The plot is a fine one. Jean Valjean is a freed convict. However, his crime follows him around in the shape of a yellow passport which means that he has to report to the police at every town. There is no sense of having served his time. There is no thought of redemption. But this is exactly what Valjean achieves. After an encounter with a saintly Bishop (one of the most affecting moments in literature which always makes me want to weep: “Don’t forget, don’t ever forget, that you promised me to use this silver to make an honest man of yourself. ... Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you".), Valjean breaks the terms of his release by taking on a new identity and, as an enlightened businessman, redeems himself. This redemption continues when he cares for the daughter of one of his sacked workers. But his past, in the shape of suspicious Inspector Valjean, haunts him; if the Inspector catchers him he will be sent back to the galleys for life. At the same time the principal baddy, Thenardier, poses a constant danger to Valjean's chance for happiness. And then Valjean's adopted daughter falls in love with the son of a Napoleonic general who is himself manning the barricades with his insurgent friends.
To modern taste, the book is undermined by the black and whiteness of the characters. Although Jean Valjean himself is represented as oscillating between good and bad, and the fallen woman is doing her best to be good, most of the characters are fundamentally one dimensional. Thus Javert, the policeman, represents the inflexibility of unquestioning duty which is not undermined until the very end, at which point his conversion seems unlikely. Cosette, the loved adopted daughter is the ultimate in goody-two-shoes, a virginal maiden pure in every possible thought. Her boyfriend, Marius, is likewise virginal and upright and honorable and altogether too good to be true. Thenardier is an out and out rotter, the blackest of black villains, even though his daughter Eponine sacrifices herself for love and his neglected boy Gavroche sacrifices himself to help his friends. These characters just don't stand up for themselves.
The second flaw is Hugo's taste for philosophising. His description of the battle of Waterloo takes up nearly the whole of a book with only the final chapter having any relevance to the plot. His description of the Paris sewers takes a whole book. We can't have a wedding speech without Hugo giving us his views on marriage; we can't have the students at the barricades without endless sermonising from the revolutionary leader. I am not surprised that LM is possible to adapt into only six hours of TV drama; at least one third of the book could be pruned without any effect on the story or the characterisation.
Another difficulty with the book is that Hugo seems to start several times. Most authors would start the story with the arrival of the convict JV in town for his transforming encounter with the Bishop. This is a hook and a half. But Hugo spends the first book describing the character of the Bishop and doesn't introduce JV until book two. JV's convict experiences, which is the starting point for the musical, is told in flashback. Then, after the drama of JV, we switch to a romantic interlude (for a whole book) with four young men and their girlfriends and it is almost as if Hugo is frightened of keeping the momentum going. The story of Fantine than merges with that of the reformed JV and we meet Javert who becomes the nemesis for JV through the sacrificial act of the Champmatheiue Affair. In all of this the story bumps along and in book 7 Hugo shows a genius for forcing JV to make a difficult decision time and time again as every obstacle is thrown in his way. But then Part Two begins with almost an entire book devoted to the story of the battle of Waterloo and, when we get a little plot in the final chapter, it is a detail not yet connected with anything in Part One which actually happens before most of the events in Part One. After that the story gets going again although in book 7 Hugo treats himself to a rant about monasticism (at one point, oblivious to the potential self-reference, he declares: "What’s wonderful, too, is the ease with which people spout hot air."). Then in Part Three Hugo does it again. The first book is an essay on street children. Then Hugo begins another story, this time that of Marius, with a book-long essay on the Parisian street-urchin. And Part Four starts with an essay entitled 'A Few Pages of History'. Even after the excitement of the insurgency (and the discovery that JV is a crack shot) Part Five has to contain a long discussion of the Parisian sewer system. Cut it, Victor!
Nevertheless, Hugo (or possibly the translator) is brilliant at writing ordinary people. The exchanges between a gardener and a gravedigger in the exciting burial scene of Part Two and the wonderful character of street-urchin Gavroche are moments of joy.
Furthermore, despite my struggles with the structure, particularly given Hugo's tendency to speechify, he often comes up with witty or insightful comments:
Part One: Fantine
- "True or false, what is said about people often has as much bearing on their lives and especially on their destinies as what they do."
- “Man is made of flesh and that flesh is both a burden and a temptation to him. He drags it around with him and he yields to it."
- “To be a saint is the exception; to be a just person is the rule. Err, stumble, commit sin, but be one of the just. “Sin as little as possible—that is the law of mankind. Not to sin at all is the dream of the angel. All earthly things are subject to sin. Sin is like gravity.”
- “The sins of women and children, domestic servants and the weak, the poor and the ignorant, are the sins of the husbands and fathers, the masters, the strong and the rich and the educated.”
- “Those who are ignorant should be taught all you can teach them; society is to blame for not providing free public education; and society will answer for the obscurity it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sin will be committed. The guilty party is not he who has sinned but he who created the darkness in the first place.”
- "Prosperity presupposes Capability. Win the lottery and you are a clever man. The winner is revered. Be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that’s all that counts. Be lucky and the rest will fall into place. Be fortunate, and you’ll be thought great."
- "There’s nothing wrong with being an arriviste as long as you’ve arrived."
- "They mistake the constellations of the cosmic void for the stars made by ducks’ feet in the soft mud of the bog."
- "People who are overwhelmed with troubles never do look back. They know only too well that misfortune follows in their wake."
- "laws that look on man with anger"
- "prisoners, those eternal enviers of flies and birds."
- "Release is not the same as liberation. You get out of jail, all right, but you never stop being condemned."
- "If a girl wants to remain virtuous she can’t be too soft on her hands."
- "books are remote but reliable friends."
- "There is no such thing as a weed and no such thing as a bad man. There are only bad cultivators.”
- "No one pries as effectively into other people’s business as those whose business it most definitely is not."
- "To travel is to be born and to die at every instant."
- "Probity, sincerity, candour, conviction, a sense of duty, are things that, when they go wrong, can become hideous."
- "The ultimate smile is God’s alone."
- "It does not appear that the devil had the wit to invent gunpowder before Roger Bacon"
- "It is possible to conceive of something more terrible than a hell where one suffers and that is a hell where one is bored."
- "Wherever a railway station has been set on the edge of a capital city, it has spelled the death of a local neighbourhood and the birth of a township."
- "It must be remembered that, at the time, the police were not exactly at ease; they were hampered by a free press. The song and dance over a few arbitrary arrests, denounced by the newspapers, had been heard all the way to the Chambers and made the prefecture timid. To attack the freedom of the individual was a grave matter. The officers were afraid of getting things wrong, for the prefect put the blame on them; a mistake meant dismissal."
- "Before you grab a stick with thorns, you put gloves on."
- "To brush your teeth lies at the top of a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies: losing your soul."
- "Monastic communities are to the broader social community what mistletoe is to the oak, what warts are to the human body."
- "The Spanish convent was the Catholic convent par excellence. You got a whiff of the East there. There, the archbishop, Aga Khan of heaven, locked up and spied on this seraglio of souls reserved for God. The nun was the odalisque, the priest the eunuch. In their dreams, the fervent females were chosen by and possessed Christ. At night, the gorgeous naked young man came down from the cross and became the ecstasy of the cell."
- "Claustration, castration."
- "You will feel yourself shudder before the habit and the veil, those two shrouds of human invention."
- “In today’s civilization, still so incomplete, it is not so unusual to see such breakdowns, with families falling apart in the shadows, parents having little idea of what has become of their children and spilling their guts on the public highway. Hence dark destinies.”
- “A touch of Egypt and Bohemia in the lower orders accommodated the upper spheres and suited the purposes of the high and mighty. Hate-filled opposition to the education of lower-class children was a dogma. What was the good of “a little learning”? That was the catchcry. Well, the stray child is the corollary of the ignorant child.”
- “The peculiar thing about prudery is that, the less the fortress is under threat, the more it puts sentries around.”
- “You may be old, you may be a prude, you may be devout, you may be the aunt; but it is always nice to see a lancer step into your bedroom.”
- “The lancer gave the complacent grin of a pickpocket praised for his probity.”
- “To err is human, to stroll, Parisian.”
- “Evil starts with dead eyes. Faced with someone whose eyes see nothing, think carefully and be afraid.”
- “The first form elegance takes is idleness; and the idleness of a pauper means crime.”
- “They are rare, those who have fallen without being damaged on the way down”
- “The bourgeois is the man who now has time to sit down.”
- “That blue hour of the evening when dreamers are at their saddest,
- "That indefinably frightened and pathetic look that a stint in jail adds to misery.”
- “There are meditative states that we might call vertical; when you are at the bottom, it takes time to come back up to the surface.”
- “The shadow was assuredly not a ghost. Ghosts hardly ever wear round hats.”
- “The old are made for going out at the right moment.”
- “Growing plays such tricks on you. Your skirt becomes too short the moment your nakedness becomes indecent.”
- “It’s raining again! God Almighty, if this continues, I’m cancelling my subscription."
- “What devastates Othello is water off a duck’s back to Candide.”
- “For everything there is a theory that proclaims itself “common sense”; ... the offer of a compromise between the true and the false; explanation, admonition, a somewhat arrogant mitigation that, because it is mixed with blame and excuse, believes itself to be wisdom yet is often only pedantry. An entire school of politics, known as the happy medium, has emerged from this.”
- “The same stoical men die at twenty for their ideas, at forty for their families.”
- “The four corners of old age—decay, decrepitude, ruin, and sorrow.”
- “Equality has an organ: free and compulsory education.”
- “Thinking always involves a certain amount of inner revolt.”
- “When you are old, you feel like a grandfather to all little children.”
- “Nature divides the living into those on the way in and those on the way out.”
- “Just because you don’t like the way things are ... that’s no reason to be unfair to God.”
A classic, but immensely flawed as a work of literature.