Read between: 9th February- 10th March
Number of pages: 959
Synopsis: Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.
Review: First of all, this book is beautifully written. The language drew me in. The only reason that I didn’t give this novel five stars was because some of the translations of the original French were left in footnotes at the end of the book so I was either confused or had to flip backwards and forwards- which isn’t so easy on an e-reader.
This book is very large, and is separated into five volumes, which are then separated into various books and chapters so I made notes as I read and it will be those aspects of the story I will be commenting on.
I knew the story a little because I’m a fan of the musical but there was so much more than what is seen on stage and screen.
The first difference to the musical comes at the start, where the reader is introduced to the town of Digne, and it’s bishop. The bishop lives a solitary life with his two sisters (characters that are very minor) until the entrance of Jean Valjean, knewly released, looking for shelter.
The bishop is a great character, he stands by Jean Valjean, even when he steals from him and makes him swear to live a better life. It just goes to show that compassion can really make a difference. As we know, Jean Valjean later becomes Monsieur Madeline, Mayor of M sur M.
Whilst Valjean is in Digne, we meet Fantine and her friends, working girls and their lovers. We discover what an arse the father of Cosette really was, and that made me feel even more sorry for poor Fatnine. To begin with, she is happy.
However, I feel her story is the saddest. She gives up her job, her daughter, and her virtue all for the love of Cosette. In the end, I think the promise of seeing Cosette again kept her holding on in life for as long as she could. What they don’t show in the musical, is her devastating end. She is buried in a public grave and forgotten about. To everyone but Jean Valjean, Fantine was a nobody.
Her story is the most heartbreaking 😦
Victor Hugo distracts from the story in this volume when he talks about the history of France by writing a large section about the Battle of Waterloo to add context- it was nice to learn about it from the French point of view but I did find myself losing interest at times.
We are also led to believe that Jean Valjean died at sea saving a fellow convict, all while Cosette is under the care of the Thenardier’s- as their servant girl.
The Thenardier’s are not the comedy duo of the musical, they’re horrible! I wanted nothing more than to push both of them off the cliff, them and their two daughters (yes two, Eponine has a sister, Azelma) who are equally cruel to Cosette as their parents are.
I did have a chuckle though when the phrase ‘master of the house’ popped up because I really love the song and it was good to see where the inspiration for the title came from!
It didn’t look to be going well for Cosette when a stranger in the wood offers her help with her bucket of water, but it is the hero of the story, Jean Valjean, alive and well, with a promise to Fantine that he’d take care of her daughter. He takes Cosette, leaves, and they find a new life in a convent by the end of the volume.
It looks like things are starting to pick up, as no-one can ruin their happiness now. Both are free.
Time passes pretty quickly as you move through the volumes, as Volume 2 left us with eight year old Cosette, but by volume 3, eight years has passed and it is here that we meet Marius, Enjolras, Grantaire, Gavroche and the rest of the revolutionaries.
The story changes focus too. Now the focus is on Marius.
Marius becomes estranged from his family after taking the title Baron, his father’s, which is grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand dislikes especially. Marius’ grandfather is actually a very important character in the novel, because he really build up Marius’ personality. It just goes to show that the minor characters of the musical, are far more worthwhile characters in the novel.
I liked that we got to find out more about who he is.
Back to Marius, it after this estrangement, and some minor stalking, that Marius fall in love with Cosette.
He also finds it hard living next door to some suspicious characters- the Johndrettes. I didn’t need to read on to find out who they really were, it’s obvious, they’re in fact the Thenardiers. It’s Eponine who gives it away.
Eponine and Cosette’s lives have switched. She is now the poor one in rags, and Cosette is the one in the pretty clothes with money to spend.
Marius discovers the truth about the Johndrettes by spying on them so he goes to the closest police officer. Inspector Javert. Once again though, Javert missing getting his hands on Jean Valjean- even though he wasn’t the target.
Will Javert ever catch his convict?
There’s a lot going on in volume 4- we find out about Marius’ hatred of Thernardier and his sadness that he might be losing Cosette after all their secret nightly meetings in her garden whilst her father (Valjean) is sleeping.
Evens Eponine tries to keep them together by screaming when her father and his fellow convicts try to rob the house where Cosette and Jean Valjean live.
I did not know that little Gavroche was Eponine’s brother before reading the book. He’s very mature for his age and I admired his childlike bravery which made his death incredibly sad.
Marius, told he cannot be with Cosette, joins his friends at the barricade and prepares to fight for France. It brings a lot of death. The one death that hurt in the musical also hurts in the novel. That death is Eponine’s.
She disguises herself as a boy so she can fight alongside Marius- but is shot and in her final moments, admits she hid Cosette’s letter from him. But he isn’t angry.
She loves him. That always gets to me.
It’s in this volume that little Gavroche is killed :C
Fortunately, Valjean gets to the barricade in time to save a wounded Marius as those around him are killed. Three cheers for Jean Valjean!
Hugo then goes off topic again to discuss the sewer systems of Paris which is in fact relevant- he is clearly a researched author. The relevance comes because Jean Valjean carries an unconscious Marius from the barricade to his grandfather’s house via the sewers, coming across some unwanted obstacles on the way.
Like Thenardier- he really is very hard to like.
Considering their strained relationship I was glad when M.Gillenormand agreed to let Marius marry Cosette. Two characters perfectly suited because sometimes they could both be really annoying!
Another strained relationship develops between Cosette and Jean Valjean after he told Marius the truth of his identity. However, by the end, Marius has a change of heart thanks to the villainous Thenardier and he Cosette make it just in time to be with Jean Valjean as he dies.
There’s so much more I could mention but then this review would go on forever!
It took me a while to get through but I ended up really enjoying this book. I knew the musical but the book has so much more, and is so much more detailed and it is definitely worth a read (but it is massive!)
I’d definitely recommend it and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to finally read it.
Thanks for reading! (especially if you go to to the end!)