I have finished reading Les Misérables with no more than 10 days to spare until I leave for Paris, the principal setting of Hugo’s book. At over 1500 pages the unabridged edition is a rambling epic of Napoleonic proportion. It goes on long-winded tangents and social rants that are decidedly indigestible. Included are “books” on convents, where Cosette grows up and the Battle of Waterloo, the deciding battle that ushers in Hugo’s story in 1815. However, thoroughness does not preclude Les Misérables from being an important literary work. It is an important historical document of revolutionary France and morally instructive. The book beings with “So long […] as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.” I agree. 

The story is of Jean Valjean, a dejected wretch of society who finds love through God, as represented by the second chance given by the Bishop of Digne; through benevolence and philanthropy, as represented by his caring for Fantine, the poor single mother who sings I Dream a Dream; and finally and most importantly through fatherly love in care for Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. This story of sorrow and rebirth is aptly set in post Napoleonic-France. As the movie points out, 23 after Louis XVI is executed, another King is back on the throne. Hugo unabashedly sympathizes with Republicans sees revolution as necessary for progress and for redemption of these Misérables.

His characters all find solace. Fantine’s sorrows are made whole with the happiness of Cosette. Javert, who sings “Men like you can never change / Men like me can never change,” sooths his inexplicable internal dilemma through suicide. Eponine dies in the hands of Marius (with a bullet through her exposed breast). Marius and Cosette live happily ever after.

Although the book was successful upon publication (1862) it was revived in the English-speaking world by the musical. It debuted in the West End in 1985 and is still playing in London, a production I hope to see when I visit at the end of this month. It distills the laborious book into a concise and heart-wrenching production. When an outpour of emotion is required, the recitative turns into song. With Les Misérables as sentimental as it is, the delivery mechanism of the comédie musicale is exceptional. No other musical is as successful in drawing tears (of despair and of joy) from the audience. In "Drink With Me", students destined to die reminisce of pleasures of the living. Jean Valjean makes peace with losing Cosette to Marius and wishes him life in "Bring Him Home", a song written specifically for Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean but the Bishop of Digne in the 2012 film). The musical one-ups the book in pausing on the most salient parts the 1500-page book skims over. Marius feels guilty for surviving his friends as he sings Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, perhaps the most memorable song of the musical. The book has but a paragraph to describe these ineffable devils.

Yet the book is worth reading. The musical makes easy simplifications that at best covers the depth of the story, and at worst, romanticizes these very human characters. Eponine is less of a hero in the book. She, in fact, caused Cosette to leave to England and concealed Cosette’s letter from Marius until the last moment before her death. This is a better version because it is more believable. I had always thought of her as unfathomably valiant in the musical. The musical also mischaracterizes the revolution as well-planned and as over-glorious. Instead, it was a opportunistic, spontaneous uprising comprised of loosely related revolutionaries. Marius was not well known to the friends of the ABC (“abasé”, or abased) and only chose to join them because he did not wish to live without Cosette. The barricade was also a small and rather insignificant annoyance to the larger engagements of the same time. But, understandably, the musical achieves concision in place of accuracy. Therefore, each the musical and the book have their place.

The movie is surprisingly faithful to the story. A few heartwarming tidbits are revealed: Valjean’s stay at the convent; Valjean’s happiness in finding Cosette in a new song named “Suddenly”; Marius’s bourgeois father; Eponine’s taking a bullet for Marius. Some scenes are spectacular. Anne Hathaway’s “I Dream a Dream” lives up and surpasses expectations; Samantha Bark’s “On My Own” is passionate. The women do better than the men. “Bring him Home” and “Stars” show the Hollywood actors belong there. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was anti-climactic. The movie cannot stand its own against because the musical is more immediate and therefore more emotional. But it is still a joy to watch.

A difficulty for the story is Cosette. She doesn't do very much more than look pretty. In fact, for the first six months Cosette and Marius stare at each other from afar and without knowing eachother’s names and decides they must marry. For all that Hugo defends: the poor, the powerless, the ignorant, he does not seem to care much for women. He even writes that women exist for two reasons: love and coquetry. Furthermore, I found it unsympathetic with the theme of the book that Marius ends up with rich Cosette instead of street-urchin Eponine. But I was relieved that the book made it clear that Marius marries Cosette without knowing Jean Valjean’s wealth.

A final note on the book. Hugo writes it as though he is telling a true story. Perhaps he is. But the setting and places in Paris are real. For example, Cosette and Marius fall in love at the Jardin du Luxembourg, a park I will no doubt visit next semester. The barricades are set up in “Les Halles,” where I am living. What better way to become excited for Paris than to read Les Mis.


Some Quotations

A description of Fantine and her friends: “All four were madly pretty. A good old classic poet, then famous, a good fellow who had an Eleonore, M. le Chevalier de Labouisse, as he strolled that day beneath the chestnut-trees of Saint-Cloud, saw them pass about ten o'clock in the morning, and exclaimed, "There is one too many of them," as he thought of the Graces.”

A description of the Thénardiers: “These beings belonged to that bastard class composed of coarse people who have been successful, and of intelligent people who have descended in the scale, which is between the class called "middle" and the class denominated as "inferior," and which combines some of the defects of the second with nearly all the vices of the first, without possessing the generous impulse of the workingman nor the honest order of the bourgeois.”

De-glorifying the Battle of Waterloo: “Bauduin, killed, Foy wounded, conflagration, massacre, carnage, a rivulet formed of English blood, French blood, German blood mingled in fury, a well crammed with corpses, the regiment of Nassau and the regiment of Brunswick destroyed, Duplat killed, Blackmann killed, the English Guards mutilated, twenty French battalions, besides the forty from Reille's corps, decimated, three thousand men in that hovel of Hougomont alone cut down, slashed to pieces, shot, burned, with their throats cut,—and all this so that a peasant can say to-day to the traveller: Monsieur, give me three francs, and if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo!”

On Napoleon: “Wellington was the Bareme of war; Napoleon was its Michael Angelo”

Regarding Mme. Thénardiers: “Cosette was her only servant; a mouse in the service of an elephant.”

Some things never change: “It was the accent of Castlereagh auditing France's bill at the Congress of Vienna.”

Why Do You Hear the People Sing: “Songs are like the guillotine; they chop away indifferently, to-day this head, to-morrow that. It is only a variation.”

Parisians and their locomotive prowess: “To stray is human. To saunter is Parisian.”

On youth: “The first young lad who comes to hand, however poor he may be, with his strength, his health, his rapid walk, his brilliant eyes, his warmly circulating blood, his black hair, his red lips, his white teeth, his pure breath, will always arouse the envy of an aged emperor.”

Cosette all grown up: “Cosette, in gaining the knowledge that she was beautiful, lost the grace of ignoring it. An exquisite grace, for beauty enhanced by ingenuousness is ineffable, and nothing is so adorable as a dazzling and innocent creature who walks along, holding in her hand the key to paradise without being conscious of it. But what she had lost in ingenuous grace, she gained in pensive and serious charm. Her whole person, permeated with the joy of youth, of innocence, and of beauty, breathed forth a splendid melancholy.”

Love: “COSETTE in her shadow, like Marius in his, was all ready to take fire. Destiny, with its mysterious and fatal patience, slowly drew together these two beings, all charged and all languishing with the stormy electricity of passion, these two souls which were laden with love as two clouds are laden with lightning, and which were bound to overflow and mingle in a look like the clouds in a flash of fire.”

“One of woman's magnanimities is to yield. Love, at the height where it is absolute, is complicated with some indescribably celestial blindness of modesty. But what dangers you run, O noble souls! Often you give the heart, and we take the body. Your heart remains with you, you gaze upon it in the gloom with a shudder. Love has no middle course; it either ruins or it saves. All human destiny lies in this dilemma. This dilemma, ruin, or safety, is set forth no more inexorably by any fatality than by love. Love is life, if it is not death. Cradle; also coffin. The same sentiment says "yes" and "no" in the human heart. Of all the things that God has made, the human heart is the one which sheds the most light, alas! and the most darkness.”

“Angel is the only word in the language which never can be worn out. No other word would exist under the pitiless use made of it by lovers.”

On bankers: “And then, I met a pretty girl of my acquaintance, who is as beautiful as the spring, worthy to be called Floreal, and who is delighted, enraptured, as happy as the angels, because a wretch yesterday, a frightful banker all spotted with small-pox, deigned to take a fancy to her! Alas! woman keeps on the watch for a protector as much as for a lover; cats chase mice as well as birds. Two months ago that young woman was virtuous in an attic, she adjusted little brass rings in the eyelet-holes of corsets, what do you call it? She sewed, she had a camp bed, she dwelt beside a pot of flowers, she was contented. Now here she is a bankeress.”

“Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy.