24 January, 2005

Verdict on Les Misérables

The thing that surprises me the most about Les Misérables is how much I can hate a book, and like it at the same time.

I've already covered all my reasons for hating this book in previous posts (e.g. here), so I won't bore you with that for now. I will spend a few moments explaining what I like about it.

In a previous posting (which I can't find atm), I had mentioned that I prefer books that challenge me and point me towards transcendence. This does in fact happen in Les Misérables. Although I spent a lot of time complaining that Jean Valjean is a dull bore (and for most of the novel he is), the last chapters and pages turn him about into someone far more sympathetic. The struggle he has with jealousy, the superhuman struggle he endures to rescue Marius, and the overwhelming, shame Valjean later feels in the presence of his son-in-law make for an excellent illustration of overcoming oneself. That shame also makes for an excellent indictment of the legal system of the novel. (Whether this accurately approached the legal system of contemporary France, I am not qualified to say, but I don't see any reason to believe otherwise.)

Javert's suicide is also well-executed. I have never seen Javert's death dwelt on for very long in film, and perhaps that's appropriate, since even in the novel his death occupies only ten pages of a 1260-page text. Yet these pages are filled with insight into Javert's character, which explain much better for me what I had in the past never understood very well. Elliott comented in the post above that Javert is justice without mercy. When he finally learns mercy, and he is convinced of the rightness of what he is done, he finds himself trapped and confused. This passage in particular tickled my imagination:

[Javert] had a superior, M. Gisquet; he had scarcely thought, until today, of that other superior, God.

This new chief, God, he felt unawares, and was perplexed thereat.

He had lost his bearings in this unexpected presence; he did not know what to do with this superior; he who was not ignorant that the subordinate is bound always to yield, that he ought neither to disobey, nor to blame, nor to discuss, and that, in presence of a superior who astonishes him too much, the inferior has no resource but resignation.

But how manage to send in his resignation to God?

How indeed? it explains a great deal.

The other aspect I enjoyed was the reconciliation between Marius and his grandfather, M. Gillenormand. One of the more entertaining parts is where M. Gillenormand has to run out of the room to shout at a serving lady his imprecations against the Revolution, because he is too afraid that Marius will leave him, if he says them in his presence.

So it is, in the end, an inspiring story.


Anonymous said...

Did I really say that? It sounds too deep for me!

I'm glad that your over-all impression of the book is positive. When I finished I said "Thank God I'm done, I never want to read that again, but I'm glad I did."


jack perry said...

I don't feel as relieved as you did. :-) I actually enjoyed the last few chapters; they were refreshingly free of politics, for the most part.

I forgot to mention this: a few days ago, I watched the History Channel's program on The French Revolution. That helped me understand Hugo's point of view with a little more sympathy.

Alessandra said...

I read it a long, long time ago, but I must say I loved it. Because of the style of writing and the personality and types of characters. I remember thinking about how great it would have been if he were writing the book today, because I am sure the roles of women in this and other of his books would be different, more active, empowered, and pro-active. Women would have a chance to be Jean Valjeans too, among others.