The poor are with us always. And this book about the poor remains with the reader in more than one way. First, it is so long that reading it will seem like living a lifetime. Second, it's a profound story that will likely remain in the reader's memory forever. It is a book that explores the human condition from the bottom up.
WARNING: LONG REVIEW FOLLOWS: (My more personal motives for listening to the book are covered in the second half of the review.)
Early in the book, the story's protagonist named Jean Valjean, experiences an incredible act of kindness at the hands of a saintly rural catholic bishop. Jean Valjean up to that point in his life had every reason to hate life and everything in it. The encounter with the bishop becomes a life-changing event for Jean Valjean. It's an incredible story of redemption and conversion. Moreover, this is a story written by an author who is not overtly religious. In fact, later in the book Hugo provides commentary about catholic monastic life that is not very flattering.
There is a reoccurring motif in the book of a martyr sacrificing himself for the greater good. Early in the book the rural bishop gives away his personal wealth to help the poor. Thus the rural bishop is the Christ figure and Jean Valjean is the Apostle Paul figure. The bishop changes lives by living a life of love. In response to his encounter with the bishop, Jean Valjean lives a changed life by helping others. As the story continues, Jean Valjean becomes an alternative version of the Christ figure. The narrative includes a later scene with obvious parallels to the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jean Valjean suffers through a night of anguish deciding whether to save a falsely accused man by revealing his own true identity. Taking this action will cause Jean Valjean to sacrifice his own freedom for that of another person.
The motif of martyr for the greater good appears again later when the insurrectionists believe they are dying for the greater good by fighting for liberty, equality, and fraternity. From the perspective of 176 years later, the cause of the insurrectionists appears naively stupid, so I don't credit a Christ figure among the combatants. However, Jean Valjean shows up on the scene and again risks his life to save others. I count four lives that he saved during the insurrection. Two of the lives saved are obvious. I challenge readers to figure out who the third and fourth ones were.
During the battle scene, Inspector Javert is the recipient of an act of incredible kindness at the hands of Jean Valjean, whom he considers to be his enemy. When Javert reflects on the experience, he senses the call to become a changed person. This is an echo of Jean Valjean’s life changing experience early in the book. Javert concludes that he is unable to live with the call.
The rescue journey through the sewers in general, and the encounter with quick sand in particular, is reminiscent of Dante's Divine Comedy. It’s a tale of passage from Inferno (battle scene), through the trials of Purgatorio (sewers), to Paradiso (life and the marriage of his daughter). The scene where Jean Valjean slowly sinks into the quick sand is as ghastly as anything is from Dante's Inferno.
Those of you who are familiar with 19th Century literature know that their death scenes are always dramatic. They sure knew how to die in those days. Well, this book doesn't disappoint in that regard. It ends with a death scene that stretches out like the rest of the book.
The length of the unabridged version of the book is hard for a typical 21st Century reader to endure. There are many abridged versions available, but the abridged versions leave out Victor Hugo's pontifications about social and political conditions in 19th Century France. In addition, when Hugo develops a character in his story he writes a book length description. The same goes for descriptions of environmental surroundings. For example, Hugo includes a long and detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo to explain how two characters in the story met years prior to the current story being described. A modern editor would probably have cut some 30 pages from the Battle of Waterloo. However, the description of the battle is well done, and it alone is sufficient reason to read the book. In general, I believe the book is worth reading for the hardcore literature buff. For other more normal people it's too long, too 19th Century and too French.
Victor Hugo partly based this book on the real life story of Eugène François Vidocq. In the fictionalized Les Miserables, the Vidocq character is divided between Jean Valjean and his nemesis, Inspector Javert. Some parts of the book follow historical records, so the book may be considered a historical novel of sorts.
MY MOTIVES FOR LISTENING TO THE BOOK:
I became interested in the book after the East Hill Singers (of which I'm a volunteer) sang the song, Bring Him Home
which comes from the musical, Les Miserables. It is a song of strong emotion than can apply to any family with a child in harms way. I wanted to learn more about the story behind the song. My preliminary research indicated that the song didn't fit well with the story as told in the book. The song was obviously written for the musical where Jean Valjean is praying to God during the night before battle to spare the life of Marius, his daughter's beau. Some critics believe that the song doesn't fit the book narrative because in the book Jean Valjean doesn't care much for his daughter's friend.
I argue to the contrary. I believe that the song fits with the book in an even more profound way than in the Musical. In the book the song best conveys the thoughts of Jean Valjean's following the battle while he his carrying the injured Marius to safety through the sewers of Paris. He's doing it not because he likes Marius, but because he loves his daughter. He proceeds to risk his life and expend all his strength to overcome numerous obstacles to save the life of someone he hardly knows. This in spite of the fact that he knows if he succeeds in saving Marius it will likely lead to his daughter leaving to be with Marius.
In the context of the preceding story, this is an act of sacrificial love. Valjean is a man who has suffered through a life with many losses. In addition, many of the losses he suffered were caused of his honesty and integrity. The nurturing of his adopted daughter was an important part of his life that gave him a reason to live. Now he's an old man, and by acting in a principled humane way he is bringing loss upon himself once again.
I think Valjean suffers more than necessary toward the end of the book. As is often the case, if all the characters in the story communicated honestly with each other in the way they should, the story wouldn't be nearly so dramatic.
I listened to an unabridged audio version downloaded from Audible.com originally recorded by Blackstone Audio. I selected the Tantor Media version to go with this review because it was the best fit available on Goodreads.com.