Les Miserables is reeeeeallllly long
I remember enjoying The Hunchback of Notre Dame, including the philosophical passages (“this will kill that,” i.e., the printing press will kill architecture), and in general I believe in reading unabridged books, but I understand why people might be drawn to an abridged version of Les Miserables. The pacing is stop-and-go, since Hugo frequently alternates between telling his story and telling history.
Les Miserables is full of history
Plowing through the historical passages that place the book in time and space was something of a chore. Hugo’s famous “digressions” rely heavily on unexplained references to people, places, and events, which made them hard to follow or care about. I felt Hugo was talking to his contemporaries about contemporary politics, even though he intended his humanitarian message to endure through time, as he says in the preface: “[S]o long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
The publisher’s Historical Note in my copy reinforces my impression of the novel as entwined inextricably with real events: “Few novels are more historically specific…. References to these events, and to the real personalities involved, minor as well as major, are liberally sprinkled throughout the novel.” Moreover, the introduction says: “The wealth of historical allusion that it contains may contribute in some measure to the difficulty that English (and even French) readers may experience in coming to terms with the novel: some familiarity with early nineteenth-century French history is essential for an understanding of Hugo’s text.”
It’s an important book, and I liked its theme, characters, and plot, but I didn’t like it as much as I was hoping to because of the amount of background knowledge Hugo seemed to expect me to have.
What does the title mean?
According to the introduction, “les miserables” has a meaning more like “the pitiable” than “the miserable” (or “the wretched”, a title that Penguin briefly bestowed on the book). I have no idea why the first translators didn’t translate the title along with the rest of the book. If the text, which runs to 1000 pages, is translatable, then surely a two-word title is.
About the Wordsworth edition of the Wilbour translation of Les Miserables
- This two-book set has ugly covers, although these are not as ugly as some of the other Wordsworth books, which seem deliberately amateurish. Especially Volume 1. The more time I spent reading it, the more Cosette looked like a zombie. (Should we judge a book by the cover?)
- I can manage small print, but someone with worse vision would like it even less than I did. Moreover, the text is pretty close to the center binding. I don’t like to crease the spine, so I found it a little hard to see the words in the middle.
- I noticed a handful of typos. I mean, I guess that’s inevitable for a super long book, but… still sends me “this could have been copyedited better” vibes.
- There are some untranslated phrases. For example, Part 3, Book 1, Chapter 11 contains unexplained Latin: “That cry, ‘Audace‘, is a Fiat Lux!” From my own knowledge of etymology and Romance languages, and indeed having studied Latin rather casually for two semesters, I gather that ‘audace’ is a command to ‘dare’ something, to be audacious, while ‘fiat lux’ means “Let there be light.”
- I would prefer footnotes to endnotes.
- The novel is conveniently split into two volumes.
- It’s great that there is a historical note that puts the work into context and does not have spoilers. It’s separate from the introduction, which, like most introductions, spoils basically everything.
- There are some embedded explanations of puns. For example, on page 441, Hugo says Grantaire “usually signed his name with this rebus: R [grand R, great R].” Since the name of the letter ‘r’ in French sounds something like ‘air’, ‘big r’ in French sounds like ‘grand air’ which sounds like the name ‘Grantaire’. I would not have figured that out just from seeing ‘R’. I don’t know whether Wilbour put that in or the Wordsworth editor did, but I’m thankful.
- Some of the endnotes were helpful endnotes, particularly the ones that explained why Hugo was going on about something. For example:”Note 64: Hugo sees the convent as one of the many reactionary and regressive forces that are blocking the path of progress and preventing the birth of a better future. His ‘parenthesis’ on monasticism is thus in fact central to the ideological thrust of the novel.”
Setting: The setting overwhelms. I feel as though Hugo devotes more words to locating his novel in time and space than he devotes to any other aspect of his novel.
Characters: The characters struck me both as individuals and as representatives of a type. They were drawn sensitively and felt believable, but they clearly represent a host of others more or less like themselves.
Plot: You’ll need a high tolerance for coincidences. The same characters keep cropping up again and again, recrossing paths with unrealistic frequency. Jean Valjean carries the plot of the whole work, with other characters serving as a temporary focus.
Tone: Hugo describes, depicts, and details the ills that plague society; he decries, denounces, and denigrates their causes. In short, he preaches. This is a didactic work.
Style: I get the sense that Wilbour’s translation hews close to the original text in terms of vocabulary and syntax. Hugo’s language is educated and evocative whether concrete or abstract.
Theme: The primary theme is progress, the idea that we should take action using a combination of new technical knowledge and updated moral ideas to make the future better than the past, especially for those struggling at the bottom of society. Other themes are justice, honesty, forgiveness, generosity, industriousness, and courage.
Passages that stood out when I read Les Miserables
These passages are mostly not about the characters or plot, they’re just bits of narration that I particularly enjoyed or that I thought were particularly insightful or striking.
On page 142 there is a long speech by Javert in which he says, “I ought to treat myself as I would treat anybody else.” He’s a fascinating character: an antagonist but not exactly a villain.
On page 145, Mosieur Madeleine is trying to arrange transportation for himself. He is trying to travel twenty leagues (60 mi, 111 km) round trip on short notice, and in the 1830s, his fastest means of traveling was a good horse pulling a small carriage of some sort. He was in some real difficulty, as horses vary in strength, and all of them need not just fuel but rest. We take our traveling machines for granted! Our cars are much more useful than horses. Sixty miles is the journey of a single hour, and as long as we can refill the gas tank, cars never get tired.
On page 226, Hugo gifts us a pair of war metaphors: “These squares were battalions no longer, they were craters; these cuirassiers were cavalry no longer, they were a tempest. Each square was a volcano attacked by a thundercloud; the lava fought with the lightning.”
On pages 234-5, Hugo says the glory of civilized nations does not depend on military victories. Of course, that is what those on the losing side of a military conflict would say! But it’s a nice idea even if it’s also convenient.”[England and Germany] are majestic because they think. The higher plane which they bring to civilisation is intrinsic to them; it comes from themselves, and not from an accident. The advancement which they have made in the nineteenth century does not spring from Waterloo. It is only barbarous nations who have a sudden growth after a victory. It is the fleeting vanity of the streamlet swelled by the storm.”
On page 249, Hugo points out a shocking opportunity cost: “It has been estimated that in salutes, royal and military compliments, exchanges of courteous hubbub, signals of etiquette, roadstead and citadel formalities, risings and settings of the sun saluted daily by all fortresses and all vessels of war, the opening and closing of gates, etc., etc., the civilised world, in every part of the globe, fires off, daily, one hundred and fifty thousand useless cannon shots. At six francs per shot, that would amount to nine hundred thousand francs per day, or three hundred millions per year, blown off in smoke. This is only an item. In the meanwhile, the poor are dying with hunger.”
On page 251, Hugo gives us a personification of a ship: “A vessel of the line is composed of the heaviest, and at the same time the lightest materials, because she has to contend, at one and the same time, with the three forms of matter, the solid, the liquid, and the fluid. She has eleven claws of iron to grasp the rock at the bottom of the sea, and more wings and feelers than the butterfly to catch the breezes in the clouds. Her breath goes forth through her hundred and twenty guns as through enormous trumpets, and haughtily answers the thunderbolt. Ocean strives to lead her astray in the frightful sameness of his billows, but the ship has her compass, which is her soul, always counselling her and always pointing towards the north. In dark nights, her lanterns take the place of the stars. Thus, then, to oppose the wind, she has her ropes and canvas; against the water her timber; against the rock her iron, her copper, and her lead; against the darkness, light; against immensity, needle.”
On page 258, Thenardier explains the business of inkeeping to his wife: ” ‘The duty of the innkeeper,’ said he to her one day, emphatically, and in a low voice, ‘is to sell to the first comer, food, rest, light, fire, dirty linen, servants, fleas, and smiles; to stop travellers, empty small purses, and honestly lighten large ones; to receive families who are travelling, with respect: scrape the man, pluck the woman, and pick the child; to charge for the open window, the closed window, the chimney corner, the sofa, the chair, the stool, the bench, the feather bed, the mattress, and the straw bed; to know how much the mirror is worn, and to tax that; and, by the five hundred thousand devils, to make the traveller pay for everything, even to the flies that his dog eats!’ ”
This is clearly the inspiration for the lyrics of the song “Master of the House” in the musical, some of which are:
Charge ’em for the lice, extra for the mice,
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice!
Here a little slice, there a little cut,
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut!
When it comes to fixing prices, there are a lot of tricks he knows,
How it all increases, all those bits and pieces,
Jesus! It’s amazing how it grows!
On pages 263-4, Hugo gives us a meditation on darkness: “Darkness makes the brain giddy. Man needs light, whoever plunges into the opposite of day feels his heart chilled. When the eye sees blackness, the mind sees trouble. In an eclipse, in night, in the sooty darkness, there is anxiety even to the strongest. Nobody walks alone at night in the forest without trembling. Darkness and trees, two formidable depths—a reality of chimeras appears in the indistinct distance. The Inconceivable outlines itself a few steps from you with a spectral clearness. You see floating in space or in your brain something strangely vague and unseizable as the dreams of sleeping flowers. There are fierce phantoms in the horizon. You breathe in the odours of the great black void. You are afraid, and are tempted to look behind you. The hollowness of night, the haggardness of all things, the silent profiles that fade away as you advance, the obscure dishevelments, angry clumps, livid pools, the gloomy reflected in the funereal, the sepulchral immensity of silence, the possible unknown beings, the swaying of mysterious branches, the frightful twistings of the trees, long spires of shivering grass—against all this you have no defence. There is no bravery which does not shudder and feel the nearness of anguish. You feel something hideous, as if the soul were amalgamating with the shadow. This penetration of the darkness is inexpressibly dismal for a child.”
On page 275, Hugo says all girls love dolls and all women have children. (Um, no.) “The doll is one of the most imperious necessities, and at the same time one of the most charming instincts of female childhood. To care for, to clothe, to adorn, to dress, to undress, to dress over again, to teach, to scold a little, to rock, to cuddle, to put to sleep, to imagine that something is somebody—all the future of woman is there. Even while musing and prattling, while making little wardrobes and little baby-clothes, while sewing little dresses, little bodices, and little jackets, the child becomes a little girl, the little girl becomes a great girl, the great girl becomes a woman. The first baby takes the place of the last doll. A little girl without a doll is almost as unfortunate and quite as impossible as a woman without children.”
On page 299, Wilbour uses the word ‘marketing‘ to mean ‘shopping at the market’. “The old woman was housekeeper and cook, and did the marketing.”
On page 343, Hugo warns us against repeating the errors of the past: “[L]et us study the things which are no more. It is necessary to understand them, were it only to avoid them. The counterfeits of the past take assumed names, and are fond of calling themselves the future. That spectre, the past, not unfrequently falsifies its passport. Let us be ready for the snare. Let us beware. The past has a face, superstition, and a mask, hypocrisy. Let us denounce the face and tear off the mask. As to convents, they present a complex question. A question of civilisation, which condemns them; a question of liberty, which protects them.”
On page 350, Hugo insists that nihilism is self-defeating. “With nihilism no discussion is possible. For the logical nihilist doubts the existence of his interlocutor, and is not quite sure that he exists himself…. Nihilism has no scope. There is no nothing. Zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing.”
On pages 451-2, Marius praises Napoleon. ” ‘He was everything. He was complete. He had in his brain the cube of human faculties. He made codes like Justinian, he dictated like Caesar, his conversation joined the lightning of Pascal to the thunderbolt of Tacitus, he made history and he wrote it, his bulletins are Iliads, he combined the figures of Newton with the metaphors of Mahomet, he left behind him in the Orient words as grand as the pyramids, at Tilsit he taught majesty to emperors, at the Academy of Sciences he replied to Laplace, in the Council of State he held his ground with Merlin, he gave a soul to the geometry of those and to the trickery of these, he was legal with the attorneys and sidereal with the astronomers; like Cromwell blowing out one candle when two were lighted, he went to the Temple to cheapen a curtain tassel; he saw everything; he knew everything; which did not prevent him from laughing a goodman’s laugh by the cradle of his little child; and all at once, startled Europe listened, armies set themselves in march, parks of artillery rolled along, bridges of boats stretched over the rivers, clouds of cavalry galloped in the hurricane, cries, trumpets, a trembling of thrones everywhere, the frontiers of the kingdoms oscillated upon the map, the sound of a superhuman blade was heard leaping from its sheath, men saw him, him, standing erect in the horizon with a flame in his hands and a resplendence in his eyes, unfolding in the thunder his two wings, the Grand Army and the Old Guard, and he was the archangel of war!’ ”
On page 508 we see where the title of the novel comes from. “Undoubtedly they seemed very depraved, very corrupt, very vile, very hateful, even, but those are rare who fall without becoming degraded; there is a point, moreover, at which the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confounded in a single word, a fatal word, Les Miserables; whose fault is it?”
On page 514 we lose sympathy for a poor man because now he admits he just wants to watch the world burn: ” ‘Oh! somebody ought to take society by the four corners of the sheet and toss it all into the air! Everything would be crushed, it is likely, but at least nobody would have anything, there would be so much gained!’ ” And on page 525, Marius also loses sympathy for the poor man: “[Marius] had the benevolence of a brahmin and the severity of a judge; he should have pitied a toad, but he would have crushed a viper.
On page 584, Hugo says freedom fighters are better than hypocrites, but we don’t actually need either: “As for us, if we were compelled to choose between the barbarians of civilisation, and the civilisees of barbarism, we would choose the barbarians. But, thanks to heaven, other choice is possible. No abrupt fall is necessary, forward more than backward. Neither despotism, nor terrorism. We desire progress with gentle slope.”
The entirety of Part 4 Book 3 Chapter 3 is a lovely description of a garden.
Part 4 Book 5 Chapter 5 is a lovely description of a girl in love.
On page 646, Gavroche gives us a fantastic bit of comic dialogue, in pretending to be in control of something (the weather) that he must simply bear up under: ” ‘Ah,’ exclaimed Gavroche, ‘what does this mean? It rains again! Good God, if this continues, I withdraw my subscription.’ ”
On page 652, Hugo says progress is driven by ideas: “[W]e are beginning to understand that, if there may be force in a boiler, there can be power only in a brain; in other words, that what leads and controls the world, is not locomotives, but ideas. Harness the locomotives to the ideas, very well; but do not take the horse for the horseman.”
Part 4 Book 7 is titled “Argot“, but this book isn’t really all about language, it’s about how language is bound up with society and social class and the need for progress.
On page 766 Hugo points out that war is not national or international, it is human: “Civil war? What does this mean? Is there any foreign war? Is not every war between men, war between brothers? War is modified only by its aim. There is neither foreign war, nor civil war; there is only unjust war and just war.”
Part 4 Book 14 Chapter 2 tells the fate of Father Mabeuf. I felt really bad for that guy and his beloved books.
On page 775, Hugo points out the subtlety of the unknown unknowns: “Marius had lived too little as yet to know that nothing is more imminent than the impossible, and that what we must always foresee is the unforeseen.”
On page 800, Wilbour uses the word ‘imbricated‘, a Latinate word more transliterated from French than translated: “This was the barricade of the Faubourg du Temple. As soon as the ground was reached and it was seen, it was impossible, even for the boldest, not to become thoughtful before this mysterious apparition. It was fitted, dovetailed, imbricated, rectilinear, symmetrical, and deathly. There was in it science and darkness. You felt that the chief of that barricade was a geometer or a spectre. You beheld it and you spoke low.”
On page 841, Hugo defends individualism: “Let us acknowledge it without bitterness, the individual has his distinct interest, and may without offence set up that interest and defend it: the present has its excusable quantum of selfishness; the life of the moment has its rights, and is not bound to sacrifice itself continually to the future. The generation which has now its turn of passing over the earth is not compelled to abridge it for the generations, its equals, after all, which are to have their turn afterwards.”
On page 844, Hugo claims that France inherited Western Civilization: “To love beauty is to see light. This is why the torch of Europe, that is to say, civilisation, was first borne by Greece, who passed it to Italy, who passed it to France.”
On page 897, Javert piteously loses his sense of self: “Javert’s ideal was not to be humane, not to be great, not to be sublime; it was to be irreproachable. Now he had just failed.”