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essays

Feb 1, 1975

Hugo, Les Miserables

Les Misérables is a perfect novel—it is not. But it is, quite simply, a great novel.”

On July 8, 1862, a week after the publication of Les Misérables, Paul Meurice wrote to his close friend Victor Hugo, describing the reaction of Paris to the grand romantic’s new novel: “Everyone is raving!” he wrote. “Everyone is carried away! There is a complete absence of petty objections and pedantic reservations. The crushing weight of so much grandeur, justice and sovereign compassion is all that counts.” Today, well over a century later, Les Misérables has firmly established itself as one of the world’s classics, and although the first shock is no longer with us, the admiration and enthusiasm for the epic have continued unabated.

This is not to say that Les Misérables is a perfect novel—it is not. But it is, quite simply, a great novel.

The central story concerns Jean Valjean and his attempts, over many years, to escape the persecution of an unjust social system. The system is personified by Javert, the relentless, implacable, wonderfully Inexorable representative of the law. Along with these two is literally a multitude of major and minor characters, colorfully and brilliantly rendered.

What makes Hugo’s characters unique is that they act with a natural nobility, as if they were a spiritual aristocracy. Whether it is Marius, who would rather starve than accept help from the family he has broken with, or Eponine Thénardier, dying to save the man she loves, a man who is little more than barely aware of her existence, or Enjolras, willing to die for liberty, or any number of other characters that could be named: all have that essential heroic quality, that pride in being, about them that makes their most incredibly heroic and noble acts seem utterly natural and convincing.

Values are at the crux of Les Misérables, as is the issue of integrity. Valjean and Javert are men of profoundly held moral convictions, men of integrity and strength. And Hugo is at his imaginative best when, in scene after scene, he puts those values and convictions to the most severe tests. What is important, I think, is not necessarily the validity of any of their convictions, but rather, that the men come through each trying situation with the integrity unscathed.

It was with Les Misérables that Hugo achieved real mastery of the novel form. Theme and plot are tightly interwoven; the moral choices facing the characters are agonizingly suspenseful; and the narrative, the hairbreadth escapes and flights are as exciting as any in literature. For sheer dramatic power Les Misérables has rarely been equaled, even to this day.

Much has been written about Hugo’s vivid re-creation of post-Napoleonic, nineteenth century France. While this achievement is no doubt significant, I think it might tend to obscure his greater accomplishment. For Hugo was not painting a portrait just of France or of Frenchmen or of the nineteenth century or of any particular segment of society. This “magnificent egoist of the infinite” was concerned with Man, with values and their importance in human life, with the heroic. With Les Misérables he created a testament to the greatness of the spirit of Man. Reviewed by Jesse F. Knight / Fiction (1,413 pages, 2 volumes, paper) / LR Price $7