If you start soon, you will be able to finish this novel (it’s 1194 pages long in the Vintage Classics edition) in time for the release of Tom Hooper’s forthcoming film adaptation. This new film itself is said to be an adaptation of the musical, so if you want the whole picture, you really do need to read the novel.
What will quickly become apparent is that this book is not content with being a mere narrative. It insists on expanding upwards and outwards, away from the plot, taking in a vast emotional and geographical landscape, and a few decades of French history. It challenges the notion that historical context is not part of the story. It resists the idea that there is such a thing as an inconsequential detail.
The temptation is there to skip portions of the text, and this is made easier by the very clear separations between the plot and each of the discursions, which are neatly contained in their own chapters. These tangential commentaries on diverse topics from the Battle of Waterloo to the history of Parisian sewers are, however, vital to Victor Hugo’s purpose in telling this story. They must be read. Unfortunately they have a habit of appearing just as the plot is becoming interesting.
‘The book that the reader has before his eyes at this moment, is, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its every detail, whatever its irregularities, its exceptions or shortcomings, a step from bad to good, from the unjust to the just, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to awareness, from rottenness to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; end point: soul.’
The plot itself is terrific, if not a bit implausible. The relatively small group of central characters are drawn to each other like dancers of a madrigal, ceaselessly stepping towards, circling around and away from one another. Coincidences are freakishly common, but a skerrick of believability is restored by ensuring that in some instances, the dancers fail to recognise one another. In such a long novel, the regular reappearance of familiar names cannot fail to reassure.
Ultimately, it is clear that a realistic plot was not the goal. At the heart of the novel is concern for those who are frequently ignored — the people we might today call the 99% — including orphans, the elderly, the destitute and criminals. Les Misérables is a frank plea for more care for these members of society, for greater access to education, and for the equitable distribution of wealth. The central contest between escaped convict Jean Valjean (who represents justice) and Inspector Javert (the embodiment of the law) demonstrated for Hugo the important difference between the application of the laws of men, and the laws of God.
‘Of course, they seemed utterly depraved, utterly corrupt, utterly vile, utterly odious even, but they are rare, those who have fallen without being damaged on the way down; besides, there is a point where the unfortunate and the ignominious mingle and fuse, poor bastards, in a single word, a deadly word, outcasts, les misérables, and whose fault is that? And then again, shouldn’t charity be greater, the deeper the fall into the darkness?’