Unabridged: Les Misérables

Les Miserables

Les Misérables

Les Misérables is a story written by the French novelist Victor Hugo in 1862. It is set in the years following the French Revolution, and details the story of a released convict from the day of his release until his death. It is a tale of redemption, justice, politics, history, and love. The reason I note in the title that I read the "Unabridged" version is not to tout my sense of accomplishment at completing such a massive work (though there may be a little of that,) but so that those who have read the shorter version or seen the play will not wonder why I touch on themes and ideas they don't remember from their interaction with the story.

The story begins with a lengthy section about a devout priest who practiced in a remote village in France. Hugo goes through great lengths to explore his piety and humility so when the main character comes on the scene we are not surprised by his radical personal change. This portion of the book, completely though necessarily ignored in the abridged versions, was perhaps the most touching and devastating of the entire work. Touching because Hugo captured in this priest the life and love of a man imitating Christ with all his being. It was devastating for the same reason. He exposes both the fragility and incomprehensible power of a virtuous life in this lovely character; a character responsible for all the joy and heartache that takes place in the story once he is off the scene, though he participates in none of it. All of the change and constancy that takes place in every character can be traced back to this single man and the life he lived, though he is barely fit for mention in the versions most read today.

All the same, I do not think I would recommend the unabridged version to anyone, unless they had a special interest in either French history, or the history of the sewage system in Paris: he writes voluminously about each. About every three or four sections (out of 48) the reader finds a lengthy hiatus in the story exploring a particular battle, the language of street urchins, or the peculiar way an isolated group of royalists choose to speak about the latest revolutions going around. I went into this work looking for understanding about the French Revolution; I got that and a whole lot more. If the reader does not bear a similar interest I recommend the abridged version.

Enough people are familiar with the story that I will not detail it here. I will just offer a simple reaction: this book may have ruined reading for me forever, it's that good. Where can I go to read something of this quality again? Hugo wrote at a peculiar time in history when political and social philosophy was at a zenith and yet Christianity, while heavily critiqued and criticized, was still seen to have inestimable value. There is no dark underbelly to this story castigating religion in its entirety placing it upon the same dunghill as alchemy and superstition; there are no subtle (and ignorant) jabs suggesting that one day science and reason will lead us to the perfect society. Hugo inspects both the good and the bad of the Christian faith and finds much more gold than dross.

Two chapters, the two longest chapters in the book, I believe, were devoted to introspection by two of the chief characters when they had to make a life changing decision. In these chapters the characters find their systems challenged to the utmost, and each is tempted to abandon his course. In the first instance the Christian virtue of self-sacrifice is put to the test. Never before have I read such a penetrating and revealing account of the inner workings of a human soul when temptation is at its worst. Hugo demonstrates with elegance the axiom that only the virtuous truly understand the nature of evil, for in resisting they must face all its wiles, trickery, and cunning. The man who gives in knows not the strength of his opponent as the one who fights to the death. In the second instance a loyal ward of the state discovers that human law is unfit to answer all the questions of justice. In this the reader perceives the beauty of the law of Christ and the inadequacy of the laws of men as the first man overcomes his temptation and the second gives in. The story alone is enough to make the heart sing, but these two chapters challenged my mind and imagination to see anew the glory of faithfulness and humility, of true Christian love, compared to all human virtue.

Volumes more could be written about this work but I will refrain. This story has deeply affected me. I would love to hear how it has affected you.

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  • Amira

    Glad to hear you’ve not got lost again. I was beginning to wonder, but then if you read this unabridged, I understand. Wish I could claim likewise. Read Eats shoots and leaves, on your recommendation, not as enraptured as you were. Thought the language was gratuitous although there were some laugh out loud bits.
    See you in June. Enjoy Australia

  • Amira,
    I’m bummed my recommendations haven’t been working out for you so well. I am sure my posts say much more about me than the works I’m reviewing. I’ll just have to keep trying.
    Looking forward to seeing all of you soon!