Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

On June 5, 1832, a young Victor Hugo unwittingly found himself in the crossfire between young revolutionary republicans and the French National Guard. He took shelter in a doorway and escaped unharmed but the experience must have made a lasting impression upon him. Thirty years later Hugo used the small and predictably brief uprising against the monarchy as the historical backdrop for his ponderous tome, Les Miserables.

And a ponderous tome it certainly is. The reader gravely measures the weight of his commitment when taking it from the shelf. I recently finished an edition published by the Modern Library. The pages are large, the print small and still the volume boasts more than twelve hundred pages. Strangely enough, beside the Modern Library edition on my shelf is another copy of the same book published by Dodd, Mead, and Company (hereafter D.M.C.). This is not a usual occurrence in my library. I am generally content with one copy of any given book. There are two principle differences between my two copies of Les Miserables: The D.M.C. edition is abridged (to a far more manageable five hundred and eighty-five pages) and illustrated. Hence the need for two copies: I wish to have an unabridged edition but, being partial to well illustrated books, I also want the first-rate illustrations of Mead Schaeffer.

Upon perusal of the beginning of the D.M.C. edition of Les Miserables, the reader will find a friendly and reassuring note from the abridger, who has chosen to be remembered only as R.T.B.; a sensitive and humble touch. I will quote some of the note:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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No longer is the abridgment of a classic condemned as a literary misdeed akin to plagiarism…. The era of the three and four decker novel is gone, and with it the false sanctity that preserved its integrity. Here, in this shortened version, is retained the magic of Hugo’s style…. What is not here in this abridgment is 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 in the urgency of our present years. But the central story is here in all its color and drama, as powerful and exciting today as when it first appeared in ten volumes.

Thank you R.T.B. How seductively reasonable. Why not remove the unimportant and dated sections of the novel? Doubtless he refers to the very long interludes that do not contribute to the direct action of the story: the history of a certain cloistered convent in Paris and the manner in which the nuns passed their days, a reflection on Waterloo and the nature of war, the strange social environments caused by the flip-flopping of regimes during the last few tumultuous decades in France, a history of the sewer system of Paris, and the curious characteristics and habits of Parisian street children, to name a few. I say ‘seductively reasonable’ because, although perhaps attractive at first blush, I must completely disagree with R.T.B.’s assessment and understanding of the book which motivated the abridgment.

Les+Miserables+illustrationR.T.B. is committing the same unfortunate blunder made by editors of Chaucer who omit the final Canterbury Tale as being, in their estimation, long, boring, and arduous; not realizing that it is essential for a proper understanding of the whole work. It is the trap into which fall well-meaning teachers who read War and Peace with their students but have them skip Tolstoy’s lengthy treatise on history at the end of the novel. These tendencies betray a lamentable ignorance of what literature truly is. It is misconceptions such as this one that have relegated literature to second-class citizen status among the traditional areas of study. Few in education today would attempt to argue that literature and poetry ought to be afforded the same respect as mathematics and science. These errors have reared their ugly heads to the impoverishment of students everywhere. The scope and purpose of literature is simply not understood by a society obsessed with control, power, and manipulation and seeking only what can be evaluated, measured and solved.

But Hugo does not sell himself and his noble craft so short. To be sure, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean and many other characters. But Les Miserables also tells the story of the fallen human condition. It is a meditation on the lacrimae rerum of Virgil’s Aeneid enlightened by the Hope found in the New Testament. It is a book that paints powerful pictures of virtue and vice and that engages timeless questions about mankind itself and the very meaning of life. Jean Valjean, like a modern-day Odysseus, endures purifying trials and sufferings as he makes his way toward self-understanding and holiness. Within the book’s pages we find unforgettable instances of courage in the heroic death of Enjolras, in the unwavering sacrifice of Fantine and in the resolve of Jean Valjean when he wrestles the heated poker from his torturers and brands himself in front of them. We find black villainy in Thénardier. We find a complex and illuminating explanation of 2 Corinthians 3:6 in the contrasting of Javert with Jean Valjean. We find breathed into the book the very soul of France: there can be detected in the characters reverberations of the old spirit of Joan of Arc and whispered prophesies of Charles Péguy.

Les Miserables, then, is so much more than just a well told story. To borrow terms from Blessed John Henry Newman, Hugo offers to his readers the notional ascent of a vast spectrum of different experiences—experiences that add up to the one important Experience of life—so that the readers might vicariously prepare themselves should the opportunity of real ascent present itself. In this sense does good literature train us for life as the athlete trains for a race.  Seen in this way, one cannot underestimate its value and importance.

The lives of the characters unfold in front of the backdrop of the June 5th uprising in Paris. But the characters are, in turn, backdrops for the universal story of man. I do not mean to imply that Les Miserables is some sort of grand allegory but rather that Hugo is examining eternal and mysterious things in the pages of his justly-famous novel. Understood in this light, the above mentioned interludes become a necessary component of the work. I will illustrate this point with an example.

The story of Jean Valjean and the robbed Bishop who heroically forgives him is well known.  The first fifty pages of Les Miserables, however, which R.T.B. saw fit to discard, tell the history of this Bishop. “What is the point?” asks R.T.B. The Bishop is barely even a minor character. This history of the Bishop may be cut with no loss to the story of the main characters. Perhaps so. But it cannot be cut without great loss to the understanding of the novel. Hugo begins his story with an inspiring and penetrating description of a holy man. Thus, in the beginning, Hugo shows us what the end should look like. It is a teleological approach to a novel about the road traveled by Jean Valjean, and by us all.

Victor Hugo, unlike R.T.B., was not satisfied by simply telling the story of Jean Valjean, Eponine, Gavroche, and the other many and memorable characters, as evidenced by his preface:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; … in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Which is to say that in this valley of tears this book—every word of it—will always be relevant.


  • Stephen Fitzpatrick

    Stephen Fitzpatrick received a B.A. in the Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Scranton. He is the Head of School at Cardinal Newman Academy in Richmond, VA.

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