Les misérables, Victor Hugo

A man tries to better his life, but his past keeps haunting him. The story of Jean Valjean is the most well-known storyline in Les misérables.

The story
Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence. He only got a few years for stealing, but more years were added when he tried to escape.
He is now bitter and does not fit into normal society. Luckily for him he meets the good bishop of Digne, who manages to get Valjean on the right path.

Jean Valjean takes on a new name and forms a new life, doing a lot of good for the poor. Unfortunately police-inspector Javert does not want to give up and it is his mission to get Valjean to prison again.

Valjean and his foster daughter flee to Paris where they will have to survive among the many others who live in squalor.

Les Misérables is a typical 19th century novel in the sense that is has an array of characters, who all have ties to eachother. Some of those ties are a little to coincidental and that the same people bump into eachother all the time while they live amongst thousands of people in Paris is also not very believable.

Drawing from the first edition
Social injustice
But of course that is not the point. Victor Hugo wanted to write an outcry against the social injustice and show the French how wretched the poor were. If there are no provisions, then goodness, dignity and humanity hardly have a chance.

It is also a modern novel, since the story tells what happened in the France at that time. It starts in 1815 when Napoleon was finally defeated and the French Revolution was finished, and it ends with the June Revolution of 1832. Victor Hugo wanted to write what he saw and what had happened and what the results of those things were for the people.

And finally Les misérables is of course a novel about the power of goodness. It is the goodness and the kind heart of the bishop that helps Valjean get out of his bitterness, and the good works Valjean does after that, helps him find peace on his deathbed in the final chapter.
Goodness and forgiveness can be found amongst the miserable people, you just need to look a little harder.

Victor Hugo
Short version 
The book is written in 1862, but Victor Hugo started many years before. He must have taken a lot of time, since the original volume had 1900 pages.

Did I read all of those pages? Unfortunately not.

I wanted to read Les misérables, since it is a French classic. And when I saw there was a modern Dutch translation, I bought it. Only when it came I realized I had made a mistake. My version only had 300 pages, and it was the shortened version. 
There is at this moment no integral translation of this book in Dutch, so I think either I did not look in the right direction, or I have to turn to an English translation if I want to read the whole thing.

So, I am glad I now know the story, but I do feel like I missed out on something!

Published in 1862.


  1. I saw the musical on stage many years back and there's also an excellent movie based on the stage version starring Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert. Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne also are in it (as well as a few more well-known actors). I can recommend the movie, if you haven't seen it - brings across the atmosphere, and the songs are amazing. The 'themes' are used repeatedly, so they really get stuck in your brain. I loved it. Eponine's story always makes me sniffle - she's one of the really tragic characters. - I have the German translation of the book at home, but it's over 1300 pages (small print), and I haven't had the courage to tackle it so far. It's full of discourses on moral and life in general, so I'm sure it's interesting, but it's kind of daunting to think of trying to wade through all these pages. I might do it some time, though. I also like Dickens (same era, similar style), so there's a good chance I'll enjoy this one, too.

    1. Heard about the movie/musical version, but I have not seen it yet. It does seem like you have a (almost) integral translation in German, so if you want, you can dig in!

      Kind regards,

  2. My edition came out in the 'Manesse Verlag' which is known for its classics and their translations. I have read several of the Bronte books published by Manesse as well as works of George Eliot (although I generally prefer translations by Reclam as they have an excellent team of translators. I have read all the English books in the original version as well, though.). My French isn't good enough for reading anything beyond a basic level, so for French literature, I have to rely on translations. I'll let you know when I tackle Victor Hugo. Have you ever read anything by Balzac? He's on my list as well.


Post a Comment