We often hear about books that have been banned or challenged without being read. But Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was banned before it was written. In 1850 Tsar Nicholas I, displeased with Hugo's depictions of monarchy and Church hierarchy banned all of Hugo's works,published or yet to be published. Hugo's works were also on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books until 1959. (To show how much some things can change, in the late 70's I attended a Catholic High School and wrote a paper on "The Christian Message in The Hunchback of Notre Dame", a book that would have been a sin to read 20 years before.) Victor Hugo was in fact in exile in England when he wrote this book, having incurred the wrath of Napoleon III, Hugo makes several references to not knowing what certain places look like at present.
Recently I sat down to thoroughly reread Les Miserables, as preparation for going to see the movie. I have dipped into before, but never read it straight through. The book is daunting to look at. On my Nook it runs 4188 pages. I chose use my e-reader though because print copies are either huge, or employ tiny print.
One reason for the great length is the huge cast of characters and their back stories. We learn a lot about just about everyone in the book. Valjean, Cosette, Javert, Fantine and Marius are only the beginning. By the end of book we know all the characters intimately. Because of this we never feel a character has been stuck in the book only to make a speech.
Another reason is the Hugo's lengthy discourses on a variety of historic topics, including several historic locations, convents and the Paris sewers. This information always relates to the narrative, though its not always clear how at first. To cite the most famous example: Hugo devotes 19 chapters to an account of the battle of Waterloo, only to inform the reader of the chance meeting of two characters during the battle.
If you are reading the book for the first time I have a few suggestions. Younger readers might actually consider an abridged edition. This isn't a suggestion I would normally make, but I know from experience having read an abridged version of Hunchback at about 13, and the full edition at 17, Hugo can be very daunting for a young reader. I recommend aquiring Cliff Notes, or an annotated edition. so you have help keeping everyone straight, and can understand the more obscure references.
Having said all that, I still highly recommend the book. It is probably one of the most compassionate works ever written, and indeed compassion as a force in the world is a large part of what the book is about. Compassion for the less well off (Victor Hugo knew all about the 47%), compassion for those we may be in authority over, compassion for those in our daily lives.
It is also a story of redemption through love. Jean Valjean spends 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. He was stealing the bread to feed his sister's children, but was caught. When he comes out of jail he is housed by a bishop, whom he by stealing his silver. When Valjean is caught again, the bishop astonishes him by telling the police that the silver was a gift, but tells Valjean he must use the silver to make an honest man of himself. "Jean Valjean my brother, you know longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul I buy back from you.; I withdraw it from bad thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God. " Unable to find employment because of the strictures against convicts, Valjean jumps parole, changes his name, becomes a factory owner noted for his kindness to his workers, and later mayor of his town. But he is forever pursued by Inspector Javert, a man who knows only the rigidity of the law, and has no sense of compassion at all. He is truly a man who sees the world in black and white only without a single shade of grey even, let alone color. Javert takes advantage of Valjean's compassion by following accounts of unusually generous persons. He track s him down just as Valjean is trying to help a dying prostitute named Cosette retrieve her daughter from abusive caretakers. When Cosette dies, Valjean takes custody of her, and in caring for her learns the meaning of human love. In essence, the bishop saves his soul, and Cosette opens his heart.
But always they must stay one step ahead of Javert. Cosette grows up and falls in love with a young revolutionary named Marius. Stories intercut back and forth, until Valjean is placed in a position where he can kill Javert, but sets him free instead. Javert is so unable to reconcile the conflict between mercy and compassion that he kills himself. In the end, with Cosette and Marius united, Valjean is able to die in peace.
And the musical? I enjoyed it hugely, finding it did justice to both the stage show and the book. The actors did amazingly well, the technique of filming the songs live (not lip synced) added much quality to the acting. Songs that moved me to tears in the show (Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Bring him Home, and the finale were even more devastating seen in their context on film. I attended it with my daughter, a huge Anne Hathaway fan, who enjoyed the film but didn't think it was that sad, and a dear friend who is a voice teacher and felt the musical performances excellent.
Can I see why Nicholas I and the Catholic Church banned this book? I certainly can. The book is still an uncomfortable read for those who prefer privilege for a few over compassion for the have nots. Even now Hugo's emphasis on personal faith over church hierarchies and the ultimate communion with God through loving one's fellow man would disturb some. This is one of those great works written for a specific time and place but relevant for all times and places