When we think of epic, we think long narrative text about great heroes engaged in grand strife.
Les Misrables by Victor Hugo is about humble people of France. And yet, it is nothing short of an epic. Not just because it’s so long. It is long, indeed. But besides the length, the book feels like epic due to the grandeur of its characters. Yes, grandeur of characters like a convict, a street urchin, a police officer and the rebels. Even the minor characters appear larger than life in this battlefield of human emotions caught between duty and desire.
What also makes the book feel like an epic is its scale. Within the personal history of a few humble and poor characters, Hugo makes us go through the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the turmoil following the fall of the empire, the subsequent public upheavals and revolt. From the battlefield of Waterloo to gutters of Paris, from depths and despair of galleys to the heights and ecstasies of a cloister, the book spans it all.
It is easy to make a reader fall in love with a young and dashing hero. But Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Misrables, is not a young and handsome man. He begins as a young, illiterate tree-pruner, becomes a convict and is an old man for greater part of the book. And yet, you love him, care for him, salute him. Yes, the convict who has broken his bans and is wanted by police. Such is the mastery of the characterization in this book.
Even minor characters are drawn out in detail and take hold of you. The street urchin Gavroche who sings even in the face of death and dies with s song on his lips, the saintly bishop, the poor betrayed Fantine who sells off her teeth to buy warm clothing for her daughter, the aged but flamboyant grandfather who would not be seem to bend yet breaks in love for his grandson, the young and handsome Enjolras who sacrifices his life for his ideals, the poor teenage girl Eponine who pays the price of her parents’ meanness, sends her love to be killed and than dies herself saving him…the characters are all larger than life, yet believable. And yes, these include the young man Maurius and the poor orphan Cosette who are the lead pair and add the element of love in the book. But above and beyond this romantic love rises the love and devotion of Cosette and Jean Valjean.
Through the beautiful story of a selected set of characters, Hugo depicts, celebrates, examines, analyzes and criticizes France. He applauds what he considers good and is scathing at what he considers corroding away France. The book showcases his extensive knowledge about France. From examining the value system to drainage system, while following the life story of main characters through a period of 17 years. Hugo looks through numerous facets of life in France.
The trouble is, there would be very few readers now, especially outside France, whose knowledge of France and its history, politics and culture can fathom the numerous allusions and references in the book. And that makes it hard for the reader to understand Hugo at various places. But this difficulty arises only in places where Hugo is explaining his views and opinions, often through long digressions and orations. But these in no way interfere in the understanding of the story.
Les Misrables is a long book. With 510,000 words and a story that moves through 17 years time period, the book actually is one of the ten longest novels ever written! What makes this book harder to read is that more than half of it consists of character sketches, digressions, oratories, philosophical debates and descriptions about situation in France at the time period depicted in the book. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that more than half of the book can be abridged out without even touching the story. I don’t like jumping text. I love reading and do religiously read all the text I pick up, even if I find it boring. But after a point, that became too hard to do in Les Misrables. For one, the allusions and references made the long descriptions hard to understand. Secondly, I (and I suppose most modern-day readers) lack the time and patience to slog through chapters upon chapters spent on just drawing out one character. For example. in the amount of text Hugo spends in drawing out the character of a Bishop (a minor character), a modern-day writer can finish up a whole novel. And really, chapters upon chapters spent in describing the history, geography and finance of sewer system in Paris has to be beyond the patience limit of most, if not all, modern-day readers.
But then, I won’t call it a fault of the book. The fault is ours because we lack the time and patience to dive into the depths of such an expansive work. And because it is such an expansive work, full of historical allusions, it is not an easy book to read. But its story, its characterization, its style of narration, its wealth of information, its depth of philosophy kept me glued to the book. I confess of skipping over large portion of its text, sometimes whole chapters, in my eagerness to bypass the descriptions and digressions and find the thread of the story again. But the book is such that at every moment I heard the sound of a genius writer. (Also check out my review of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, his other celebrated classic.)
Here, for example, are some glimpses of Les Misrables that will suffice to give you an idea about the brilliancy of this book and the greatness of Victor Hugo as a writer:
Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.
The supreme happiness of life consists in the conviction that one is loved; loved for one’s own sake—let us say rather, loved in spite of one’s self;
Diamonds are found only in the dark places of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought.
Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are the fields of battle which have their heroes; obscure heroes, who are, sometimes, grander than the heroes who win renown.
Firm and rare natures are thus created; misery, almost always a step-mother, is sometimes a mother
The soul aids the body, and at certain moments, raises it. It is the only bird which bears up its own cage.
There is nothing in the world that is cheap except trouble; you can get that for nothing, the trouble of the world!”
God delivers over to men his visible will in events, an obscure text written in a mysterious tongue. Men immediately make translations of it; translations hasty, incorrect, full of errors, of gaps, and of nonsense.
It is particularly in the matter of distress and intelligence that it is dangerous to have extremes meet.
one of the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness upon this earth, where nothing is complete. To have continually at one’s side a woman, a daughter, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her and because she cannot do without you; to know that we are indispensable to a person who is necessary to us; to be able to incessantly measure one’s affection by the amount of her presence which she bestows on us, and to say to ourselves,
The eye of the spirit can nowhere find more dazzling brilliance and more shadow than in man; it can fix itself on no other thing which is more formidable, more complicated, more mysterious, and more infinite. There is a spectacle more grand than the sea; it is heaven: there is a spectacle more grand than heaven; it is the inmost recesses of the soul.
Conscience is the chaos of chimeras, of lusts, and of temptations; the furnace of dreams; the lair of ideas of which we are ashamed; it is the pandemonium of sophisms; it is the battlefield of the passions. Penetrate, at certain hours, past the livid face of a human being who is engaged in reflection, and look behind, gaze into that soul, gaze into that obscurity. There, beneath that external silence, battles of giants, like those recorded in Homer, are in progress; skirmishes of dragons and hydras and swarms of phantoms, as in Milton; visionary circles, as in Dante. What a solemn thing is this infinity which every man bears within him, and which he measures with despair against the caprices of his brain and the actions of his life!
Nothing proceeds more directly and more sincerely from the very depth of our soul, than our unpremeditated and boundless aspirations towards the splendors of destiny. In these aspirations, much more than in deliberate, rational coordinated ideas, is the real character of a man to be found. Our chimeras are the things which the most resemble us. Each one of us dreams of the unknown and the impossible in accordance with his nature.
Are you what is called a happy man? Well! you are sad every day. Each day has its own great grief or its little care. Yesterday you were trembling for a health that is dear to you, to-day you fear for your own; to-morrow it will be anxiety about money, the day after to-morrow the diatribe of a slanderer, the day after that, the misfortune of some friend; then the prevailing weather, then something that has been broken or lost, then a pleasure with which your conscience and your vertebral column reproach you; again, the course of public affairs. This without reckoning in the pains of the heart. And so it goes on. One cloud is dispelled, another forms. There is hardly one day out of a hundred which is wholly joyous and sunny. And you belong to that small class who are happy! As for the rest of mankind, stagnating night rests upon them.
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