I can’t help but feel a little proud of myself for finishing Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. It’s a massive book at 1200+ pages and an epic tale of love, survival, and liberty. Les Mis is not only a marvelous, beautiful, and moving work of fiction, but also part-history lesson and part-political statement weaved into the fabric of the story. Really, the only times I wasn’t completely entranced by the story were when Hugo seems to veer away from the main characters at the height of the drama to discuss in detail the Battle of Waterloo, religious orders of Paris, or the common slang of the street urchins. But regardless of the little (or large) digressions, Les Misérables is an incredible story. What struck me the most, throughout the novel, was how love was ever present in the characters’ lives. Even in their miserable, wretched, and often destitute states those outcasts, underdogs, rejected from society and rebels against society- they were often motivated by some form of love. Of course, I am a hopeless romantic and I love a good love story so maybe that’s why I seemed to be always aware of the love surrounding the characters, either pushing them forward or holding them back.
Of course, there is so much more to a novel of 1200 pages and I couldn’t possibly talk about it all. If you have seen any of the movie versions, been to the Broadway show, or just listened to the songs: you have some basic idea about the plot of the story. I’m not going into all the nitty gritty details, the politics, the history, or the revolution. I’m just sticking to what I know and love most: love itself! But, be warned, there might be SPOILERS.
The story begins with the Bishop of Digne, Monseigneur Bienvenu. Although he doesn’t really turn out to be one of the major characters in the story, he is important for the impact he had on the hero, Jean Valjean. The Bishop is a man who simply loves serving mankind. He is generous to those who may be called “les misérables”, the poor, outcasts, and as we see in the story, even criminals.
“There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity. ‘Love one another.’ To him, everything was contained in those words.” (69)
Because of the Bishop’s love, his pure compassion for all mankind, he set Jean Valjean on the right path in life towards truth and duty. He could have easily condemned Jean Valjean for the theft of his precious candle sticks, instead, he set him free. Without the Bishop’s love and selflessness, the story could not have gone on.
Fantine is a tragedy. When we meet her, she is beautiful and young. She is madly in love with the gallant Tholomèyes and is simply blinded by her affection for him. She doesn’t realize that she is just one of many lovers that her young man will have. Her love of him brings about their daughter, Cosette. Her devotion then transfers to her daughter, the new love of her life, but also leads to her downfall.
“What is the true story of Fantine? It is the story of society’s purchase of a slave. A slave purchased from poverty, hunger, cold, loneliness, defenselessness, destitution. A squalid bargain: a human soul for a hunk of bread. Poverty offers and society accepts.” (180)
Unable to support her young child, she turns to prostitution, to drinking, and being so completely immersed in poverty, despite her deep mother’s love for her little Cosette, she dies just after being rescued by the hero, Jean Valjean. Just listen to the song, “I Dreamed a Dream” from the Broadway show, and you can’t help but feel teary-eyed and sad for Fantine’s lost hopes and failure in love and life.
Jean Valjean: he is the ex-convict breaking parole, the Mayor and benefactor of a whole town, the rescuer of Fantine, the adopted father of Cosette. He is our hero and the thread that ties all the characters and story lines together. He takes Cosette from the awful Thénardiers and creates a life for her full of love. His fatherly love towards this child he watches grow into womanhood is what makes him keep fighting to survive.
“Valjean had never loved anything. For twenty five years he had been alone in the world, never a father, a lover, a husband, or friend…But when he had seen Cosette, snatched her up and borne her out of captivity, something had stirred within him. Everything in him that was passionate and capable of affection had been aroused and flowed out to the child.” (391)
Not only does he feel that it is his duty to protect the orphaned child of Fantine, but he truly comes to love the girl as his own daughter. They each are the reason that the other is alive. They are everything to each other for 10 whole years.
“He protected her and she sustained him. Thanks to him, she could go forward into life, and thanks to her he could continue virtuous.” (394)
Éponine is an interesting character. When you first meet her as the spoiled elder daughter of the inn keepers, the Thénardiers, you can’t imagine the impact she would have on our story as she grows older. Yes, she is a criminal- she learned that from her scoundrels of parents- but she also knows what it means to be selfless in love. According to my husband, who has been lucky enough to see the Broadway show 4 times, Éponine really steals the show. Her secret love for Marius and her devotion to the man who is madly in love with Cosette is what makes this character truly shine, or steal the show. She leads Marius to Cosette when he is desperate to find her; she stops her father from robbing the home of her lover’s lover on Rue Plumet; she brings Marius the letter written in haste to by Cosette to tell him where she’s gone; and lastly, she puts her hand in front of a bullet that would have killed her love. Her dying words are simply:
“You know, Monsieur Marius, I think I was a little bit in love with you.” (966)
She dies with a smile on her lips, in the arms of the man she secretly loved, a man who had no idea what he was to her.
There are so many other examples of love in this story. The romantic love between Cosette and Marius that is sweet and innocent. They are rewarded with happiness and marriage and a life together. There is Javert and his love of order, duty, and responsibility which eventually leads to his own demise. And we can’t forget Marius’ grandfather, who loves his grandson dearly but just can’t manage to express his true feelings- eventually driving his beloved grandson away. It’s a book full of life. I don’t want to go on and on…I probably could! And if you have stuck with me this far: Thanks!
I’ll just end by saying that I am so happy I read this book now, since a new musical movie version is being released in December. The cast seems interesting, to say the least, with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crow as Javert, Ann Hathaway as Fantine, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. I’ll definitely be at the theaters for that one!