on October 4, 2005
Finished reading this book about two weeks ago - but the effect that this book had on me, was so profound that I could not bring myself to write anything on the book, lest I might say something to demean the masterpiece! For, when was the last time you saw a critical review of the Mona Lisa, or where have you ever heard someone describing the faults of the Taj Mahal!?!
The story chronicles the life and times of Jean Valjean, a homeless, faithless, escaped convict, as he runs across the landscape of France of the 19th-century, at the time of the French Revolution. The two central themes that dominate the novel are the moral redemption of Jean Valjean, and the moral redemption of a Nation through Revolution. Victor Hugo is quoted to have said: "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables."
Overall, the novel is a critical statement against human suffering, poverty, and ignorance, its purpose being as much political as it is artistic!
Coming back, then, Jean Valjean is running across France, because he is being hunted down by a meticulous, conscientious, but unmerciful police office Inspector Javert, to whom Valjean represents all that is despicable, abominable and vile in the French society at that time. The pursuit is relentless, and forms the background of the whole of the 1400-odd pages of this unabridged version of the story (available from Signet Classics).
Though the adventures that Valjean has, the chances that he gets to go back to treachery and villainy, after being given a chance at nobility, are not so easy to identify with always, but they have that ring of authenticity, that makes a work like this withstand the test of time! The story goes from place to place, always following the exploits of Valjean, though the digressions of Victor Hugo (would you believe he has written full 100-page chapters each on the Parisian sewerage system, the crime underworld existing at that time, a witness-account of the Battle of Waterloo, an obscure convent in the heart of Paris... the list, I'm afraid is too long to mention here in full! But hey, it is much more delightful to read all those detours as Hugo intended the reader to...) at times make quite a read by themselves, having not much to contribute directly to the story, except perhaps setting the context!
The French word "miserables" means both poor wretches and scoundrels or villains. The novel offers a huge cast that includes both kinds of "miserables" ...... the brave & diligent yet pathetic Fantine, the beautiful yet sad Cosette, the contemptible rogue Thenardier, the perfectionist & cruel Javert, the mercurial yet diffident and reticent Marius, the wretchedly pitiful Eponine, the exceptionally heroic Enjolras, the ebullient & fearlessly valiant Gavroche, the ......wait a minute, I am going the way of Victor Hugo, for that is what the story is like all through, no dearth of adjectives! Even when two words would have done, Hugo strives to (and I must add, quite admirably achieves to - ) give you the full rainbow of the description!
The book makes you smile, makes you laugh out, overawes you to wonder, makes you cringe in horror, causes you to weep bitterly, yet teaches you to never lose hope! Though some of the modernist readers might find the novel too romantic for their taste, even they cannot refute the strength of the convictions that the characters are shown to successfully carry! All in all, it is one of those books that reach out to you, and teach you life, as it once was, as it now is, and as it should (or is it could?) be in the future... it comes as close to life as any other book I have ever read. Probably irreproachable, in terms of sheer effect that the book has on the reader, it is a must read, independent of age! Anyone who has not read it, do yourself a favor, get a life - read this book!