What I’m Still Reading: Les Miserables

I’m 1/3rd through the 1500-pager, Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. It’s such a great read, equal to the patience required to read it, and paying back exponentially. It’s an unforgettable reading experience, and one that will delight people who might be called spiritual enlightenment thinkers, and friends of same who have a positivist and spiritual outlook. I fall into one of these cohorts.

Hugo’s characters are unforgettable and guiding lights, including the bishop who gets a 40-plus-page descriptive treatment in Hugo to set up his act of enormous compassionate generosity. This act, which is in the musical too, changes and saves the life of uneducated and suffering convict Jean Valjean, who of course becomes as a result, more grounded in himself and the world, and a hero.

I’ve always loved the Broadway musical. In 2022, I rediscovered after forgetting about it, first on CD in my home, and then through DVDs checked out of the library, and on. I’m glad to be inspired by it still. The singing drove me this time to the book. The musical remains an amazing synthesis of the essence. The bishop has about 30 seconds in the show and about 100 pages in Hugo. The song sung gets it right. This being said, the fuller treatment is unforgettable in a more epic and deeper manner.

As Hugo says toward the end of this first third of the way, his story is the divine as it shines through the faces of the world. The characters are secondary. This may be one large difference between at least the first third of Hugo’s masterpiece and the musical, which is more offers a solidarity feeling than at least the opening 1/3rd of the novel. It’s clear too Hugo is responding back to Voltaire, and in fact addresses it directly, parsing Voltaire as anti-religious institution but not anti-spiritual. It’s a concern of Hugo in 1860s likely more present, arguably, then at issue in 1980s context of the London and Broadway show when the show debuted. In the end, these various points of view unite in the novel and musical in a demand for treating people with minimum respect in the context of war, rough inequalities, and a dog-eat-dog world.

Hugo also said the above comment on his novel to justify his forty or so pages devoted to describing the nunnery, its history, practices, events, tidbits, devotions, self-tortures, oddities, endearments, and relationships, where Jean Valjean hides and lives for the next decade or so. I haven’t progressed much further, and I am taking a break before plunging into the mid-19th century, student-led Paris revolt.

Praise to Victor Hugo, a master among masters. Like Phillip Roth said of Charles Dickens (in one of his novels through a mouthpiece of a character, and I paraphrase), what a heart!


G. H. Mosson