How To Read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables
Victor Hugo, France’s most well-known author, turns 220 years old this year. You don’t need to know much about Victor Hugo. The man was “interesting”, to put it mildly.
He was a philanthropist who believed in free education for children and ending the death penalty. He was also eccentric. This is a term that’s used to describe rich and artists, rather than saying they’re crazy. He used to lock himself in a bedroom with his clothes given by his servants when he was racing against deadlines. The Paris brothels closed in mourning when Hugo died. Victor Hugo was, in short, batshit. This is a good description of him. He apparently once gave his fiancee an envelope containing a live bat for some reason.
Hugo is best known for his writing, and in particular The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as Les Miserables. While most people know both the films and musicals, we’ll talk one day about Disney’s decision to make Hunchback a suitable topic for a children’s film. But, I don’t think many have ever read the books. It’s really a shame, especially for Les Miserables.
What do you need to know about Les Miserables before you start reading it?
This Book is Big
First off, Les Miserables does look intimidating. That is undisputed. It has 365 chapters and 1400 pages. It is affectionately called The Brick by its fans, and it is indeed a brick. It will take approximately 47 hours to complete if you are a good speed reader. You can meet this challenge head-on if you are prepared. Reading Les Miserables can be a marathon. Start slow, learn Hugo’s style and speed will increase. Hugo is easy to understand, even though he enjoys long sentences with many commas. You should have coffee and snacks ready in case you flag.
This Man Can and Will Ramble
The Bishop is the kind, compassionate churchman who helps Valjean get to his lowest point and sets him on the road to redemption. The Bishop appears and disappears in the first fifteen minutes of the show. This is the story of Les Miserables. Get ready to spend some time talking with him. The first 100 pages of the novel are devoted to the life of Bishop of Digne before Valjean appears.
This is a specific example to show you that Hugo is an author who is clear about where he wants his story to go. However, he won’t rush while he gets there. There are also fun side stories that go beyond the main story, such as a 50-page summary about The Battle Of Waterloo or a detailed history of Paris’s sewer system. These asides may seem absurd and sometimes appear right at the end of the main story, but Hugo is a good guy who knows what he’s doing. You’ll get there eventually.
Hugo has an agenda and he’s going to beat you over the head with it
Hugo, as I said earlier, was a committed philanthropist. Hugo believed in his causes, despite all the jokes about his personal life and his rambling style. Les Miserables will expose you to the brutality of poverty in nineteenth-century France. It is relentless.
You’ve probably seen Les Miserables’ musical. I think they did a fantastic job of translating Hugo’s message into music. In his own words and writings you can see that Hugo was passionate about helping his readers understand the extreme suffering in their country.
Everybody in Les Miserables suffers, even Inspector Javert who is often portrayed as the villain, when in fact he is just as trapped in the vicious cycle of life as everyone else. Hugo creates endearing characters that are able to endure the pain and still manage to be positive, even in difficult circumstances. You will love Valjean in the musical. But wait until you read the book to see the depth of his soul. If you love the students, you will fall in love even more with their reckless courage than you already do.
Les Miserables can be a difficult read but it is very rewarding if you know what you are in for. Bravo, brave adventurers! It’s well worth it, I swear.