The following review is absolutely spoiler free.
And… we’re diving right in!
Okay, I am INSANELY excited for today’s blog post! It feels like I’ve been waiting literally forever to write it for you guys. It’s been three weeks since I picked up Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for the first time. And ever since, I have been anxiously waiting for the day I could finally write and post this book review. I finished Les Misérables yesterday afternoon, and let me just say it was emotional and tragic and joyful and heartbreaking and beautiful and made me sob. This book changed my life, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it!
I have a ton of thoughts, so this will be quite a long post. Get yourself some popcorn and a blanket and settle down, and I hope you enjoy! More than that – more than anything – I hope this post will convince you to read Les Mis. No, I GUARANTEE you’ll be convinced! I guarantee you’ll click right on that Amazon link and buy the book and read it right away. You HAVE to. Seriously. I cannot believe I waited so long to read this life-changing book.
Okay, okay, let’s begin. I am SO excited!
The Author – Victor Hugo
Before we get into the book, I think it suitable that we discuss the author.
“Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885) was born in Besançon, France. His father was a general in Napoléon’s army, and much of his childhood was therefore spent amid the backdrop of Napoléon’s campaigns in Spain and in Italy. At the age of eleven, Hugo returned to live with his mother in Paris, where he became infatuated with books and literature. By the time he was fifteen, he had already submitted one poem to a contest sponsored by the prestigious French Academy” (SparkNotes).
“A political figure as well, he was banished to the Channel Island of Guernsey for opposing Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851. During his twenty-year exile he wrote a number of novels, the most notable being Les Misérables, published in 1862. After his death in Paris in 1885 he lay in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Pantheon among France’s greatest men” (Robinson 7).
The Incredible Impact of Les Misérables
There could not be a truer statement than this one: “Few novels ever swept across the world with such overpowering impact as Les Misérables.”
From the second of its publication, Les Mis was a global sensation. Everyone who read the story was miraculously inspired and changed by it, and it “became the gospel of the poor and the oppressed.”
“Among French readers its sales were so great that Hugo was guaranteed a good income for life. In America it was a favorite of Civil War soldiers…. The Frenchman, Gautier, said it was ‘no handiwork of man but a phenomenon of natural forces'” (Robinson 8).
In fact, the novel was such a massive bestseller that it sold out within a day of its publication.
It is also the winner of the French-American Foundation & Florence Gould Foundation’s 29th Annual Translation Prize in Fiction, and earns its nickname as novel of the century. (Though I believe it should be Novel Of All Time.)
But beyond the numbers, beyond the sales, Les Mis accomplished something infinitely greater. And that’s what I’m going to try, expressing it in words as best as I possibly can, to tell you in this book review.
Read the book before listening to the soundtrack or watching the movie!
Because of the novel’s incredible impact, Les Mis was made into an equally impactful musical. However, I want to tell you guys – DO NOT listen to the soundtrack or watch the movie before reading the book! Although the soundtrack and the movie are INCREDIBLE and made me sob just as hard, the book is always better. The book is a billion times better because the movie obviously has a limited time and therefore must cut out plenty of details, storylines, etc. If you only watch the movie, you miss out on a ton of epic stuff.
Do buy the movie, though. Just don’t watch it until after you’re done with the book, please. Trust me on this one!
HERE is the link to buy the DVD if you prefer that.
And HERE is the link to buy on Amazon Prime Video.
And now the soundtrack.
Honestly, I was debating whether or not to paste the soundtrack on here, because I know some of you will probably be rebels and listen before reading the book, LOL. In the end, I decided to paste anyway, in case some of you have read the book and didn’t know there was a musical. Let me just say that if you DO decide to rebel just please… I’m begging you… at least DO NOT look at #34 on the soundtrack, as that song title contains a BLATANT spoiler. (And yes, I’m aware that my telling you not to look at it makes it even more tempting, but I had to. Please don’t.)
Of course, you’re free to listen to the soundtrack if you don’t mind spoilers. But if you do mind spoilers and would rather find out what happens by reading the book, I would recommend waiting on the musical.
There are various versions of this famous soundtrack. The one pasted above goes with the movie pasted above.
Here is the soundtrack from the original Broadway cast. On this soundtrack, the song title with the blatant spoiler is #29. Don’t look at it if you don’t want spoilers.
Purchase the Book
The book on the left is Les Mis unabridged. The one on the right (with the dark green cover) is abridged. I highly recommend both.
The difference between the abridged and unabridged is that the unabridged contains lengthy essays and scholarly writings on such things as Parisian slang, the glass industry, Waterloo, the sewer system, French commerce, etc. There’s also a biography on the life of the Bishop. While all these descriptions are brilliant, they are obviously irrelevant to the story (as you wouldn’t need to interrupt a story to learn up about the country’s glass industry!). The abridged cuts out all these irrelevant parts that slow and sometimes break off the exciting narrative.
“What remains is a novel of character and action seen in much clearer outline…. It has therefore been desirable and possible to abridge the novel, to dispense with numerous lengthy digressions and to eliminate many a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph. By means of such cutting there emerges more clearly the moving, heroic life of a simple and good man” (Robinson 9).
A good choice would be to read the abridged first, then the unabridged.
And now we’re FINALLY ready to jump right into the book review! I am just so, so excited. But also really nervous. I don’t know how a review in one blog post is ever going to give this amazing book justice… but I shall try.
Les Misérables is set in France, in the early 1800s. This is around the time of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Battle of Waterloo, and after the French Revolution.
Jean Valjean has just emerged from the galleys after having been there nineteen years for attempted thievery. Jean tried to steal a loaf of bread to keep his starving family, his sister and her seven little children, alive. As a result he was sent to the galleys for five years, and sentenced to another fourteen for multiple attempts at escape. The prison was brutal, with Jean enduring torture, starvation, cold, hard labor, nakedness, and countless other horrors during his nineteen-year sentence.
Jean enters the galleys weeping with terror, and exits with a hard heart, believing he is a worthless criminal and will never be anything else. No one will hire him. He is starved and exhausted, but no one will take him in – except a tenderhearted Catholic bishop, the Bishop of Digne. (Also known as Monsieur Myriel and called Bienvenu for his kindness.) And while the Bishop is asleep, Jean steals his silverware, driven to behave as such by his conception that he is too far gone to receive forgiveness and change.
Jean is caught by the police and brought back to the Bishop for punishment. The Bishop says, “I gave him that silver.” Jean is shocked by the great and undeserved mercy shown him. The Bishop gives Jean candlesticks, too, as a gift, blessing him and declaring that he belongs in the bosom of Jesus Christ.
Humiliated, Jean flees, but later falls on the Bishop’s doorstep and prays, asking for forgiveness and giving himself to Christ. As a result, he becomes a good and godly man, saving children from a fire and becoming the town mayor under the name Madeleine. But he soon comes under the suspicion of Javert, the Inspector of Police, who recognizes Jean from the galleys.
Meanwhile, an unmarried young woman named Fantine begs a family called the Thenardiers to take her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. The Thenardiers take Cosette, only to beat her and abuse her like a slave. They trick Fantine into sending them more money to care for Cosette, which results in Fantine’s turning to prostitution. Javert cruelly arrests her; Jean defends and cares for her.
When another man is framed, Jean, after a long struggle with God, reveals his true identity so the innocent man can go free. Javert arrests Jean at Fantine’s bedside, and seeing the Inspector’s face, Fantine dies from shock. Shortly afterward, Jean escapes the galleys and takes Fantine’s daughter Cosette from the clutches of the evil Thenardiers.
Javert, mad with fury, continues to chase Jean for decades, but Jean manages to escape the Inspector. Jean loves Cosette dearly, and raises her to be a gentle-spirited Christian. The adopted father and daughter are happy together until Cosette, now a woman, falls in love with a young man named Marius. The Thenardiers reappear, and along with Javert, persecute Jean relentlessly. Marius, too, hates Jean and strives to sever him from Cosette, who has always called him Father.
In the midst of terrible persecution, Jean clings to his love for Christ and for his adoptive daughter. He is willing to sacrifice anything and everything – even his own life – if it means that others will give their souls to God and be happy. Those others include the Thenardiers, Javert, and Marius.
The entire novel made my heart pound, made me sob, made me laugh, chilled me, warmed me. It’s dramatic, moving, powerful, and incredibly beautiful. After reading, I am now so much closer to Jesus Christ. I want the kind of relationship with him that Jean Valjean had. “The convict was transfigured into a Christ” (Hugo Part 5, Book 9). I came away from this book with more than a desire, but a determination, to become a Jean Valjean. I can pray no better for you.
The character in Les Mis are just so compelling. Hugo sweeps you right into their stories and gives your heart to them. As soon as I met the characters, my bond to the novel could never be broken.
Let’s discuss each major character!
I loved the Bishop the moment he entered the story. I loved him for the way he changed Jean Valjean’s life and led him to Christ. I believe that’s what we’re all called to do as Christians, and the Bishop is an incredible example of that. I love how Jean became the Bishop.
Also, the Bishop met not only Jean, but each poor and oppressed person, with open arms. Priests, including many of those in the Bible, often used selfishly the money given them for their services. On the contrary, the Bishop of Digne gives his money to the poor.
Jean Valjean was my favorite character BY FAR. BY FAR. He is officially my hero of literature (sharing the place with Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird). It’s just impossible not to love Jean Valjean.
Reasons I love Jean Valjean:
- I have never related to a fictional character more. I related to Jean in his thievery, because I know what it is to sin out of desperation. I related to him when he emerged from the galleys with a hardened heart; I know what it is to become bitter and hard. I related to him when he sobbed and prayed to God after the Bishop’s kindness; I know what it is to be overwhelmed by Christ’s mercy. I related to him for the entire rest of the novel because I know what it is to long to escape your past and be seen as a new person.
- His unconditional love for everyone is just AMAZING. I want to be like that. Jean loved everyone unconditionally, whether they deserved it or not – the Thenardiers, Javert, Marius. He forgave everything and apologized for everything he felt he did not do as well as he could have. His mercy to the Thenardiers was beautiful, as was his care for Marius, even calling him “my child.” And the love shown to Javert was the most powerful thing I have ever read.
- His humility. Jean never sought honor; he did not see himself as worthy of it. He wanted to fulfill his promise to the Bishop and be seen as righteous in God’s eyes, regardless of the uncalled-for hatred others might have for him.
Javert I despised. Which is supposed to happen; he is the villain, after all. But at the same time, I empathized with him and even felt intense pity for him at times. I’ve talked a lot on the blog about how I love when authors make us empathize with the antagonist, instead of just making us hate them because they’re the bad guy. I felt pity for Javert because he was misled and deceived; he was too blind to see. He was blinded and hardened by his experiences, and when we read about those experiences, how can we blame Javert for being the way he was? His actions were deplorable, but nevertheless his story is tragic.
I loved Cosette. Her love and honor for Jean Valjean was truly beautiful to see; she was a tender adoptive daughter to him. She was so innocent, however, that she was easily led astray. However, that wasn’t her fault, and throughout the novel her heart clearly remains full of unsullied love. This is definitely because of the way Jean raised her.
I despised Marius almost as much as Javert and the Thenardiers. I found him arrogant, ignorant, and stupid. The way he treated Jean Valjean made me want to punch him right through the page! (I’m afraid I need to work on being as forgiving as Jean.)
I will say, though, that Marius was not evil. I think he really did want to do the right thing, only he was so stupid he couldn’t see what the right thing was. We do see his heart was good; he had no desire to hurt anyone. But he did anyway, and sometimes I wonder if that’s because he didn’t care enough to try to realize.
I hated the Thenardiers more than I have ever hated any villains in literature. They were so cruel, so evil, so cunning. They were capable of – and in fact acted on those capabilities – of appalling human atrocities. The way they persecuted Jean Valjean and Cosette just evoked in me this heavy feeling of rage.
However, I do have to hint that not all the Thenardiers were bad… but I shall say no more on that subject.
I felt so sorry for Fantine and was brokenhearted when she died. She really loved Cosette and left her with the Thenardiers, trusting that they were the right family to care for her daughter. She stopped at nothing to protect Cosette, even resorting to prostitution. Of course, her decisions were terribly wrong and sinful, but she was driven to them, and that’s tragic.
1. Love for Jesus Christ. This was by far my favorite theme in Les Mis. Jean Valjean’s faith in Christ and desire and determination to please him was just so incredibly beautiful. It brought me to a puddle of tears. The Bishop’s bringing Jean to his knees was just so beautiful. I absolutely melted at the part when Jean prays on the Bishop’s doorstep.
2. Love for sinners. Jean’s love for Fantine is the ultimate example of this. Think about it. In those days, it was the deepest level of disgrace to associate oneself with a prostitute and her illegitimate child. Yet Jean took care of Fantine with tender pity, understanding, and love until she died. He promised her he would care for Cosette, and he did. He adopted Cosette and loved her as his own. Jean and Fantine remind me of Jesus’ continual association with prostitutes, particularly the one in John 8:3-11.
3. Adoptive love. As you guys know, I adore themes of adoptive love in fiction. Jean and Cosette are my favorite adoptive parent/child pair ever in literature. Jean’s love for Cosette, his “beloved child,” as he called her, was just beautiful to see. One of the most moving, powerful scenes in the entire novel was the one when Jean Valjean takes out the clothes that Cosette wore as a little girl. He buries his face and sobs into the little dresses. If you don’t sob with Jean in that scene… I don’t know what to say.
4. Love for enemies. Jean’s love for Javert, the Thenardiers, and Marius was incredible. The scenes with Javert were intense and heart-stopping, but not because of the crazy manhunt, because of Jean’s generosity to Javert. (Which the Inspector could not at all understand.) The scenes with the Thenardiers and Marius were priceless. I can’t say anything more other than… please read the book! You won’t regret it!
There are so many scenes in Les Mis, and all of them are so amazing, that it is so hard to choose. And also, I don’t want to say my top favorites because that would spoil the book.
So I just have to say again… read the book!
Again, it’s so hard to choose favorite quotes, but if I had to… I will share three of those. Sharing just three quotes won’t spoil the story, so let’s go for it!
The first one is from the Bishop, after he tells the police that Jean Valjean did not steal his silver:
“Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”– The Bishop (Hugo 39)
The second one is actually a funny one. Despite being a very serious book, Les Mis does have humor, which adds a much-needed touch of hilarity to the situations.
This quote comes after a terrible run-in with Jean Valjean and the Thenardiers. During this incident, the Thenardiers have a hot iron with which to torture Jean. To prove to them that he is not in the least afraid of them, Jean seizes the hot iron and brands his own arm with it. Without. Even. Wincing. The venomous wound results in a terrible infection, and Jean is in bed for over a month with severe fever. He bears the suffering quietly, and with a touch of comedy:
He would see no physician. When Cosette urged it: “Call the dog-doctor,” said he.– Jean Valjean (Hugo 219)
I just found this quote so hilarious. 😂😭
The best for last:
“He [God] is on high, he sees us all, and he knows what he does in the midst of his great stars.”– Jean Valjean (Hugo 333)
Go read Les Misérables!
Yes, do read this incredible book. It will change your life forever. You will never regret it.
Les Mis is now my #1 favorite book of all time. Yes. For a little while at first, I thought it was going to be my second favorite book, after To Kill a Mockingbird. No. It is my absolute top favorite book, reigning right beside TKAM.
I know that no novel will ever touch me, move my heart, and bring me closer to Christ in the same miraculous way that Les Misérables has. It’s a book I will cherish and treasure for the rest of my life, one that I will read again and again. I’m actually going to reread it right after I finish writing this blog post. I haven’t started rereading yet because I wanted you guys to have my raw thoughts after my very first read.
Years ago Les Mis was recommended to me and I turned it down. I didn’t know then that I was turning down an invitation from God to get closer to him. I am so grateful that in his infinite wisdom, he didn’t throw away my invitation. I am so grateful that he led me to read it while only a young teenager, so I have all my life long to reflect on it. Les Mis strengthened my desire to write my own novels and impact others through my words the same way I have been impacted through the words of books such as Les Mis.
So, friends, be officially prepared for me to incessantly talk about this book. I promise I will never stop doing so!
Read it! All my describing can never do for you what reading the book for yourself will. (And let me just say, I’ve been absolutely aching to talk with you guys about that heartrending ending, but you’ve got to read it for yourselves!)
Let me know your thoughts below, friends. I really hope you enjoyed this post!
You know the drill – eat, pray, write, repeat!