I listened to this novel in the excellent reading by George Guidall of Julie Rose's translation. A little over 60 hours, or four and a half days. For quotations and general double checking I used the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood provided by project Gutenberg.
Hugo, who is nothing if not articulate about what he believes are his goals and meaning in this novel, declares that it is about the moral redemption of the principal character, who, as I'm sure most of you know, begins as a petty thief condemned to prison galleys, and c. 1500 pages later rises to ever higher moral nobility until he dies of it, and after.
That's true, but there are other important subjects in this vast work. One is an assertion of the Christian moral nature of the world, although he is opposed to the institution of the Catholic Church. Another is a human exploration of Paris. Another is the process of France's digestion of the French Revolution and of Napoleon. Another is the exposition of how decision-making takes place. Another is the exploration of youth versus age. Another is his conviction that the author's views on anything at all are worth passing on to the reader. Most fundamental is his interest in the engagement of opposites.
A tight plot and characters that are attractive and clearly either good or bad are the mainstays of current popular fiction, as they were then, and limit the range and subtlety of a book. Hugo makes up for that limitation by his prose, what he writes about, and how he writes about it.
Hugo’s prose is often described as ponderous, and it certainly can be. But in the long haul it is varied and flexible. It is like a large-scale organ with it’s ponderous pipes, it melodious pipes, it's shrill, at times racy, at times witty pipes, etc. Indeed one of the pleasures of this book is appreciating the resources of Hugo's style. Here's a guy who can describe the whole world, or the tiniest corner of Paris, with equal aptness.
The book is highly digressive, like Tristram Shandy. An example often cited is the 2 1/2 hour description of the battle of Waterloo. A very minor incident in the battle is a cornerstone of the plot, but he could have delivered that in five minutes. He describes the battle in some detail including Napoleon’s debates with himself on strategy, and why, in Hugo’s view, he lost.
But, unlike Tristram Shandy, plot drives this novel. One thing leads to another in intricate, supple, and tightly contrived ways. There is a problem. The stereotype these days is that each author gets to have one unlikely coincidence, the McGuffin. The plot of Les Miserables depends on one unlikely coincidence following another like a pack train; there are hundreds. It begins to feel as if Hugo had his own special McGuffin: a free pass to unbounded unlikely coincidence. That usage reflects his idea that we are in the hands of fate, that is God.
Hugo likes to describe characters in ways that will identify them as attractive or unattractive to the reader . His attractive characters are usually generous, friendly, and good looking; his unattractive characters are selfish, surely, and plain. The social role of the character is always a cornerstone of his or her depiction. You do not meet characters, as we often meet in contemporary novels, who are a bundle of characteristics who happen to have a social role as a kind day job. Jean Valjean is first of all a criminal; Javert is first of all a detective; Cosette is first of all a marriageable girl etc.. It requires the length of the novel to move Valjean out of the criminal category. His self-acknowledgment that he can no longer fulfill the role of detective drives Javert to suicide.
Characterisation is in certain respects full, and in certain respects shallow. It is full with respect to establishing the characters’ position on the ladder of good and evil. The ladder has many rungs but goes only up or down. Of the moral standing of men he sees as related to the French revolution, he writes:
"Below John Huss, there is Luther; below Luther, there is Descartes; below Descartes, there is Voltaire; below Voltaire, there is Condorcet; below Condorcet, there is Robespierre; below Robespierre, there is Marat; below Marat there is Babeuf. And so it goes on. Lower down, confusedly, at the limit which separates the indistinct from the invisible, one perceives other gloomy men, who perhaps do not exist as yet. ……"
It is also full in the sense of describing the process of decision-making in dramatic detail. This decision-making portrays minds engaged in internal rhetorical debate. For those of us who live after a hundred years of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, it seems a little stiff and awfully rational, but it is rich in vigorous and detail.
Hugo goes to considerable trouble to portray youth an age. He delights in the garrulousness of quirky old men; old women get scant attention. He delights in the naïve enthusiasm of youth; pretty young women get lots of attention. But you do not come out of this book with the gut feeling that you know them personally. What will the marriage of the ingénue couple (Cossette and Marius) be like in 20 years? We don’t even wonder. We know their societal niche and we know their moral standing instead.
Hugo expects a reader well read in French and classical history. He casually refers us to our familiarity with the Greek biographer Plutarch and the Roman historians Livy and Tacitus, among others. Interestingly he never cites Montagne; perhaps the mayor of Bordeaux was too skeptical for him.
The anecdote that Chou En-Lie once remarked to Nixon (or was it to Kissinger) that it was too soon to know if the French revolution has been successful is probably a legend, but it’s endurance reveals an unmythical concern. The French, and with them the world, continue to try to come to terms with events and issues arising from the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and to discover proper means of dealing with them. Besides Chou En-Lie, Pol Pot, & Deng Xiaoping, among many others, studied in Paris in forming their concept of revolution and governance. Hugo, who several times says Paris represents the world, was only concerned with France, which went though a process of digesting the revolution that is comparable in intricacy and painfulness to a polity digesting itself.
The period of the action is 1815 - 1832, but by frequent flashbacks, explanations, and references the book engages with history from the beginning of the French revolution (1789). In those decades France was governed or ungoverned successively by absolute monarchy, a period of chaos, a couple of different imperious committees, an emperor, absolute monarchy again, and constitutional monarchy and at all times by passionate and deadly factionalism. In those years for anyone with anything to loose which side you were on was a constant source of identity and anxiety.
The family of Marius, the ingénue hero, whose experiences in the unrest of 1832 resemble those of Hugo, embodies the identifications and tensions. His grandfather is a passionate monarchist, his father an equally passionate Bonapartist. He has been raised by his grandfather to hate his father, but gradually comes to respect him and absorb his political position. This is the process of debate over governance embodied in the lives and feelings of characters.
One of the most moving actual verbal debates comes between the bishop of Digne and a former member of the convention that overthrew Louis XVI (un conventionnel). The bishop was appointed by Napoleon, almost by chance, that is fate, that is God. He is sort of an anti-clerical clergyman, living simply and piously in the mountain village of his bishopric, giving his salary mostly to the poor, etc. Acts of empathy and generosity by the bishop save Jean Valjean from rearrest and set him on the path of virtue. In the course of his pastoral care he seeks out a conventioneer, as they were called, who is an atheist and a republican living as a hermit in a period of merciless reaction. The conventioneer is a man of great wisdom and dignity who accepts his immanent death. They debate their respective faiths. Hugo is evenhanded; he is interested in portraying the debate, not in settling it, and it remains unresolved with each man thoughtfully moved.
First, as is typical of serious characters, the bishop debates with himself:
"Nevertheless, the Bishop meditated on the subject, and from time to time he gazed at the horizon at a point where a clump of trees marked the valley of the former member of the Convention, and he said, "There is a soul yonder which is lonely."
And he added, deep in his own mind, "I owe him a visit."
But, let us avow it, this idea, which seemed natural at the first blush, appeared to him after a moment's reflection, as strange, impossible, and almost repulsive. For, at bottom, he shared the general impression, and the old member of the Convention inspired him, without his being clearly conscious of the fact himself, with that sentiment which borders on hate, and which is so well expressed by the word 'estrangement'.
Still, should the scab of the sheep cause the shepherd to recoil? No. But what a sheep!
The good Bishop was perplexed. Sometimes he set out in that direction; then he returned."
The bishop journeys to the hut of the conventioneer, and they debate the revolution. For a long time they trade citation of atrocities, the bishop citing the atrocities of the revolution and the conventioneer those of the Ancien Régime. The conventioneer sums up:
"In any case, and in spite of whatever may be said, the French Revolution is the most important step of the human race since the advent of Christ.... The French Revolution had its reasons for existence; its wrath will be absolved by the future; its result is the world made better. From its most terrible blows there comes forth a caress for the human race. ... Yes, the brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over, this fact is recognized,--that the human race has been treated harshly, but that it has progressed."
The bishop respectfully does not assent.
The title is notoriously hard to translate. It means something like the poor or the unfortunate or the outsiders. It implies that the subject of the book is the suffering of people whom society does not nurture, who dwell outside the empathy of the comfortable and well off. Hugo is criticising people's lack of compassion and charity rather than society's very structure. Hugo stresses that the lot of the poor could be improved by education, but beyond that what he mainly does is admonished the rich to be nicer to the poor, rather than imagining a way to eliminate the richness and poorness. Note that in his hierarchical list of the intellectual fathers of the revolution, he puts Baboef at the bottom. Baboef was the only one of the prominent revolutionaries who proposed concrete plans for removing hierarchy from society in general.