See my first post here.
It took me 15 months to finish Les Mis. I started it in September, 2012, read about 800 pages before setting it aside and coming back to it last week.
Where to begin to unpack this amazing, sweeping, epic, colorful, occasionally frustrating and digressing, often absorbing novel?
I want to start with one of the primary themes that I see running through Hugo’s narrative: justice. I see Hugo’s absolute commitment to justice as being central to the novel. Some people might say that this is a novel about redemption – but I disagree. No one who was “redeemed” required redemption – rather what appears to be redemption is, in my view, actually Hugo providing a form of justice to his character.
Let me begin with Jean Valjean, who is the central figure of the narrative. There are several turning points in his life, and Hugo leaves justice for Valjean until the last, lingering pages of this 1200 page tome. Because most of Valjean’s life is characterized by injustice, not justice. French society, Hugo says pointedly, was terribly unjust toward Valjean. His initial crime was one of such insignificance, of such a lack of importance, that the effects of it on his life represent the very heart of injustice and inequity. He – literally – stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, and while, yes, this does constitute a crime under French (and most other nations as well) law, the value of the item stolen is negligible, the impact on the victim nearly non-existent, and the amount of malice and criminality demonstrated by Valjean through the theft sparse, indeed. This was a crime that was perpetuated by a society of such injustice that children die for the want of a slice of bread, and men are villainized for the remainder of their lives – no matter what they do later – because of it.
Jean Valjean did not require redemption from French society. He “redeemed” himself, to the extent necessary, when he took the town in which he was mayor and he made society there more just, more functional, and more equitable. He did not require redemption for his soul – he received that from Bishop Myriel near the beginning of the book. What Valjean needed, and what he finally received, was a just acknowledgment that he was greater than his worst moment, and that there was more to him than the theft of a loaf of bread. This is what he gets, belatedly, at the end, from Marius and Fantine.
Now, I want to move to Fantine. Fantine is another character that is the victim of both terrible poverty, but also, of a terribly unjust world. Her conduct is no worse than that of the man who impregnated her, but he is undamaged. She is plunged into a world of want so terrible that Hugo’s descriptions of it are heartbreaking. There is no justice for Fantine in life, but Hugo ensures justice for her in death through her daughter, Cosette. Hugo has a bit of a habit of passing the wages of justice onto the next generation. Fantine is good, her daughter is rewarded.
Thenardier, on the other hand, passes the wages of his sins onto his children, to their ultimate demise. Gavroche and Eponine are both killed on the barricades, fighting for a more just society. Their father has no principles, so this is a bit of an ironic twist of fate. In spite of his utter moral bankruptcy, he accidentally raises children much better than he is, whose moral compass is not so irretrievably broken.
Hugo is melodramatic, and this book is huge. There is so much contained in it that it is impossible to pack it all into one reading, much less one post. I don’t know if I’ll come back to it or not after more time has passed, but I am not sorry that I read it. I shouldn’t have quit when I did, and I regret waiting as long as I did to complete it.