Book Review : Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Prior to your reading this review, I warn you that I cannot write a short review for a book that is well over 1000 pages. If I attempted a short review it would read; wonderful, poignant and life changing. With that said if you want to attempt reading this review and then this novel I applaud you in your choice.
Jean Valjean has been in prison for the last 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s family and his attempted escapes. With his release, he is given a yellow passport to indicate that he is a former convict, and it is as if he is in another prison because no one wants to hire him or to give him a place to stay. The embittered Valjean takes refuge with the Bishop Myriel of Digne and abuses that trust by stealing the silverware. When Valjean is captured Bishop Myriel rescues him by telling the police the silverware was a gift and scolds Valjean for leaving the silver candlesticks in his haste. The Bishop Myriel also reminds Valjean of his purported promise to use the money for good.
When Valjean steps upon a coin and does not respond to the young chimney sweep, he has stolen the money whether out of habit or for another reason we are not informed. As Valjean comes to his senses he is overcome with the horrible crime he has commited, because he had been forgiven by the Bishop, and he searches for the child to return the money. He is unable to find the street urchin and Valjean’s new crime has been reported and he is again a wanted man. Valjean determines to become and honest man and live by the suggested promise of the Bishop.
A few years later, Valjean has taken on the alias of Monsieur Madeleine and become a respected business owner and been elected as the new mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, “M— Sur M—“, in edited versions. Valjean witnesses Old Fauchelevent trapped under the wheels of a cart and when no one volunteers to rescue the helpless man, Valjean moves the cart by himself. Inspector Javert witnesses this great show of strength and becomes suspicious that perhaps Monsieur Madeleine is actually Jean Valjean.
Fantine had conceived a child, Cosette, and would have been unable to work with the child under her own supervision. Fantine had entrusted the care of her daughter to the Thénardiers who are inn keepers. The Thénardiers constantly claim they need more money for the expenses of caring for Cosette, when in fact, they treat her as an indentured servant. Frantic with the lose of her job and becoming ill, Fantine’s wish is to see her beloved Cosette again. Valjean feels responsible to bring Cosette to Fantine because it is his factory who let her go.
In the meantime, Javert has spoken to Valjean confessing that he had believed him to be an ex-convict, but now realizes he was mistaken because the real Jean Valjean has been arrested. Valjean is distressed realizing that another man may pay the price for his sins. Going to the trial Valjean reveals his true identity to save the innocent man, but in the process loses his freedom to be Monsieur Madeleine. Javert will extend no mercy to Valjean and so Valjean chooses to run away to fulfill the promise to care for Cosette now that Fantine has died.
Witnessing the cruel treatment of the Thénardiers to Cosette, Valjean purchases her freedom and takes her to a home for them to live as father and daughter. Javert discovers their home and forces Valjean to escape into a new identity. They find shelter in the Petit-Picpus convent, Valjean as a gardener and Cosette as a student. Cosette brings joy to everyone in the convent.
Years later Paris is in political turmoil. Marius Pontemercy is a young man, a student and idealist, who is alienated by his family and is entangled within a web believing he has a duty to give a service for the Thénardiers. As the young Marius is visiting the Luxembourg Gardens he sees the young woman Cosette, and falls in love with her.
The Thénardiers have moved to Paris when they lost their inn now using the surname “Jondrette”. Marius lives next door, but does not initially realize that his neighbors are the Thénardiers. Éponine “Jondrette” is in love with Marius, solidified when he gives her a little money. The Thénardiers are expecting a philanthropist to visit, in the hopes of getting more money they destroy a chair and window to appear more pitiful. When the philanthropist, Valjean and Cosette, arrive several things happen, Marius recognizes Cosette and seeks Éponine’s aid in finding her address. The Thénardiers recognize their visitors and are determined to seek their revenge. Valjean agrees to come back bringing money for the rent.
Marius overhears the plotting of the Thénardiers to compromise their benefactor, and he calls the police. When Valjean arrives with money, accusations and names are thrown around resulting in Marius realizing he owes the debt of honor to the man who would destroy the father of the girl he loves. Javert arrives and arrests the Thénardiers, but Valjean escapes before he is seen.
After Éponine is released from jail she reluctantly guides Marius to Valjean and Cosette’s house on Rue Plumet. In a clandestine meeting, Marius and Cosette declare their love for each other. Valjean has planned to escape to America to permanently avoid Javert and to keep Cosette away from Marius. The young lovers are very distressed over the move. Marius seeks the approval of his estranged grandfather to marry Cosette and is insulted when his grandfather refuses, suggesting that she would be acceptable as a mistress.
The next day, the student revolt is planned with barricades erected in the streets. Javert is at the revolt and is recognized as a spy. Inspector Javert is bound and his life under threat from the agitated students. In the evening Marius goes to Cosette’s home to find it abandoned, in his state of distress he returns to the student movement for revolt. Marius is nearly killed by a police officer, but is saved by a fellow student, Éponine in disguise as a man. Éponine exacts a promise from Marius as she gives him a letter that he will kiss her forehead when she dies and confesses that she loved him a little. Marius fulfills his promise and takes the letter from Cosette learning of her new whereabouts, writing a letter in return which is intercepted by Valjean. Initially Valjean is relieved to find that the thorn in his side, Marius, is involved in the revolt and then has a change of heart and knows he cannot allow him to perish when Cosette loves the young liberal.
Valjean saves Javert’s life from the enraged students through a subterfuge claiming he will kill the hated policeman himself, taking him aside and firing the gun into the air. As the barricade is breached the students are killed and Valjean manages to escape with the wounded Marius through the sewers. At a locked grate Valjean again encounters Thénardier, who believes that Valjean has murdered the young man he carries. For a price Thénardier opens the grate and tears a piece of the coat of the young man for future identification and possible blackmail.
Luck does not hold for Valjean as he now encounters Javert outside on the streets. Valjean knows that Javert must arrest him, but he requests a favor, to deliver the unconscious Marius to his family. Javert graciously allows the request. Again, Valjean makes a request to be allowed to go home for just a few moments which is also granted by Javert. Shortly after arriving at his home Valjean realizes that Javert is gone. Javert is at a personal crisis, unable to reconcile the ex-convict with actions the man who saved his life. In the face of this dilemna Javert chooses to commit suicide rather than be forced into a position to imprison Valjean.
Marius recovers and he is prepared to marry Cosette. After the wedding, Valjean confesses to Marius that he is an ex-convict, Marius is horrified by the revelation and removes his young bride to insulate them from the influence of such a man. Without Cosette, Valjean loses his will to live and becomes extremely ill.
Thénardier, hoping to blackmail Marius with the information that his father-in-law is a murderer, brings the bit of torn jacket as proof, which in reverse, exonerates Valjean. Marius is overcome realizing that Valjean is responsible for saving his life and giving him his happiness with Cosette.
In his last moments, Jean Valjean experiences a great joy as he is surrounded by the love of Marius and his adopted daughter, Cosette. Valjean receives his redemption!
Adult Point of View
“Les Miserables” is one of my all time favorite books and I re-read it every few years. It also happens to be one of my husband’s favorite books along with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.
The character, Jean Valjean, has such a profound transformation from an embittered convict to a man who is willing to sacrifice himself for another. Valjean becomes a man of values, unwilling to compromise what is right for what is convenient. Even knowing the result of saving Javert from the violent students will mean his imprisonment, loss of all he loves and probably the loss of his life, he does that which he believes is right. The redemption of Valjean is a reflection of the redemption that all Christians hope to obtain in their own lives as they acknowledge their own unworthiness to receive the great gift. It is interesting that Valjean receives the gift of physical redemption in the form of silver candlesticks from the Bishop, which he always treasured, and then he works the rest of his life to become worthy to receive the peace of a “spiritual” redemption.
Inspector Javert is another interesting character. Javert lives in a world of right and wrong, a fanaticism born from rejecting his parents in his quest to be judged as worthwhile. Is he not seeking to be redeemed from the sins of his parents? After his life is saved by Valjean, he confronts his own moral dilemna that a man he has judged to be evil has done something so supremely good without counting the cost of the sacrifice. Javert cannot continue to exist under these conditions and must commit suicide. It is supremely sad that he cannot bend to allow redemption for another, or for himself. Javert serves as a moral warning to change and accept others for their change.
Redemption could also be seen as a theme for the society. Can the Parisians find redemption with their past of pampered royalty, the oppression of the masses and the violence of revolt? Does redemption ever come by violence or is it only possible through gentler traits, such as, love, humility, sacrifice and peace? By Javert’s actions we feel that society cannot change even if the individual finds redemption.
Some of the other characters, such as Cosette, seem rather shallow in comparison to Valjean, and some of the situations contrived for sentimentality, such as, the instant enduring love of Marius and Cosette. Even with such flaws “Les Miserables” is one of the best books I have read because of the scope and depth of emotion and change within Valjean. I must confess that I must thrive on a certain amount of sentimentality because I always cry at the end of this book.
5 out of 5 stars
– the Mother
One more comment regarding the musical “Les Mis”, it does follow much of the plot of the book. The musical over emphasises the prostitution, which can be a big turn-off, particularly for a young audience. Another major deviation is the love Valjean feels for Marius when he saves his life. There are other deviations that I will refrain from writing at this time.
Teen Point of View
I thought this book was very touching and absolutely wonderful. It really points out how people can change. I was very interested and couldn’t put it down. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book and suggest it to teenagers as long as they can read a book this long. I loved how it didn’t stop at how he became a better person, it kept on going and showed what he did and how he acted. It was epically long in a great way. I give it 5 out of 5 stars, no questions asked.
– the Daughter
A note from the mother, the daughter read an abridged version.