First Lines: In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D– He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D– since 1806.
So since like February, this has been on my summer to-read list. I knew I’d need a large chunk of free time to dig into this and the school year was not it. In May, I checked it out from the library so I would have it at my house when I was finally ready to start.
I know a lot of you are familiar with the storyline, but I’m going to just go over it a little. We follow Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to leave his past behind and start a new life as a respectable member of society. But his attempts are always under threat: from Inspector Javert, from Valjean’s own conscience, from others he has crossed paths with in the past. Now, it’s not enough for Valjean simply to be free–he’s sworn to protect a young girl, daughter of Fantine. And he will do anything to protect her when he couldn’t save her mother.
I was pretty sure going into this that I knew the story and the characters. Not only was I familiar with the musical, but I’d watched the 6-part mini-series starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo based on the book as well. Between the two, I figured I knew it all.
Granted, the big events are there. But the characters all felt wrong.
Initially, it seemed spot on. Valjean is an ex-con on parole, reviled by society and treated abysmally. His anger was palpable. And then, once Monseigneur Bienvenu ‘saved’ him, he completely changes. And it’s this change that I don’t think any of the movies or shows does justice. Valjean, as Monsieur Madeleine, is kind to everyone. He goes out of his way to show them all kindness. And it’s this that gets cut because it doesn’t add to the plot. But even when he’s kind, he still has a darkness in him. There’s a point in the story where he flat out hates someone and thinks, “Good, he’s dying.” It was certainly human nature, but it didn’t fit the other versions of him in media.
On the subject of characters, Marius was not what I expected. I knew him better from the mini-series (his characters is so different from the musical), but he still was far more complex than I knew. And he’s actually, even though he’s definitely a dreamer, far more grounded than shows make him out to be. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, though he does sort of creepily stalk Cosette for weeks and doesn’t get the hint that it’s weird. There is that.
I could go on and on about the differences between the shows and the book, but I’ll try to limit that.
When I first started reading and the book started with Monseigneur Bienvenu rather than Valjean or even Fantine, I kind of sighed. I was like, “Here Victor Hugo goes again, being his wordy self and talking about nothing of importance.” But it was actually good. It helped set the climate of France at the time, how people had completely turned their backs on anything and anyone having to do with the Revolution. However, later on, Hugo did get wordy. I’m not sure I needed 30 pages of breakdown of how exactly Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, nor did I need 15 pages about how terrible the sewers under Paris were or how poo is a great fertilizer they were just throwing away. Seriously. Like 15 pages about how they were wasting millions of dollars worth of poo.
While I did certainly start to skim over some of that (it wasn’t intentional; I’d start reading it and by the end of the next page realize I didn’t remember any of it but I wasn’t going back), Hugo did have some very interesting and spot-on observations about people, countries, religion, politics, and so much more. There would be little nuggets of it sprinkled around everywhere. It was always a moment where I was reading and kind of had to stop because it was still true 150 years later. (Also, his name dropping of John Brown, the abolitionist who got himself caught at Harper’s Ferry, really threw me. France paid attention to that? I feel like most of America didn’t even pay attention to that.)
Female characters. They were pretty typical for the time (and, arguably, something that still happens). Women were either angels or demons with really no middle ground. Fantine and Cosette are always played as these adorable, angelic, innocent women, even after Fantine falls on hard times. She’s still revered. Clearly in the demon category was Madame Thenardier, who lacks nearly all motherly affection for her children and is merely her husband’s puppet. Even Eponine falls in this category, no matter how much we’re supposed to pity her. The way Hugo writes her is still quite unsympathetic, even at the barricade. He gives her negative motives to even her best of intentions. It was a little hard to swallow at times, how demure and submissive Cosette was because it’s so antithesis to now.
Speaking of Cosette, I just have to say that the romance in this story was actually romantic. I’ve gotten so used to every other form of this story feeling like obsessive love (Marius sees her, instantly knows he loves her and wants to marry her, etc.) that when this story actually did their love justice, I was baffled. In a good way. Sure, they look at each other and are instantly attracted (and yeah, Marius goes a little too far), but their love story timeline is over a year in length. I was pleased by that because it felt more realistic.
As for the structure of the book, the chapters are fairly short. I was not expecting that. It’s all broken into 5 books, mostly named after characters (Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Jean Valjean) and there are chapters inside those that run from 10-60 pages. But inside of thoseare chapters broken apart with Roman numerals. Those were often 2-3 pages but sometimes longer. It was actually really great for giving me a solid stopping place when I needed it but also a way for me to feel like I was making progress.
I’m not going to sit here and say that I adored the book. That’s putting it a bit too strong. But I liked it. I liked getting to understand the characters and the events better and I thought the story was full of wisdom, but boy were there parts that were a slog. (It took me just under 2 weeks to read it all!)