26 July 2016

BOOK REPORT: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Long time no see! It’s because this book took me so long to read.

TL;DR: Man, this is such a story! Sometimes I think it must not have come from a mortal but some higher place.


You’ll find Les Miserables on lists of the longest novels ever. In fact, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read, at 655,478 words. That’s five SONG OF LOCKEs! Five! Insane! I’ve had readers complain that Locke was too long! If you combine all the books and essays I’ve published, it’s still not as long as Les Miserables!

Like many of you, I’ve been meaning to read this forever, but it seemed like such a chore. When I was a kid, I could never read long books. And even still… But now audio helps a bit. (This one I “read” partly in audio and partly in the ebook.)

I read the Wilbour translation. He uses the words like janitress (a female janitor), which seems a precise translation. I love this. We Americans are unfortunately abandoning our gender-based nouns. Incidentally, I like to use words like photographress and paintress too.

You’ll hear people complaining about the chapters where Hugo goes on and on about the sewers or Waterloo, and that’s a fair critique. As I started, the first seven chapters were about the Bishop’s house—his chairs, his locks on the doors, the paintings on his wall, and I was like, “Oh, no.” With so little plot and so much exposition, I had a tough time focusing. But they were short chapters (which is how I like to write too), and so I felt like I was progressing quickly. Around chapter 10 came a brief subplot about a dying atheist, and I finally felt engaged with the narrative. After that it was all downhill. Except for the sewers. And Waterloo.

Mostly I love this book because it’s about seeing people as people, seeing the good in people through the anguish and strife, and loving them for their humanity, and then making sacrifices in order to honor that love. 

This phrase in particular summed it up for me:

“If there is anything more poignant than a body agonising for want of bread, it is a soul which is dying of hunger for light.”

In this case, I think light is more than knowledge (which is the typical metaphor). I think he’s talking about warmth and love. It is one of many lines that really struck me.

For the rest of my book report, I’d like to focus on characters, mostly with quotes, but with a few commentaries of my own as well. Here goes.


First we meet the Bishop.

When I watched the Liam Neeson and Hugh Jackman movies, I came to the conclusion that the Bishop had told a noble lie in order to save Valjean from prison. As great as that act would be, it turns out the Bishop’s heart was so pure he had already gifted the silver, and, in fact, all that he had, to Valjean:

“You need not tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is the house of Christ. It does not ask any comer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome. And do not thank me; do not tell me that I take you into my house. This is the home of no man, except him who needs an asylum. I tell you, who are a traveler, that you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours.” — Bishop Myriel, a.k.a. Monseigneur Bienvenu


I have a brother who has the name Jean, and what a character to share a name with!

It’s through Valjean’s trials that we see a distinctly Christian narrative. For example, the narrator says God attends the moment when Valjean makes his choice between being a demon in paradise or an angel in hell:

“Alas! what he wanted to keep out of doors had entered; what he wanted to render blind was looking upon him. His conscience. His conscience—that is to say, God.”

Valjean is a man who, in the end, is “transfigured into Christ.”

As he tries to get to the courthouse to incriminate himself and save an innocent, he is tormented both physically and spiritually every step along the way. Even though he’s unsure he wants to go through with it, he presses on, because “his highest duty was not towards himself.” And I find these dilemmas interesting—because all he has to do is stand still, do nothing, and the tide will turn in his favor. But, he feels it will be to the detriment of his soul. So he sticks to his motto:

“The highest justice is conscience.” — Jean Valjean


Javier is truly a villain. Ironically, I struggled to see his humanity.

He wasn’t just short sighted by nature, but kept his mind closed on purpose, stubbornly ignorant of the suffering of others, which was spotlighted so overwhelmingly at Fantine’s deathbed. In that moment, “Jean Valjean put his hand on that of Javert which held him, and opened it as he would have opened the hand of a child; then he said: ‘You have killed this woman.’ ”

Javier felt that his lack of pity was justified by his rightness with the law, and so he remained blind to the higher justice that Valjean could see:

“Without suspecting it, Javert, in his fear-inspiring happiness, was pitiable, like every ignorant man who wins a triumph. Nothing could be more painful and terrible than this face, which revealed what we may call all the evil of good.”

He does the “right thing” for the wrong reason. Which is why I love the contrast of the nun who lies (a “wrong thing”) for the right reason:

“She lied. Two lies in succession, one upon another, without hesitation, quickly, as if she were an adept in it. ‘Your pardon!’ said Javert, and he withdrew, bowing reverently. Oh, holy maiden! for many years thou hast been no more in this world; thou hast joined the sisters, the virgins, and thy brethren, the angels, in glory; may this falsehood be remembered to thee in Paradise.”


Fantine’s story is so painful. Really. My soul ached as I read it.

My tribute to her is brief, and hopefully thus more poignant:

“God is kind.” — Fantine, at the end


I love Marius. I love his passionate perspectives—on life, on rebellion, and even on debt:

“Marius had never given up for a single day. He had undergone everything, in the shape of privation; he had done everything, except get into debt. He gave himself this credit, that he had never owed a sou to anybody. For him a debt was the beginning of slavery. He felt even that a creditor is worse than a master; for a master owns only your person, a creditor owns your dignity and can belabour that. Rather than borrow, he did not eat.”

But mostly I love the way he sees Cosette:

“Sometimes, beautiful as was Cosette, Marius closed his eyes before her. With closed eyes is the best way of looking at the soul.” — Les Miserables 

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