Title: Les Miserables
Author: Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo's classic masterpiece, Les Miserables, is a beautiful story of morality, law, justice, love, war, loss, heroism, and redemption. Often explained as simply “the story of a man's quest for redemption,” Les Miserables is that and much more. It is a story of many multi-layered, complex characters and the way their lives intertwine with one another. It is the story of Valjean, the former convict seeking redemption, and Javert, the obsessed inspector desperate for justice. It's the story of Fantine, a beautiful young woman forced to sell everything, including herself, to provide for her young daughter. It's the story of Marius, the young man who finds himself penniless and befriended by student leaders early in the French Revolution. It's the story of Eponine Thenardier, raised by her villainous parents to help in their schemes, who finds herself helping the man she loves pursue someone else. It's the stories of all of les miserables (“the miserable ones”).
Hugo's tale begins in 1815 as Jean Valjean, Prisoner 24601, is being released from prison after serving nineteen years. His initial crime, we learn, was stealing bread from a local baker to feed his sister's starving children. Nineteen years have hardened Valjean and his experiences on the outside do little to change him. As a former convict, Valjean must carry a yellow passport identifying him as an ex-con and must present it to every employer and every innkeeper he meets. Many turn him away instantly and Valjean has no recourse. A chance encounter with a benevolent bishop convinces Valjean that redemption is not only possible, but something which he must attain. Valjean breaks his parole, tearing his passport and creating for himself a new identity to start a new life.
As the story progresses, Hugo introduces a variety of characters. His brilliance shows in two ways: first, as many characters as there are, one seldom becomes confused as to who is who (and then only possibly with the students of the revolution), and nearly every character, including minor characters with few or no spoken lines, has a backstory. The characters are all given moments to shine, leaving plenty of room for debate about favorite characters.
Hugo's story is epic in every sense—it deals with a variety of themes, boasts a staggering number of unforgettable characters, covers a fairly significant stretch of time, and includes elements of nearly every genre, providing an enjoyable read for almost any willing reader. Admittedly, the book is long—it's length is probably the number one aspect that keeps people from reading it. The paperback is over 1400 pages. However, readers should note that the book is extremely managable. Hugo has divided the book into five volumes (titled Fantine, Cosette, Marius, St. Denis, and Jean Valjean), which are then divided into books, which are divided into chapters. Each of these chapters is, on average, a few pages long. So while the entire work is quite lengthy, readers can sit down and read a few chapters, find a good “stopping place,” and easily pick the book up again. As a whole, the format feels much more managable and far less intimidating.
One word of caution: there are a few passages in which Hugo goes into more detail than necessary for the average reader and delves into discussions larger than the novel itself. These are still beautifully written, and, I assure you it is well worth it to get through them. As my dad told me, “if you can just get through that Waterloo scene, you can finish the book.”