This book is the longest one I have ever read, sitting at early 1,500 pages. It kind of feels like reading five similar books back to back, and reading it in about two weeks like I did felt a bit overwhelming.
It’s a lot to take in, and I’m still processing my thoughts on it. It’s so much easier to read and analyze a shorter book, whereas with this one I feel as if I could talk about it for days, analyzing the different aspects, from Hugo’s style to the characters to the plot to the historical setting…it’s a lot to remember and take in. But I’m going to do my best to explain my overall thoughts for this book.
Synopsis: Set during the early 1800s in France, this masterpiece tells the story of a thief seeking redemption, backdropped by the impoverished of France, the revolution seeking freedom, and the law attempting to control the people.
This is indeed Victor Hugo’s magnum opus, and incorporates both an intricate, complex tale of love, loss, and salvation, as well as Hugo’s immense love for the France of his younger years. He will spend fifty pages just describing the streets of Paris, and do not expect any action-type scene. Even the major battle at the barricade is drawn out into over a hundred pages. Saying that, there is something fascinating about this book, the depth into which Hugo examines the human soul and demonstrates the complexity of the era in which he is writing. It’s the type of book which is intimidating to start, but is kind of a must for any lover of books to read.
I read Notre-Dame de Paris a bit ago (you can read my review here), and I had mixed feelings about it. The descriptions were beautiful, but I didn’t like the plot and characters. This book has all the strengths of that book as well as good plot and characters. Saying that, it was challenging to get through. It is boring at points, spending so long describing something as simple as a convert. This is why there are many abridged versions of this book out there, but it was important to me to read an unabridged version of the book, simply because that is the vision of the author.
The characters are exceptional, on the same level as Fydor Dostoevsky. Jean Valjean is the protagonist, who steals food to feed his sister’s family and is sent to prison for years. He escapes and meets a kind bishop, who covers for him and tells him to repent and start a new life. Valjean does, until the inspector Javert hunts him down in his new life. Out of all the characters, these two were my favorite. Valjean is a sympathetic character, one who is willing to spend his entire life repenting for the sins he has done. He believes he does not deserve happiness and thus tries to give all his happiness to others, like Fantine and eventually her daughter Cosette.
Javert is very much an bull-headed individual, firm in his assumptions of the world and people. Everyone is bad or good in his eyes, no in between. Because of this, near the end of the book when Valjean saves his life, Javert’s whole reality of tracking this criminal collapses. I wanted him to have a redemption story, and yet the book ends with him having committed suicide.
I won’t go into all the characters, because there are dozens, but I will say there are many other great ones. Saying that, because of the length of the book and the vast number of characters, very few of them are memorable. So many come into the story and leave just as quickly, fading from your memory.
Because the book takes place over thirty years, things change drastically. Valjean is a young man in the beginning, and an old man by the end. France is coming into a new era following the French Revolution. Even Hugo writing from the 1860’s mentions how many of the old buildings from the 1830’s are no longer in Paris. Even if a reader from Hugo’s time read this book, it would have a nostalgic feel, not even considering us reading it over a hundred and fifty years after it was written.
The female characters I found to be slightly lacking. I don’t want to sound sexist, but most of the male classic authors I read do not understand the depth of women. Either female characters are feminine, sweet, gentle (like Fantine or Cosette) or they are hard and cruel (like Madame Thenardier). Even Eponine, who you could argue is much more proactive than any other female character, is still extremely girlish and naive. I’m not saying that there aren’t women like these, but there is little variety of female characters, whereas with male characters there is a huge variety. I noticed this in Crime and Punishment too (which is in my top ten books of all time). It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book, but I would have liked to dig deeper into the female characters like Hugo did for the male characters.
Now, this book is kind of divided into two sections: the plot I’ve been talking about, and Victor Hugo’s examination of philosophy and history. He will break off from the story and spend an entire book talking about good and evil, or the history of Paris sewers. Some readers might find this off-putting, especially if you come from only knowing this story from the musical or movie. But for me, I thought it gave more depth to the plot. These digressions never deviated from the topics and themes discussed in the story, and seemed there to give a deeper understanding of the world and the facts of the plot.
Another thing I loved was the historical detail. The June Rebellion of 1832 takes up the end of the novel, and there are a lot of real places (the prison of Bagne of Toulon where Valjean is held, or Luxembourg Garden where Marius and Cosette first meet) featured in the story. This gives a depth to the otherwise fictional tale.
I ended up giving this book four out of five stars, mostly because I would have liked if the book was more tightly-written. Most of the plot deviations I enjoyed, but even so they did distract and slow down the plot.
One of the main reasons I read this book is because I love the musical. The musical is much lighter, whereas the book is rather grim (though not depressing, I found). The Thenardiers who take in Cosette are humorous in the musical, but cruel and evil in the book.
However, the musical surprisingly sticks close to the plot of the book, though it cuts out all the digressions Hugo adds. It’s kind of like the spark notes version of the book, but I was surprised to find how similar it was (with some minor adjustments). If you are a fan of the musical like me, I would highly recommend this book.
Have you read this book, or know the musical/movie? What is your view of books of this length? Do you avoid them? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,