. I am singing "Bring Him Home" for a music show I am in.Thanks for the review!


  2. Trina
    Mar 30, 2012 @ 01:09:22

    Jessica, congrats on completing this tome! I remember the YEAR I read Les Miserables, and the feeling of satisfaction when I was done. And I believe I copied that same quote about dolls from the book. Fun. Thanks for your post on book logs over at YLCF. I have always regretted that I never kept one going, but you inspired me that I can start my children on them! (And I'll keep trying with this year's goal to keep an online log of my own books)


  3. Trackback: Les Miserables - Gretchen Louise

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