Books: Les Misérables

One of the books in my want-to-read-someday list has long by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I had heard and read about the characters and Javert and Jean Valjean, and the theological lessons about law and grace one could see reflected in their very different lives. I wanted to read it for myself.

But it’s such a very long novel. I wondered how I would ever manage to finish it. Then after having read Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame during Christmas break a year ago, I decided that this winter during Christmas break I would tackle Les Misérables.

I hadn’t even realized quite how long the book is until I went to the library, shortly before Christmas, to check out a copy. The library had two abridged versions, plus an unabridged version on CD. Aside from the fact I had planned to read the book, not listen to it, there’s no way I’d get through a set of 46 CD’s. So far the longest book I’ve listened to is 32 CD’s, and that took me the whole six weeks available include the renewal period.

I’ve generally avoided abridged versions of books, except on a few occasions when I came upon a Reader’s Digest condensed book and thought I’d check out an author that I otherwise wouldn’t have tried reading. But then I saw that even the shorter of the two abridged versions was close to 600 pages.

It explains in the front that it leaves out only “a great deal of special political pleading, obscure and local history and such matters which were important to the day when the book was written but are no longer so.” I remembered how much there was of that in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and decided an abridgement of Hugo was a good idea.

Even so, it’s hardly a page-turner. It was pretty interesting in the first part, where it deals mostly with Jean Valjean. But the next sections spend a good deal of time on other characters, and it took me a while to realize that it would always eventually bring Jean Valjean back into the story.

I read about the battle of Waterloo, wondering what in the world it had to do with anyone in the book. (He eventually ties it in but it takes quite a while.) I read about students in Paris who seem to be rebelling against the government, though the logic behind their actions escaped me and I wondered if there really was any. Apparently by reading the abridgement I at least did not have to read quite so many pages about the sewer system under Paris as I might have had to.

If I hadn’t had the week off, I’m guessing this book would have ended up in the ought-to-finish-someday list. But as it was, by the time break ended I was near enough the end of the book that I managed to push myself to finish during a few free evenings.

It’s not that I disliked it. I found the story fairly interesting, in between the digressions on history, politics, etc. If I knew more about French history, I might have found it even more interesting, as I would have been better able to relate what I was reading to what I already knew.

Still, I find myself surprised, reading people’s comments about it at goodreads.com, to find it described as “my all time favorite book” or “easily the best book I’ve ever read.” I have read so many good books that I would have trouble picking a favorite or even a dozen favorites. But this wouldn’t be on my list.

I read someone’s review saying citing how Javert and Jean Valjean were well-developed three-dimensional characters was one reason the book was so good. Jean Valjean maybe, but I didn’t find Javert to be all that well-developed. Until his final crisis, there did not seem to be much of a window into his thoughts and motivations.

The one thing I’ve been thinking about most from the book is that crisis of Javert. What was it that made him commit suicide? I’ve read in a number of places, both before reading this novel and now looking at reviews, that he could not bear owing his life to a convict, being the recipient of grace when he only understood law.

It’s true he couldn’t bear owing his life to a convict, but I’m not convinced it has to do with choosing law over grace. His problem is more about honor, and being caught between two kinds of law.

The civil law, which he has always served diligently, says he has to turn in the escaped convict who must serve the remainder of his life sentence. But another “law” says that when you owe your life to someone, you don’t turn around and ruin his life.

Javert cannot fulfill both. Perhaps at some level he perceives that the civil law he has devoted his life to is unjust, but it is the law of the land and for an officer of the law to fail to uphold it is to side with criminals of all sorts.

Certainly he lacks an understanding of grace. But I don’t see his dilemma so much in that he has received grace from Valjean, as that he sees no possibility of grace for breaking one kind of law or the other in this current situation. Valjean seems prepared to forgive Javert for whatever he must do. But Javert’s conscience is more severe, and perhaps rightly so.

2 Responses to Books: Les Misérables

  1. Karen O says:

    That’s one of those books I would like to read “someday”. When I was a child or maybe a young teen, I saw the 1935 film version starring Fredric March & Charles Laughton, & was very touched by it.

    Sometime later, I became a big Fredric March fan, seeing a lot of his films on TNT, which used to play movies from the 30s & 40s, before Turner Classic Movies started. (Unfortunately, we’ve always had basic cable packages that did not include TCM, but I would love to have it.)

  2. Peter L says:

    I struggled through Les Misérables last year and found it a boring treatise on France and Paris in the 1800s, with a few interesting sequences about forgiveness and grace. I understand that authors were paid by the number of words, so Hugo must have gotten rich off of this work. Maybe I’ll see the recent movie, which came with high acclaim. Or I’ll look for the older versions. Or maybe I’ll just say I read it once and never again.

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