Most of my friends know about my love for Les Misérables. I’m not exactly sure when I first heard the London or Broadway cast album, but I read the novel on/off during 9th and 10 grade. I fell in love with beautifully written characters whose stories couldn’t fit in a movie or a three hour musical.
(I’m really bad at summarizing the book because there’s SO MUCH to it, so I’m going to assume that you’ve seen either the 1998 movie with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush or the 2012 movie musical with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and the fantastic Anne Hathaway. If you don’t know the story, this post might be a bit confusing, but that just means you should read the book and see one of the movies!)
I think the main reason for reading Les Mis is the large number of backstories. You know how JK Rowling reveals some secret or biography of her characters every few months on Twitter or Pottermore? Unlike Rowling, Victor Hugo dumped all the information on us in 1200 pages. Sure the plotline is beautiful, but it’s really the characters’ motivations and stories that make Les Misérables. Here are a few things you’ll learn from reading the book.
1. The guy who started the story off and gave Jean Valjean the silver candlesticks was an amazing guy. He wasn’t just some church guy who had mercy on a robber. He was a bishop who made himself poor so he could give charity and love the people in his region who had nothing. He was truly humble, and he was gentle with people. Mercy and compassion on a convict were completely within his character, and I admire him so much.
2. Fantine was a teen mom who kept meeting untrustworthy people. Her baby daddy was a selfish airhead, her society wouldn’t give her work, and the people she trusted to take care of her baby turned out to be criminals. Of all the characters in any book I’ve ever read, Fantine breaks my heart the most because she’s an innocent.
3. The movies don’t talk about Marius’s family history. He was raised by his grandfather and was kept away from his dad until five minutes after he was orphaned. He’s a broody student who would probably really like guyliner and emo music if he were alive today, because he has a lot of family issues. His father’s dying wish is that he’s nice to the Thénardiers which is a problem when they’re a family of scam artists.
4. You know how the musical showed a certain person (if you haven’t seen the movies, I’m not spoiling this for you!) being the first to die on the barricades? Yeah, someone else dies first up there. You read about this person’s poverty and the events that led to their death, and it might even be a sadder death than the one that Boublil/Schönberg/Macintosh portrayed.
5. The relevance of this quote: “While through the workings of laws and customs there continues to exist a condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilization, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; while the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjection of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child by darkness, continue unresolved; while in some regions social asphyxia remains possible; in other words, and in still wider terms, while ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value.”
*Penguin Classics editions of the book have this quote from a letter that Hugo sent in 1862. I don’t know if other editions have it too.
If you were moved by one of the Les Mis movies or the musical, if you are moved by stories of poverty and redemption, you should read this book. Sure, it takes time. Sure, it references historical events that you might not be familiar with. Sure, you could just watch the movie. But if you read Les Misérables, I promise you that it will change your life. I recommend the unabridged version. It explains things like, “What’s the Battle of Waterloo?” so things are easier to understand. Take your time, and let me know what you think 🙂