Les Misérables – Victor Hugo
I don’t even know where to begin. Reading this novel, though painful at times, was nothing short of a heavenly experience. Every single feeling one has felt or hopes to feel has been described with perfect words. Some of my friends complained that it was too long, but it was so well written, every major (and minor) character brought to life so vividly and the plot made a full circle, that I really couldn’t care less about its length.
Starting with the honourable priest, Hugo from the very beginning gave us an ideal of good, one that very few characters managed to live up to. Though not religious, I remember thinking: “This is a person I could follow. This is someone I could look up to.” He was everything a man of the cloth should be. Righteous, selfless, humble. And, unfortunately – rare. Throughout the entire novel, the bishop’s influence can be noticed, through the words and deeds of Jean Valjean – the most selfless and honest literary character I have encountered. No real, living person ever matched his inner beauty and his heart; I’ve never met a person so good and I hope I never do, for when compared to such goodness, Mother Teresa would end up looking like the Devil, let alone someone like me. But, more on him later.
The plot wasn’t linear and was at times difficult to follow. Every major character used at least two different names throughout the course of the novel and it would sometimes take me fifty, seventy, a hundred pages into reading before realising that it was a character I have already encountered before. I didn’t mind this, since it added an aura of mystery to the work. Once a part of the book was finished, I never knew whose plotline I would be following in the next one and, as I’ve already mentioned, sometimes it took me quite a few pages to discover that I was reading about the same character, whose identity was hidden under an alias.
One of the most interesting parts were, as I like to call them, “Hugo’s ramblings” – those parts of the novel that didn’t follow anyone’s storyline, but greatly added to the general idea of life, death, sorrow, war and psyche. Sometimes they were about morality, other times about the nature of poor, abandoned people living on the lowest step of this ladder we like to call “mankind”. The description of the battle of Waterloo certainly stands out, but for me the favourite ones were about man’s nature, the great lengths he must go and the extreme acts he is forced to do when faced with the world and himself in it.
As far as the parts directly concerning the plot go, my favourite ones were the blooming love between Cosette and Marius and Jean Valjean’s inner struggle between continuing his life under the guise of Monsieur Madeleine or saving an innocent man from going to prison and exposing his true identity. Those few chapters describing guilt, going back and forth, making up excuses, making mental lists of pros and cons, weighing and measuring all the consequences, having to choose between going to your doom and staying in the safe and known, having to choose between the health of your mind and the health of your soul, dragging other people’s lives into the equation, going in circles, hitting dead ends, torturing yourself and tearing your heart, your soul and your very existence in two, were one of the most beautiful and exhausting lines I have ever read. How simple and unavoidable is the answer and how excruciatingly difficult it is to get to it.
Of all the characters in the novel, there is only one I have recognized and been able to see in my daily life. That is Javert a.k.a. my dad. Javert and my dad are like the different shades of a same colour. They are people whose only driving force in life is one single purpose they’ve elected for themselves; however, usually it is the wrong one. They are very strict in their ways, they make no exceptions for themselves as they wouldn’t for the others either. There is a strict, straight line in their lives which they follow without question. There is no imagination, there is no beauty, nor the alluring appeal of improvisation and adventure. Straying away from the line is out of the question. These types can usually be found within successful career men and women. These people seem as though they’re afraid of their very shadows, but would never question the destination the imaginary line leads to. There is no room for beauty or art and spontaneity. Pleasures are few. Sadly, only when it is too late, do many of them realise that the path they have chosen leads to nowhere. This rigorous state of mind can produce nothing but unhappiness. I’ve seen before what happens to these people and Javert’s case is no different.
There are great evils in this world. Evil is, I believe, a norm, a necessity even, and must co-exist with good. Who knows how many previous worlds have existed, how many histories were written in blood and how many people were sacrificed along the way. Maybe Nietzsche was right? Maybe time is a flat circle and we are all condemned to suffer the same fates over and over again? Whatever the case, I believe there has always been good in some form, as well as its twin. Great evils are all around us. We may not experience them, but we know of them. We hear of them every day, watching the TV, reading the papers, and sometimes they can even echo deep within us, disturbing us to the very core. We are all evil. If one man is capable of cruelty and murder and sadism, then every man is. But, sometimes these great evils avoid us. Not every person feels the sharp sting of war, not every person is tortured, raped or in any other way victimized. I speak rarely and spend most of my time listening and observing. And I have noticed that people have become all too preoccupied with lesser evils and I think I can understand why. They are simply more common. There is a bigger chance of you being hurt by someone’s ugly word or someone being spiteful and mean-spirited than of you getting stabbed in some great, history defining battle. It’s easy to imagine a situation where a sly coworker attempts to sabotage you or a neighbour whose petty torments have lasted for years. They know where the line is and they are always careful not to cross it, not to overstep and make you involve the law. No, these are utterly disgusting human beings who stab you with invisible swords, whose crimes are not great enough for you to turn to the law and yet horrible enough to ruin your day, your good mood and, in extreme cases, your whole life. These lesser evils are the only term that comes to my mind when I think about the Thenardier family. This family (with some exceptions) is rotten from the inside, rotten to the core. They are capable of horrible deeds and the disorganization of medieval times gives them more freedom and less limits than the modern ones would. (The story doesn’t really take place in medieval times, but for me, everything up until the 20th century is medieval). These people have no limits. Their ignorance and cruelty can stretch in all directions and last for the longest intervals of time. They’re capable of loving the selected two children and throwing the other ones on the street. They will lie, con, steal and manipulate everyone. What I’m about to write may be controversial, but I think that these people disgust me more than those who perform great evils. I think I would dread being in the same room with Thenardier more than being in the same room with Hitler. That’s the kind of effect they leave on me.
Enough with the bad guys. I could go on and on about them, but neither literary nor real bad guys deserve that kind of attention.
I’ve mentioned that one of my favourite and, definitely most pleasurable parts of the novel, was Marius and Cosette’s love story. At first it seemed unlikely, mostly because of Cosette’s naivety and cluelessness, but then it grew on me. Their first encounters in the park were so endearing and I was extremely glad that their love was first shown from Marius’s perspective. His initial unawareness and then the slow descent into the madness of love were so well described. At first it seemed forced, like Hugo was determined to create a love story were there was absolutely no chemistry between the characters, but I ended up liking it so much, that Cosette and Marius climbed their way into my top 10 literary couples list. I won’t lie: until the very end, I felt like their relationship was not that of equals. Marius bore much heavier burdens than Cosette did and her easy-going and trusting nature at times made me look upon them as a brother and his little sister, rather than two lovers. Excluding her earliest years (which Cosette barely even remembered in her later life), she grew up into the typical damsel in distress. She was loved and cherished by everyone. She spent most of her life living in an ivory tower. She was fiercely protected first by Fantine, then by Jean Valjean and then by Marius. She was unaware of so many things happening around her and couldn’t see past her own little world. This may, in part, be Jean Valjean’s fault.
Marius, on the other hand, while his struggles could by no means be compared to those of Jean Valjean, still had much more darkness and worries than she did. At times, his brooding nature irritated me, especially the decision he made after he had found out that Cosette was leaving France, but his self-imposed isolation, his solitary ways and his stubbornness soon endeared him to me, for he much reminded me of myself. Cosette’s early years spent in struggles can hardly compare to everything Marius has had to endure: the truth about his father, his decision to leave his grandfather, the years he spent in poverty (during which he stayed generous, might I add), his quest to find Cosette, the burden of Jean Valjean’s past are just some of the things he has had to endure, things that Cosette not only didn’t have to go through, but also remained ignorant of. I like them. I like them very much, since they made their way into my top 10 couples, but no madness will ever compel me to say or write that their relationship was one of equal partners.
And, at last, we arrive to Jean Valjean. From the very beginning, nothing he ever did made sense to me. Correction, it made sense to me, but I never expected him to do any of the things he did. Whenever he found himself at some sort of crossroads, I stopped reading, closed the book and asked myself: “What will Jean Valjean do?” After examining all the options, I was utterly certain that I knew what he was going to do. And I was always wrong. I knew the right path, I knew what the right thing to do was, but I never expected him to actually do it, since I wouldn’t. I never would have surrendered to Javert’s claws willingly twice (if my count is correct, maybe even more than twice, I can’t remember). I never would have gone to the trial of Champmathieu and confessed to being the one they were looking for (even if I was). I never would have let the Thenardiers escape without some sort of a punishment. I never would have told anyone who I really was. I never would have carried someone through the sewers. Hell, I wouldn’t have even gone to the battlefield. And, I certainly would have killed Javert the second I got the chance. In short, whenever Jean Valjean took the right path and did the right thing, I didn’t. Why? Well, to put it simply, as Al Pacino said in “The Scent of a Woman” – It was too damn hard!
I feel like my soul is balancing somewhere between Thenardier and Jean Valjean. I’m neither rotten nor a saint. As far as that one aspect goes, I am completely ordinary and mediocre.
The things Jean Valjean had done and the treatment he had received in return started making a ball of tears somewhere deep in my gut. This ball stayed still and quiet for more than 1400 pages. Then, during the last few pages, it stirred, like an awoken monster and threatened to choke me. The last few pages, I was literally choking in tears, barely able to see the words on the paper before me, disgusted and half out of my mind, as if I had been sinking into a bottomless pit that consisted of nothing but grief and sorrow. How little some people deserve, if anything, and how much they get. And how much other people deserve, and how little they get. The sharp sting of this injustice echoed deep inside me, leaving me vulnerable and destroyed. Thenardier ended up going overseas and becoming a slave trader, probably making a fortune. Well, maybe not a fortune, but definitely more than what he deserved. And, on the other hand, we have Jean Valjean, a saint, a silent hero in the shadows, a nameless angel who, after finally getting some semblance of peace in a lifetime filled with pain, ends the way he ends. I’ve never seen a movie version or a musical based on Les Miserables, so I didn’t know what would happen to him. But, as my bookmarker progressed more and more to the back cover, I started suspecting. It wasn’t though, until near the end of the book, that I seriously started despairing, after reading this paragraph:
“Youth goes where there is joy, festivals, vivid lights, love. Old age goes towards the end. They do not lose sight of each other, but there is no longer a close connection. Young people feel the cooling off of life; old people, that of the tomb. Let us not blame these poor children.”
It hit me then – everything has an end. Noble people, amazing books, ancient architecture, the world and perhaps even existence itself, in its every form. Everything ends, eventually. Upon seeing me reading this novel, my young cousin exclaimed: “What a fat book!” Well, I have never read a “fatter” book, so I let myself be calmed by the false voice in my head, feeding me lies, assuring me that this great adventure would never end. And maybe it won’t. I’ll certainly never forget this amazing novel, but I knew there would come a day when I turned the last page. Throughout the entire novel, there was always something happening; it was one adventure after the other. But, near the end of the book, I sensed some withdrawing, a slight change in pace, slowing down. No more Waterloo, no more inner moral discussions, no more escapes from narrow streets and sewers, just life. After you’ve gone through everything, after all the great adventures are spent, the only thing that remains is life. Simple life, everyday life. Going on walks, having lunch, talking to your husband. Even the wedding upset me; I liked Marius and Cosette’s story far more when they were hiding in the garden, stealing looks, sharing something deep and intimate.
Then, Jean Valjean’s distancing from Cosette and the above mentioned quote made me realise that there was nothing more to do, but to live or die. And, pretty soon, it became apparent which characters were going to live and which characters were going to die.
But, what about justice? Is that the great truth Hugo had tried to convey, the one that I couldn’t grasp? “Life isn’t fair.” Really? I never expected a fairy tale ending from a book titled “The Miserable Ones” or “The Poor Ones”, or however you want to translate it, but I admit that I was hoping for some shred of fairness. Or maybe I’m being too greedy? Maybe the fact that Cosette got everything Fantine never did is fair? Maybe the fact that Cosette and Marius shared such a love is justice? Where’s that lady with the scales? I cannot say that Jean Valjean experienced no happiness at all, but compared to what he deserved, it looks to me like he got scraps.
In spite of all the gut wrenching details written in Les Miserables, I was glad at the end, because I felt that, in some ways, at least, the novel kept some innocence. For example, I loved the fact that no mention of children, even future children, was ever made regarding Cosette and Marius. I have no doubt that they would eventually have kids, but I was sooooo glad that not a single mention of them was made. I wanted to remember them as they were at the end of the novel. Young, fresh, just married and in love. I didn’t want to think of them as parents, at least not so soon.
I’m slowly beginning to dry up. No more words. Whenever I think of Jean Valjean, I feel a dried up well inside me fill anew, but I suppress anything more that might come out of it. This review is long enough as it is, without me crying about him and bitching about injustice like a child throwing a tantrum.
There are books out there that leave scars, same as certain people in our lives. Scars don’t have to be a bad thing. For example, I have a pale little scar on my leg and, every time I look at it, I smile remembering the homemade Olympics my dad made for us one summer and how I ran through the sprinkles, over the fence and then jumped higher than all the other kids, winning the prize that was tied to a high branch of an oak tree. I fell down on the hot pavement, pulling with me a lawn ornament that broke into a million pieces that got stuck deep into my skin. But, in the end, I was the one proudly standing on the highest chair and smiling as my dad put a gold medal around my neck (which I later ate, but that’s another story). In a nutshell, I was laughing and bleeding at the same time. That’s how I feel about Les Miserables. It left its scar, not on my skin, but on my soul. I am laughing and bleeding.