Whilst gathering the images for this post I was busy thinking about how big and packed with information this review might get. I do have a lot to get through and thought that it might be best to break it into three sections and then decided if it really needs two blog posts. I’m not even sure if I’ll get it written in one go either and with it being 10:40pm now, I guess the answer would be no, but we’ll see. This post might end up with a follow up one anyways and the reason for that is because I’ve only read part one in the novel. So, why am I bothering to write a review of it now if I’ve read that bit? Because the Penguin version is 1,200 pages long of smallish, but still very readable font. Part one is 275 pages and I was slightly worried that if I finished the novel I might have forgotten what I wanted to say about the first lot of chapters/parts! So I’m making a start now.
Lots of people know about Les Miserables (LM) and came to it through the musical production, (which I’ll get on to later) as I did through my mum wanting a dvd of it for mother’s day one year. We watched it and I fell in love with the songs and the story. I hope that most people also know that its a novel. A long, heavy tomb of one at that! I think after watching the musical and listening to the cd, I was interesting to know more about the story and so brought the novel LM whilst in my 3rd year of uni with some spare money from buying my uni books. All though, its taken me two years to get around to reading it, which sadly is what happens with most of my books because I can never find the time or the right mood for them all. However, I’m mega glad I’ve finally picked LM up!
The first time you see the novel it can be very draughting. I have the complete thing with an introduction and appendixes in one book. I’ve seen it spilt into two or three books as well. I guess some publishers decided to make it easier to read, but really I don’t think it should be in this format as that isn’t the way its meant to be read. The format of the novel is split up like this; There are 5 volumes divided into 8-15 chapters which are further divided into sub-chapters which are only a few pages in length. In the first part there are 8 chapters divided into 15, 14, 9, 3, 13, 2, 11 and 5 sub-chapters. In the original French the book is 1,900 pages long and some English editions go up to 1,500! The formatting does help make the novel easier to read as every part is clearly titled and you don’t get that lost feeling that can some times happen with long novels. Also LM is considered on the longest novels ever written. I wanted to see where abouts it falls in the list of the longest novels. Wiki counts by page number and there its the 3rd from the bottom out of 16. The word count is the best way to do this though and looking at few different websites as shown me that LM is still ranked near the bottom 3/4 place at of 15/16 books, with a word count of 530,982.
LM was written by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who also wrote the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was a prolific French writer, a royalist, later a social Democrat, he was exiled from France because he declared Napoleon III a traitor and went to live in the Channel Islands where wrote Les Mis. He returned to France in 1870, made a national hero because he had helped to shape Frances democracy and then died aged 83. He is a very interesting figure and achieved so much in his lifetime. Also his political and religious views can be seen in his writing and doing more research into this can help understand the works better.
LM was published in France in 1862, it was also translated into English and published in Britain that year. It has a French historical novel which spans the time period of 1815-1832. The French have always had a very interesting history and if you remove the plot and story from this novel, you would be left with a detailed account of that era. The historical content does digress a lot and often completely removes the reader from the story. It’s important and good to have a strong historical background in such novels, but LM does take it to the extreme. Saying that though I actually enjoyed reading those parts as it then give greater depth and understanding to the actions and behaviour of the characters. The front cover illustration on my edition is of a painting by Hippolyte Lecomie, Detail from Battle at the St Denis Gate, 1830. The gate was used by the Parisian Republicans as part of the barricade during the June Rebellion of 1832 and this features in the last volumes of LM. The gate is still there today.
The novel opens on the life history of Monseigneur Myriel, Bishop of Digne, 1815 and covers 70 pages. It first it seems a bit pointless to have to read this history and even the second paragraph states ‘it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell.’1 Actually though this isn’t true. The chapter sets up historical France and the main theme of religion. The Bishop has an important part to play as well because it is through his years of experience dealing with the poor and lost of society, that he helps the main character. The reader can see some importance in this set up, even if it isn’t clear at first. The Bishop symbolises God, but it could also be said that he represents God in this novel. Also that the Bishop becomes a role model or a father figure for the main character as well.
The main character and the novel’s focus is Jean Valjean. He is an escaped convict and the reader learns that he was imprisoned for five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children. He tried to escape from prison a few times and had time added to his sentence for that. The sub-chapter about him gives lots more information to his background, though not as deep as the Bishop. Valjean is treated like an outcast by everyone he meets and people act like he’s a murder instead of the petty thief he really is. The reader can see in his chapters how poverty and society has shaped his character and why he ends up acting like he does. Valjean is also an intelligent man and has had some education whilst in jail. When he steals the Bishop’s silver it reflects the stealing of the bread. He doesn’t want to do it but feels that society has left him with no choice. He only wants the needs to survive, but knows he can’t ask anyone for help. However, he finds compassion in the Bishop, who allows him to take the silver, but only on this promise; ‘use the money to make yourself an honest man,’ for ‘I have brought your soul….and I give it to God.’2 and surprisingly, Valjean does do that.
Fantine is the next main character to appear, though she doesn’t last very long. Once again there’s a lot about her background and her character is well grounded. She’s a factory worker, who falls in love for a student, who then abandons her not knowing they have a child together. She has to go and look for work and whilst moving from town to town, finds an inn keeper and his wife who agree to take care of her child. Though really they are just using her to get money and ill treat her child. Fantine gets a place in one of Valjean’s- now the mayor a town- factories. One of the rules is that the women have to stay pure and when Fantine is accused for ‘sleeping around’ to earn money for her child, she is dismissed. We see her fall from grace then, as she has nothing and must sell off her things and live on the street. Desperate for money she sales her hair and teeth before becoming a lady of the night. She ends up being rescued by Valjean after being attacked on the street. He cares for her and agrees to take care of her child. I’ve always liked the character of Fantine and the novel really puts across what the musical sometimes can’t. Though she is only trying to do the right thing, she ends up becoming an outcast because of a situation she can’t explain and when she finally gets help it comes too late. Her character also reflects Valjean’s as they both end up shoved out of society and poverty changes their views on the world. She also helps Valjean escape prison once more and free her child from ill-treatment. I do get why she has to die too and its because she is giving her life up for Valjean and her daughter. I couldn’t see her become a part of their lives either, because her symbolism wouldn’t work any more.
There are a lot of other characters in LM, but only one more I want to talk about here and that’s Javert. He’s the antagonist and his only goal is to see Valjean back in prison. He has an interesting character description; ‘Javert unsmiling was a bulldog; when he laughed he was a tiger.’3 He was also born in prison and saw himself an outsider to society because of that,believing he only had two options to become an outlaw or to become the law. The other characters fear him and he sympathises with none of them. When he rediscovers Valjean he can’t let it go, though he can see how much the man has changed. Javert could symbolise a number of things; from a man who’s pulled himself up through poverty, to being the symbol of the french authorities or perhaps the Devil to balance out the Bishop being God. He doesn’t change throughout the novel until the final chapter about him.
Another theme of the novel is identity, because Valjean changes so he can start a new life being good, but then he struggles to completely let go of being Valjean and at different points in the novel claims himself to still be that man. Fantine too losing her identity because she ends up falling into such poverty that she losses herself. Her daughter is then given a new identity when she is rescued. Javert knows his identity right up until his exist from the novel because it is at that point he suddenly can’t find himself any more as his only goal in life is now gone.
And that brings us the end of the first part. There’s a lot more to say about the novel, but I think I will save it for another time now as I’ve written so much already and I’ve still got a few more things to add. My overall impression of the novel is that I am really enjoying reading it and though it’s length is challenging, the actual content is easy to read and understand- well beside from the French history!- The characters are very well written and are interesting. They can be engaged with too and their stories symbolism with. There are a lot of themes and symbolism, but this just adds to the greater whole of the novel. As for recommended reading? I’d advise most people to give it ago. It can be brought free on kindle and with the movie now out it seems a good time to learn more about the characters and the plot.
The musical theatre production (a note)
I’ve only seen one version of the LM musical and that has been the one above. I’d love to go and see it live in London (or if that cast ever came to my city). Of course there’s lots of depend about which is the best musical version and I guess that depends on your own liking of the singers/actors. It was adapted from the novel in 1980 and appeared on the French stage. It came to Britain in 1985 after some more changes. Unlike most stage plays and musicals, you feel more at a gig when watching LM as there is hardly any acting taking place. Though some of the more dramatic scenes are played out. However, like the novel you get swept up in all the action, emotion and story going on. In some ways the musical does do the book’s message justice and I know like a movie, things have to be left out, but I felt that more religion symbolism and mentioning could have been put in.
I say pretty much everything here; http://blip.tv/tyas/tyas-and-hayley-talk-about-les-mis-6509474
Lastly, I wanted to write about the elephant statue which appears in the movie and also later on in the book. I wanted to know more about it because I was unsure if Hugo or the scriptwriter(s) had just come up with it. But no, the Elephant of the Bastille as it was know stood from 1813-1846 and on the site of the Bastille. (Which was a fortress, then a prison and was destroyed in the French Revolution, 1789) The statue was a full scale model made out of plaster over a wooden frame and it was then going to be made into a bronze, but that was never achieved.
Hugo describes it in Les Mis very negatively and shows the disrepair the statue had fallen into before it was removed. (QUOTE!) He also uses it as a house/den/safe place for Gavroche the street urchin.
I was impressed with them showing the elephant in the film because it came to symbolises a number of things for me Firstly, the power and the strength of the people in the June Rebellion as they knew what they wanted and were willing to fight. Secondly, that France was in a disrepaired state after the Revoluation. Thirdly, the lost hopes of the France people, because they couldn’t achieve what they dreamed of. Fouthly, Napoleon 1’s victories and military prowess, which the elephant was orginally meant to represent.
This is the statue they used in the movie.
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (Penguin Group, London, 1982)
1. pg: 19.
2. pg: 111.
3. pg: 165.