Review of Victor
Hugo’s Les Miserables
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/17/06
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, is the type of work that is almost beyond the measure of excellence or not. Hugo so indulgent, so excessive, that the book becomes almost otherworldly, an edifice out in an ether of its own, subject to its own literary rules. It is simple in narrative construction, but byzantinely complex in the curlicues of detail. It is such a diverse work that it is almost a cosmos unto itself, apart from the time and reality of mortal men and writers. If there was ever an over-the-top work of prose that was the equivalent of a Walt Whitman song it is this work. Then, again, I have used the qualifier almost, because while the novel has quite a number of excellent moments, it has just as many, or more, bad moments- and I mean horrifically bad examples of writing; writing so bad that to believe it could belong to a ‘classic’ or a ‘masterpiece’ of the Western Canon boggles the mind.
I read the classic 1862 English translation by Hugo associate Charles Wilbour, from the same year the novel was published in France, in the unabridged version- all 1260 pages of it, from the Random House Modern Library series, and in many ways it’s a mass of contradictions, well beyond the idea of being a bad or great read, although it is a surprisingly ‘easy’ read. It is humorous, operatic, and soap operatic, yet so ‘serious’, in its desperation to be seen as a serious sociological tract, as to be musty. It is discursive to the point of being formless, yet has moments of crystal clarity. It is loaded with 1930s movie serial style melodrama that borders on farce, such as this from page 1209, between Valjean and Cosette:
Jean Valjean kissed that forehead, upon which there was a celestial reflection.
Jean Valjean obeyed. It was the smile of a spectre.
‘Now defend me against my husband.’
‘Cosette!-’ said Marius.
‘Get angry, father. Tell him that I must stay. You can surely talk before me. So you think me very silly. It is very astonishing then what you are saying! business, putting money in a bank, that is a great affair. Men play the mysterious for nothing. I want to stay. I am very pretty this morning. Look at me, Marius.’
And with an adorable shrug of the shoulders and an inexpressibly exquisite pout, she looked at Marius. It was like a flash between these two beings. That somebody was there mattered little.
‘I love you!’ said Marius.
‘I adore you!’ said Cosette.
And they fell irresistibly into each other’s arms.
You would not be wrong to expect, ‘Next week on All My Children….’ to follow, yet, despite such, the book also has true moments of drama. Its characters act in outrageous ways that go well beyond the definition of caricature, yet also has genuine moments of connection. This is what makes it, for all its virtues and flaws, such an intriguing work.
The book is broken into five ‘books’- each of which is the size of a typical modern novel. I will now give a synopsis of each book.
Fantine is broken into eight books, and numerous chapters, as are all the books. The novel opens with background of a bishop named Myriel and his church. In October 1815, a stranger enters the bishop’s town, and is shunned. He is Jean Valjean, freed after nineteen years in prison- the first five for stealing a loaf of bread, and the rest for failed escape attempts. The bishop takes him in and Valjean steals from him. The bishop forgives him when caught, and gives him the booty he stole, with the understanding Valjean will reform. He steals again, then regrets it. Hugo gives a very simplistic portrayal of how the corrupt French penal system brutalized Valjean, basically naïvely positing that all men are good by nature. Two years later we are in Paris where a young woman who was an orphan, fantine, finds she is pregnant via a rich college student named Félix Tholomyès, who plays a cruel joke on her, and leaves her. A few years later her illegitimate daughter Cosette travels with her, and she leaves her with a couple named Thénardier. They eventually extort Fantine, playing on her shame over Cosette’s past. In the town they live, Montreuil-sur-mer, in a man named Monsieur Madeleine has proved a savior, and is elected Mayor. The town’s police inspector, Javert, suspects Madeleine is actually Valjean, who is notorious. He is correct. Fantine spirals downward- selling off her hair, her teeth, and then becoming a prostitute. The absurdity of her plight is dealt with in super-seriousness by Hugo, but it’s rife with such clichés as the hooker with the heart of gold. Thénardier demands more money from her, and she is eventually arrested by Javert. Madeleine saves her, and Javert determines to destroy him. Fantine worsens, while a man named Champmathieu is arrested, and Javert believes he, not Madeleine, is Valjean. Madeleine agonizes over whether to exculpate an innocent man or continue to help his town. He recalls his earlier vow to become good. Champmathieu’s trial is a farce, and he is railroaded. Madeleine confesses he is Valjean.
Cosette is broken into eight books. Hugo digresses for many pages on the battle of Waterloo, for only one purpose- to introduce the character of Colonel Georges Pontmercy, who mistakenly feels he is endebted to Thénardier for saving his life, even though Thénardier was only trying to rob him, thinking him dead. Valjean’s trial is a scandal, and he is sent to jail, but presumed dead after saving a drowning officer, and seeming to drown himself. Cosette is now eight, and still with the Thénardiers in Montfermeil. They now have a son named Gavroche, whom they loathe like Cosette, while they adore their daughters Eponine and Azelma. One night, Valjean appears to Cosette, and he is shocked at her treatment. Valjean pays 1500 francs to take Cosette away from her abusers. Thénardier tries to gouge Valjean, stating he needs Cosette’s mother’s approval. Valjean produces a letter from Fantine, granting him custody. Thénardier reluctantly gives up on Cosette. They move into Gorbeau House, and he pretends he is Cosette’s grandfather. He is paranoid that Javert is on his trail and leaves. Javert pursues him, but he escapes with Cosette. He meets Fauchelevent, a man he once saved in Montreuil. He helps the duo. We find out Javert has doubted Valjean’s detah, once he realizes a man came and took Cosette from the Thénardiers. He was toying with Valjean, to torture him, but when his prey escaped he was humiliated. Both Javert’s unprofessional arrogance and Fauchelevent’s reappearance stretch realistic credulity, but by this point in the novel symbolism is so dominant- realism cannot be expected. We then digress for a whole chapter on the convent whose garden Valjean and Cosette met Fauchelevent in. Intrigues abound at the convent, one which involves Valjean’s being buried alive.
Marius is broken into eight books. We meet Gavroche again- now a beggar. His parents, the Thénardiers use the alias Jondrette. Gavroche is happy, though. Then, we meet Marius Pontmercy, the son of the man who was robbed by Thénardier at Waterloo. His family is persecuted for supporting Napoleon. His father turns Marius’s custody over to Gillenormand, his father-in-law. In 1827 Marius is eighteen, and visits his ill father, but arrives too late. He sees a note from his father for Marius to find Thénardier, and help him in any way he can. Marius decides to learn of his father’s life, and supports Napoleon. Gillenormand and marius argue and he leaves. Marius gets involved with radicalized student politics, and indulges poverty. He then meets Cosette, who is with Valjean, but takes months to get to know her. He gives her nicknames, but loses track of them, and decides to find her. Marius encounters the Thénardiers, pities them, but knows them as the Jondrettes. He hears Jondrette planning to kill Valjean, whom he still does not know, and suspects they share a past. Marius goes to the police to prevent the murder- and encounters Javert. He discovers Jondrette is Thénardier, whom he believes saved his father’s life, and is perplexed. In the end, Marius ends up preventing the murder, Javert arrests Thénardier, and Valjean escapes. Yet, like so much of the action in the novel, the string of coincidences that allow all the major players to be involved in this criminal endeavor stretches credulity, and is a sign of plot dictaking logical and realistic storytelling.
St. Denis is broken into fifteen books. We get a lengthy digression that backgrounds the revolutionary student movement of 1830, which ensnared Marius. He is still enthralled by the elusive Cosette, whom he calls Ursula, or The Lark. Eponine tells Marius where to find Cosette, even though she loves him. Valjean and Cosette are in hiding, and he fears his own lack of experience in love will hinder her. Eventually Marius declares his love for her, and she reciprocates- in a very saccharine manner. Gavroche the urchin has adventures, including watching Valjean survive a murder attempt and unwittingly aiding his own father, Thénardier, who has escaped from prison. Hugo then digresses for a chapter on street slang. Valjean declares he and Cosette must leave for England, and Marius panics. Marius seeks Gillenormand’s permission to marry Cosette, but his grandfather insults him buy suggesting he make her his mistress. He attempts to return to her, but she and Valjean are gone, fleeing the coming anarchy. Riots ensue. Marius’s classmates and Gavroche are among the rioters. They notice Javert is spying on them, and capture him. Marius tries to quell things, and is saved by Eponine, who gives her a letter from Cosette. Marius writes a letter to Cosette and gives it to Gavroche to deliver. Valjean intercepts him, and rushes to aid his adopted daughter’s suitor.
Jean Valjean is broken into nine books. The rioters and army battle. Gavroche is killed. The rioters’ leader orders Javert be killed. Valjean volunteers to kill him, but sets Javert free. Marius is shot, but Valjean saves him and carries Marius through the sewers. Hugo then discourses on the history of the Parisian sewers. Thénardier, not recognizing Valjean, tries to extort him to help him escape, thinking Valjean’s killed Marius, whom he thinks is a wealthy man. Javert captures Valjean, but begs him to allow him to return Marius to Gillenormand, and to see Cosette one last time. Javert agrees, then departs, much to Valjean’s surprise. Deus ex machinae play a great part in this section, to the point of unbelievability. Characters are always just around the corner, etc. Valjean apotheosizes in this book. Javert implodes. His world of rules is in chaos, as Valjean is not what he thought he was. He suicides into the Seine, a wholly ridiculous end for this stalwart character. Marius recovers, and Gillenormand allows him to marry Cosette. He is happy when he sees she is beautiful and has a large dowry from Valjean, who is ambivalent that hi s’daughter’ will be leaving him. He confesses his past to Marius, who belives it, for he still feels Valjean executed Javert. Marius tries to cut Valjean out of Cosette’s life. Thénardier tries to sell Marius information on Valjean, and Marius learns of Valjean’s work as Madeleine, and that Javert killed himself. Thénardier then claims Valjean killed a rich man in the sewers, and Marius knows he’s lying, since the supposed dead man was himself. Marius pays him, then makes sure he leaves France for America, where he becomes a slaver trader. Marius tells Cosette of his error in misjudging Valjean. They go to his bedside. He hugs them both, then dies in peace and joy, fulfilling his early promise to Bishop Myriel to reform.
While Les Miserables is clearly a cut above the usual pabulum that is published and passed off as ‘literary fiction’ today, it is not a great work of literature. It could be significantly cut without losing much, as some of the better abridged versions of the book have proved, as it could be shorn of its didactic to the point of condescension impulses. In this regard, it is even more egregious in such violations than its near contemporaneous counterpart examining society and crime, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. Where that book was based upon the posit that the human condition is basically static, Hugo’s book presumes that evil is borne of institutions, not the individuals that comprise them- a fairly absurd assertion, which posits that evil must appear ex nihilo in the interstices between the individual alone and the individual of the crowd.
A related flaw that Les Miserables shares with Crime And Punishment is its pre-modern outlook on life and society, and the attendant symbolism and stereotypes that such a view forces upon the reader. Jean Valjean is outwardly more dynamic a character than Rodion Raskolnikov, yet has little of the internal plumbing, as it were. He is a veritable cipher, for through the hundreds of pages, rare is it that we explore his internal mindset, youth, or the like, without Hugo’s first resort to swashbuckling or intrigue. In one of the most obvious flaws of the novel, the reason why Valjean is loathed by many others throughout the book is never properly explained, it is merely a construct to propel the narrative, and not given any grounding in the pasts of the characters- although many other more minor aspects of the characters and their interactions are plumbed, nor is it elucidated upon by later actions. Raskolnikov is a true antihero, whereas Valjean has far more in common with the heroes of Dickens or Dumas, always making daring rescues and escapes, self-sacrificing, and struggling against all odds, etc. Whereas Raskolnikov’s very name suggests he is a torn man declining toward his baser naure, Valjean’s tale is one of upward ethical mobility- from impoverished and persecuted justifiable bread robber to embittered criminal, upon his release, he become a near-saint, all due to the supposed words and actions of a holy man with little place in the novel. The murderous Thénardier has more truck with Raskolnikov, in that he is a baser man than Valjean, and, like Raskolnikov, is mistaken for a man with a noble soul by the Pontmercys throughout the book, until the end. Yet, there is no shading to his character. The same is true for his wife. Only his outcast son Gavroche and his daughter Eponine show redeeming qualities, yet they are stereotypes, too. Gavroche is right out of the Dickens mold for a gamin. In fact, much of Les Miserables reads like Dickens suffering from ‘roid rage, yet absent the satirical humor and fun.
A good example comes from the obvious and heavy-handed juxtaposition of Eponine and Cosette, both stereotypes. Eponine is the selfless heroine whose only purpose in the novel is to serve as counterbalance to the even more stereotyped Cosette. Eponine is legitimate. Cosette is a bastard. Eponine shows a little growth, while Cosette shows none. Cosette is the Madonna figure of the book, yet immature and ignorant of the world’s cruelties, rescued by the dashing Valjean. Eponine’s life is tuined by her father’s evil. Marius is the lovestruck swain manqué, almost as ignorant of life as his love, Cosette. He understands little of the revolution he is at the fringes of, but does heroic things nonetheless. He is paper-thin, even more so than the two most egregious stereotypes in the book, his grandfather Gillenormand- last of the Bourgeois dinosaurs, and Cosette’s mother Fantine, who is even more of the trite hooker with a heart of gold than Raskolnikov’s paramour from Crime And Punishment, Sonia. Is it any wonder that the love that Valjean felt for her is never consummated, but forever purified by her death, and that he selflessly takes it upon himself to care for her daughter? How could he not, given the logy of such a trite narrative? Putative antihero falls in love with doomed heroine. Yes, no one could accuse Hugo of narrative originality, for this is the template for many French novels of the time.
The only character that nearly rises above stereotype is Javert. Yet, he is not the typical detective of later fiction, as proclaimed in the Modern Library jacket notes. He is no predecessor to Lieutenant Colombo, nor Sherlock Holmes. He is a stickler for law and order, and one senses there must be some daemon that drives this. Hugo’s answer seems utterly ad hoc- his shame over his gypsy background- and reveals a serious flaw in Hugo’s ability to sketch believable characters, or his petty reliance on stereotypes to serve merely as action-pushers. Yet, after the many ridiculous times Valjean escapes him- either by deus ex machinae or Javert’s own overweening confidence- he finally gets his man, but after Valjean has speared his life, he lets him go, and then this man merely tosses himself to death? Utterly trite, and wholly unbelievable. People with that sort of iron will simply do not behave in such a way, no matter what! Does it make for melodrama? Sure. But in a piss-poor 1930s Hollywood tearjerker sort of fashion. It is not the stuff of great and deep and true ‘literature’ of the highest order. In the real world, Valjean’s saving of his life might have been the cause of an existential crisis within Javert that finally forced him to step outside of his black and white view of legality and question what is the ethical thing to do when the laws and system are corrupt? Suicide would not be an option for such a detached and coolly logical character as Javert, yet Hugo never refuses the cheap nor theatrical stunt over the realistic outcome of the events he portrays, much to the novel’s everlasting detriment.
Likewise, the moralizing in the novel can be interminable. If Hugo’s diagnosis of the human condition is to be believed then we are all fixed at birth and anything positive or negative that occurs to us is due to the overwhelming force of pressures which separate us from our own true selves. Here is an early example (page 35) of Hugo’s naïve view of life:
‘I congratulate you,’
he said, in a tone of reprimand. ‘At least you did not vote for the execution
of the king.’
The conventionist did not seem to notice the bitter emphasis placed upon the words ‘at least.’ The smiles vanished from his face, and he replied:
‘Do not congratulate me too much, monsieur; I did vote for the destruction of the tyrant.’
And the tone of austerity confronted the tone of severity.
‘What do you mean?’ asked the bishop.
‘I mean that man has a tyrant, Ignorance. I voted for the abolition of that tyrant. That tyrant has begotten royalty, which is authority springing from the False, while science is authority springing from the True. Man should be governed by science.’
‘And conscience,’ added the bishop.
‘The same thing: conscience is innate knowledge that we have.’
Monsieur Bienvenu listened with some amazement to this language, novel as it was to him.
The conventionist went on:
‘As to Louis XVI.: I said no. I do not believe that I have the right to kill a man, but I feel it a duty to exterminate evil. I voted for the downfall of the tyrant; that is to say, for the abolition of prostitution for woman, of slavery for man, of night for the child. In voting for the republic I voted for that: I voted for fraternity, for harmony, for light. I assisted in casting down prejudices and errors: their downfall brings light! We caused the old world to fall; the old world, a vase of misery, reversed, becomes an urn of joy to the human race.’
To deny that this is heavy-handed and purple prose is to manifest ignorance in all things literary. Hugo’s propensity for self-indulgent rambling and moralizing- especially his ‘love conquers all’ mantra- is more suited for Danielle Steel than classic literature. Most translators have tried to correct this flaw, as they have abridged while translating. Some have done well, others not, but when they have given their reasons for doing so by pointing to the novel’s flaws, such as being self-indulgent’, ‘exasperating’, ‘undisciplined’, ‘wholly unrestrained’, and ‘condescending rhetoric’, they are a hundred percent correct. From page 1073, here is one of dozens of typically Hugovian rants
The modern ideal has its type in art, and its means in science. It is through science that we shall realise that august vision of the poets: social beauty. We shall reproduce Eden by A + B. At the point which civilisation has reached, the exact is a necessary element of the splendid, and the artistic sentiment is not merely served, but completed by the scientific organ; dream must calculate. Art, which is the conqueror, must have its fulcrum in science, which is the mover. The solidity of the mounting is important. The modern, spirit is the genius of Greece with the genius of India for its vehicle; Alexander upon the elephant.
Races petrified in dogma or demoralised by lucre are unfit to lead civilisation. Genuflexion before the idol or the dollar atrophies the muscle which walks and the will which goes. Hieratic or mercantile absorption diminishes the radiance of a people, lowers its horizon by lowering its level, and deprives it of that intelligence of the universal aim, at the same time human and divine, which makes the missionary nations. Babylon has no ideal. Carthage has no ideal. Athens and Rome have and preserve, even through all the thick night of centuries, haloes of civilisation.
As one can read, Hugo is not the sort of writer one reads for gorgeous sentences, images, nor metaphors. His weaknesses lead him into such banal constructions- in idea and presentation- as above. His strength, however, is focusing in on a thing or moment, and dissecting it microscopically, then pulling back and telescopically probing beyond that moment or place. Yet, such moments kill for a) they are dull, flowery and over-written, and b) larded with simplistic moralizing. In short, Hugo was not a great social thinker. His ideas on human nature and societies are almost embarrassingly naïve. His pre-genetic and pre-Freudian view of life may explain why his characters are caricatures, but explanation is not mitigation. Hugo’s book is utterly divorced from any real understanding of poverty and crime- to him it is ennobling, or the work of conspiracies to enslave. It’s just too fantastical and unrealistic a view of human nature to qualify it as a work of serious social import. His remedy for it all is simply love. Yes, to Hugo, love conquers all: materialism, hatred, war, greed, bigotry, jealousy, etc. The central moment of the book, the one that Hugo posits as the axle upon which the rest of the novel turns, is when Valjean takes Cosette away from the Thénardiers, for his love for her mother has failed, yet his love for her daughter will be the thing that redeems him, forcing him to keep to the straight and narrow. Even Dostoevsky, as naïve and frustrating as his ideas on poverty and criminality can be, in Crime And Punishment, does not sink to this level of simplemindedness.
Here is an excerpt from the penultimate section of the book, pages 1259-1260, when Valjean, on his deathbed, confesses Cosette’s past to her. It is embarrassingly bad- in its trite written presentation, in its dramatic content, and in its context as the final climax to this book:
….Those are things of the past. The forests through which we have passed with our child, the trees under which we have walked, the convents in which we have hidden, the games, the free laughter of childhood, all is in shadow. I imagined that all that belonged to me. There was my folly. Those Thenardiers were wicked. We must forgive them. Cosette, the time has come to tell of your mother. Her name was Fantine. Remember that name: Fantine. Fall on your knees whenever you pronounce it. She suffered much. And loved you much. Her measure of unhappiness was as full as yours of happiness. Such are the distributions of God. He is on high, he sees us all, and he knows what he does in the midst of his great stars. So I am going away, my children. Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another. You will think sometimes of the poor old man who died here. O my Cosette! it is not my fault, indeed, if I have not seen you all this time, it broke my, heart; I went as far as the corner of the street, I must have seemed strange to the people pass, I looked like a crazy man, once I went out with no hat. My children, I do not see very clearly now, I had some more things to say, but it makes no difference. Think of me a little. You are blessed creatures. I do not know what is the matter with me, I see a light. Come nearer. I die happy. Let me put my hands upon your dear beloved heads."
Cosette and Marius fell on their knees, overwhelmed, choked with tears, each grasping one of Jean Valjean’s hands. Those august hands moved no more.
He had fallen backwards, the light from the candlesticks fell upon him; his white face looked up towards heaven, he let Cosette and Marius cover his hands with kisses; he was dead.
The night was starless and very dark. Without doubt, in the gloom some mighty angel was standing, with outstretched wings, awaiting the soul.
Amid the self-indulgence, though, there are some interesting moments in his long digressions on the battle of Waterloo, the background of the student unrest, the origins of Parisian slang, and the history of the Paris sewers, but they are surrounded by dozens of pages of Hugo’s need to prove his didacticism is not mere sciolism, and to satisfy his love affair with his own pen. Hugo’s apologists point to the fact that he was, indeed, writing to a pre-modern audience, to justify his gratingly dull descriptive overkill; an audience that had no television nor movies, and were thus impoverished in modern visualization skills. Many had no idea what a battlefield or sewers were like. Yet, even if one were to accept such an explanation, it does not wash for his ornately brocaded biographies of minor characters, some for dozens or hundreds of pages. We get book length backgrounds of minor characters, like Bishop Myriel and Marius Pontmercy, merely to justify the most minor plot points later on, whose only payoff is to try to make ‘real’ the outrageous and implausible coincidences Hugo tries to fob off in his Romance with overtones of seriousness. Many poor critics similarly try to cover up gaping flaws in logic and artistry with claims of the book’s or author’s decency and humanity. Even in today’s PC Age, such claims are a de facto admission that the art of the work is not its prime ‘benefit’. Yet, how can you cover up such gaping artistic flaws as the lack of suspense in the work when after the third or fourth ‘providential’ encounter you know exactly when certain characters will reappear and what they will do, simply by the setting of the moment?
Hugo tried to concoct a novel of social realism out of his swashbuckling Romance, and almost succeeds, for everything the book does is so large that it has its own gravity and inertia, and almost draws even the most astute readers into its orbit….until you put the book down and realize how implausible much of the action and characterization is, as well how blatantly manipulative. That the book has such a hardy pull is a testament to Hugo’s powers with the word, but even that is not enough to propel the book into true greatness. Nor does the excruciating detail that he renders allow this novel to claim a mantel of ‘slice of life’, for it is far too judgemental, as well self-aware- in the best sense, not the cheap Postmodern sense. Compared with a novel such as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, written almost a century later, and with similar political views, Hugo’s book’s flaws are writ large. Betty Smith’s book never condescends, her characters speak and act in realistic ways, and there is never the pervasive maudlin undertow that Les Miserables makes it raison d’etre. Yet, at only about a third the length of Les Miserables (and itself a long book), A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is much denser, more poetic and even more encompassing, for it actually explores the inner worlds of several characters, with far more realism, and that’s the point- Les Miserables is a pre-modern novel, where adventure comes first. Second comes melodrama, and melodrama is a cheap way to propel a story for it manipulates sentiment in a false manner, and posits corny contrivances as realistic interactions, by playing to the basest parts of the human psyche, manifesting a profound lack of originality and depth. Thus, like most soap operas, the characters are skimmed superficially, and a reader feels no genuine connection to them. And no amount of volume nor minutia of detail can make up for the lack of insight the melodrama limns, even as it blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction by describing real events the novel’s characters must deal with. Yet, this is clearly a tactic to try to make the book seem ‘realistic’, since all the fictive elements are clearly swashbuckling. At times, Hugo almost loses his fictive tale in the overwhelm of detailed real histories, yet never- despite his lengthy biographical digressions- does he succeed of getting inside his characters the way, say, Sandor Marai does in his sterling, psychologically experimental novel Embers.
Les Miserables is one of the most unique works of art in human literature, but that does not necessitate its greatness. Crime And Punishment, published just four years later, in 1866, while still suffering from some of the naïve-te and caricaturization that Hugo’s novel suffers from, clearly represents a significant step forward toward modern thought, as it is a much psychologically richer book that limns its coeval Russian counterparts to a greater internal degree than Hugo was capable of. It is shorn of the Capital R Romance that bogs down much of Les Miserables. Its action is mostly interior, spread over a relatively short period, while Les Miserables’ action is spread over decades and often leaves its characters abruptly hanging, to take a more deific view of the human panorama. Crime And Punishment’s view is microscopic, while Les Miserables’ is macroscopic, to the point of losing its way far too often in the grand, as its main characters flounder. That’s why Hugo’s novel is three times the length of Dostoevsky’s, and would fall apart if not propped up by the action-driven narrative. Crime and Punishment’s narrative, by contrast, is driven not by action, but reaction.
It is interesting to note that not many published literary critics- Helen Vendler, Lionel Trilling, Harold Bloom, nor Edmund Wilson- write of Les Miserables in the awed way they approach other works of that age- be it Crime And Punihment, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Melville’s Moby-Dick, or Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s as if it’s tacitly accepted, as a way station between the pre-modern and the modern novel; one far more dependent upon its entertainment than intellectual value. This is the correct assessment to give the book. Les Miserables, to a modern eye, reads far more like a gay, cavalier farce, or outright comedy, than a serious work of realistic fiction in the A Tree Grows In Brooklyn or Embers vein.
Les Miserables is a good novel, one might even call it a very good novel, and one that I ‘liked’, but it’s nowhere near great, despite its bulk meaning it has as much actual great writing as some great books a tenth its size. Yet, one simply cannot pretend all the bad writing does not exist- there’s far too much of it, and its no comfort to know that editing a century and a half ago was capable of being as derelict as it routinely is today, even granting the glory of its Whitmanian excesses. Here is a sample of it, from pages 98-99, on Valjean’s moment of conversion from evil:
….Jean Valjean shrank and faded away. At one moment he was but a shadow. Suddenly he disappeared. The bishop alone remained.
He filled the whole soul of this wretched man with a magnificent radiance.
Jean Valjean wept long. He shed hot tears, he wept bitterly, with more weakness than a woman, with more terror than a child.
While he wept, the light grew brighter and brighter in his mind- an extraordinary light, a light at once transporting and terrible. His past life, his first offence, his long expiation, his brutal exterior, his hardened interior, his release made glad by so many schemes of vengeance, what had happened to him at the bishop’s, his last action, this theft of forty sous from a child, a crime meaner and the more monstrous that it came after the bishop’s pardon, all this returned and appeared to him, clearly, but in a light that he had never seen before. He beheld his life, and it seemed to him horrible; his soul, and it seemed to him frightful. There was, however, a softened light upon that life and upon that soul. It seemed to him that he was looking upon Satan by the light of Paradise.
This cliché-riddled piece of tripe could have been written by any PC Elitist published in the last twenty years. It’s truly that bad. However, despite such egregious lapses, I would state that one should read the full version, even though, literally, some of the abridged versions are more enjoyable to read, simply because there are many gems in the excess that are worth reading. Still, shit is shit, no matter how many roses bloom here and there, and this is why the worst parts of the book weigh down the whole. It is also a surprisingly quick read, considering its size, precisely because it is not particularly deep. Complex? Yes. But not deep, and that’s an important distinction. Another is that, despite Hugo’s and the book’s reputations as Left Wing icons, when one steps back, Hugo’s hero, Valjean, is really a very Conservative figure- a dashing hero who fights for truth and justice, seeks to protect women and children, and seeks to preserve traditions that are good. Here is a snippet from page 162 that is startlingly Conservative, and it’s merely one of many:
What is this history of Fantine? It is society buying a slave.
From whom? From misery.
From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from abandonment, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a bit of bread. Misery makes the offer, society accepts.
The holy law of Jesus Christ governs our civilisation, but it does not yet permeate it; it is said that slavery has disappeared from European civilisation. This is a mistake. It still exists: but it weighs now only upon woman, and it is called prostitution.
It weighs upon woman, that is to say, upon grace, upon feebleness, upon maternity. This is not one of the least of man's shames.
At the stage of this mournful drama at which we have now arrived, Fantine has nothing left of what she had formerly been. She has become marble in becoming corrupted. Whoever touches her feels a chill. She goes her ways, she endures you and she knows you not; she wears a dishonoured and severe face. Life and social order have spoken their last word to her. All that can happen to her has happened. She has endured all, borne all, experienced all, suffered all, lost all, wept for all. She is resigned, with that resignation that resembles indifference as death resembles sleep. She shuns nothing now. She fears nothing now. Every cloud falls upon her, and all the ocean sweeps over her! What matters it to her! the sponge is already drenched.
She believed so at least, but it is a mistake to imagine that man can exhaust his destiny, or can reach the bottom of anything whatever.
Alas! what are all these destinies thus driven pell-mell? whither go they? why are they so?
He who knows that, sees all the shadow.
He is alone. His name is God.
Or, how about this bit,
from page 513, a section called Ecce Paris, Ecce Home?:
To sum up all once more, the gamin of Paris of the present day, is as the graeculus of Rome was in ancient times, the people as a child, with the wrinkles of the old world on its brow.
The gamin is a beauty and, at the same time, a disease of the nation- a disease that must be cured. How? By light.
Light makes whole.
All the generous irradiations of society spring from science, letters, the arts, and instruction. Make men, make men. Give them light, that they may give you warmth. Soon or late, the splendid question of universal instruction will take its position with the irresistible authority of absolute truth; and then those who govern under the superintendence of the French idea will have to make this choice: the children of France or the gamins of Paris; flames in the light or will o' the wisps in the gloom.
The gamin is the expression of Paris, and Paris is the expression of the
In short, it’s really hard to take Victor Hugo seriously, philosophically, as a Leftist, Rightist, or anything in between, with such ill-written, over-the-top banalities as this at the base of the book’s reason. No amount of apologism based upon ‘different eras’ can make bad writing good. Fortunately, the book has much good writing, and does serve as a document of its time and ethos, so it should be read. Just do not expect it to change your life, only claim a minor portion of it.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Retort website.]
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