Monday, July 27, 2015

Title:       Les Misérables
Author:   Victor Hugo
Rating:   ★★★★1/2

Les Misérables first entered my consciousness when I was in grade 5, and my older sister joined the school play. It quickly became one of my favorite stories, but I have resisted reading the story because I felt that it was too long and too deep for me to read.

But with our No Love in this Club book club, my friend and I decided to challenge ourselves with this epic story.

No regrets here! But before you continue reading, be forewarned that there may be spoilers here.

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean - the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. In Les Misérables Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832.

Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope - an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.

I cannot help but feel that Les Misérables is a work of art. It was so poignant, so full of insight into humanity. The writing was so poetic and so lush, in a way that few authors are. So far, no movie or play I've seen have rendered justice to this beautiful story. It was also very thematic, and the man vs. self conflict was reiterated several times, almost always in Jean Valjean's story, although Javert, in the end, experiences this too.

There are so many poignant characters in the story, but non I love more than Jean Valjean. Whatever you've seen in the movies about the Cosette, Marius, and Eponine, throw them all out. They seemed one-sided characters, but in the stories they were more alive. The movies had romanticized these characters, but the book had stripped that from me and left me marvelling at the wonderful character of Jean Valjean.

In the movie Ever After (Drew Barrymore's Cinderella version), Cinderella says: If you suffer you people to ill educated and their manners corrupted from infancy, what else is there to be concluded is that you first make thieves and then punish them?

I've never forgotten that line, and it was very applicable to Jean Valjean's character. Valjean, having been poor all his life, and needing to feed himself and his nieces and nephews, resorted to stealing bread, for which he was given some time in prison. But his constant attempts to escape resulted in his being imprisoned for 19 years. And in that prison, he had learned to hate society because he realized that he had become what he was as a result of the inactivity of society to educate him.

Throughout the story, he had to wrest with himself whether to do what is right by others, even if it will lead to his arrest for crimes he had committed when he first got out of prison.

The other interesting character, and who has scared Valjean almost throughout his time as a free man, is Javert, the Inspector of Police. The movies don't quite capture Javert's rigidity, but the book tells that he's a man who only has one path and whose belief system states that man is only governed by law. If you do a crime, you are punished -- no excuses. It makes him into a terrifying character who can be so ruthless and so unpardonable. Valjean's act of saving his life during the barricade and his willingness to be arrested made Javert's conscience rear its head. It made him question his morals and his beliefs, troubling him so much that in the end, he committed suicide.

The three major supporting characters are Cosette, Marius, and Eponine. They were as depicted in the movie, although it wasn't love at first sight for Cosette and Marius. Also, they had more time together than I initially thought. But -- spoiler alert -- I was quite disappointed in them because when Jean Valjean told Marius the truth about himself as a convict, Marius was appalled and made Valjean feel unwelcome in his house. And Cosette was so happy with Marius that she eventually forgot Valjean. That made me feel so bad for Valjean, because Cosette had become his whole world. I still believe that he had died of a broken heart.

And Marius wasn't as part of the Friends of the ABC Revolution like I thought. He only went to war because he felt that he life without Cosette was worthless.

Eponine's story was as tragic as can be, although she did not look as beautiful or as clean as was depicted in the stories. Her family, the Thenadiers, had really fallen on hard times. Same goes for Gavroche, the gamin child who was shot at the barricades. I love that the story of what happened to him was depicted accurately in movies/plays, and even though I knew how he was going to die, I still felt sad when I read it. Trivia: Gavroche is the young brother of Eponine. I never knew that until I read the book!

I finished reading Les Misérables and felt like I had one of the best reading times I've had. And I especially love this edition from Simon & Schuster because it had helpful vocabulary notes and translations in the end, which proved very helpful.

What I didn't like with the book (hence the 4.5 stars rating) is that there were parts that I felt were unnecessary. My book club buddy says it's too descriptive, and I agree. I really felt the long hours I committed to reading it, but I have no regrets. I agree with all who say that it's one of those books one must read in one's lifetime. Go get it.