This is not a book for the faint of heart. It took me scores of hours to read it, and that was with a good deal of skimming. Mr. Hugo has the old-fashioned habit of rabbit-trailing—often for five or six chapters at a time. As soon as he left the storyline, I started clicking my Kindle with the briefest scan of a page. He does a lot of name dropping, a good deal of drifting into politics and histories (particularly French history that I’m not well-versed in), and his commentary on related subjects stretches long. For example, when Jean Valjean must hide in a convent, we get several chapters on the pros, cons, and extensive history of convents. Skip, skip, skip.
The delivery of the main storyline is scattershot, as well. Jean Valjean is our main character, a convict. We don’t meet him, however, until we complete an entire volume written about the priest who serves to change the course of Jean’s life. As a changed man, albeit one hiding from the law under an assumed name, Jean takes up an honest trade, becomes quite wealthy, does good to the poor, and comes in contact with Fantine. Another entire volume is written about this particular woman, who represents the suffering of all women under an unjust and uncaring society. She is a discarded prostitute forced to leave her daughter under the care a cruel family and eventually dies of wretchedness. Jean learns of the woman’s misery and sets out to save the daughter. The remainder of the story revolves around his selfless acts on the daughter’s behalf, despite evil forces that seek to destroy them, and the love that springs up between them (interspersed, of course, among two more volumes about other characters that seem unrelated until they cross paths with Jean). Jean is a good man, a self-sacrificing man, a martyr, a Christ figure.
However long, sidewinding, piecemeal, and—did I say long?—the story may be, the meat of it has been enduring. It makes a number of social statements, foremost, that an unjust and uncaring society causes suffering. Who are “Les Miserables?” All mankind. “Misery has been the garment of the human race,” the author explains in an afterward. The state of women and children (represented by Fantine and by various Parisan street urchins), the protection or lack of protection given to them, is the indicator of a civilization. And society comes up short. Poverty, starvation, and the neglect of children… Monarchies that are oppressive and self-indulgent at the expense of the populace… There is a great deal said about the need for social reforms, such as free and compulsory education which we now take for granted. But the book also draws hope from the promise of heaven, when all will be corrected. Victor Hugo relates some very strong Christian convictions. God, he says at one point, is the main character in his book. Man is the second. Grace and forgiveness are upheld against the strict rule of law.
The storyline of Les Miserables, when you can uncover it, is very powerful. The book gives a unique look at the strengths and weaknesses of nineteen century society. It also takes a hard look at the evil and nobility of mankind. It is well worth reading, and I am very curious to see a modern adaption (movie or stage performance). But I think, for modern readers, an abridged version of the novel might be much easier to digest. I’d give this one a high school age recommendation.