How To Read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

Trust me, you're in for a good time.

Les Misérables
Les Misérables

This year marks the 220th birthday of Victor Hugo, one of France’s most famous authors. If you don’t know much about Victor Hugo, then you’re missing out; the man was “interesting,” to say the least.

He was a philanthropist, dedicated to free education for kids and the end of the death penalty. But he was also eccentric, a word that gets applied to artists and rich people instead of saying that they’re a bit nuts. When he was running up against a deadline, he used to lock himself in a room with his clothes given to his servants so he had to finish his chapters before he could get dressed. He was such a sex addict that when he died, the brothels of Paris closed down in mourning on the day of his funeral. Long story short, Victor Hugo was batshit (a good word for him, seeing as he apparently also once gave his fiancée a live bat in an envelope for some reason.)

Anyway, probably for the best, Hugo is known for his written work above all else, notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame and, of course, Les Misérables. Most people have come to both of those stories through the films and the musicals (one day we will talk about how Disney thought Hunchback was the ideal topic for a children’s film), but, in my opinion at least, not enough have read the books. Which is a real shame, especially in the case of Les Misérables — it’s genuinely a really great read.

So what do you need to know before you embark on reading Les Misérables?


This Book Is Big

First off, Les Misérables does look intimidating. No denying that. The English translation is 365 chapters long, stretching over a mammoth 1400 pages. Fans affectionately call it The Brick, and a brick it is. If you’re an average speed reader, it will take you around 47 hours to work your way through it. As long as you’re prepared, you can face this challenge head-on. Reading Les Misérables is a marathon. Take it slow to start, get to know Hugo’s style, and you will pick up speed. He is fairly easy to read, even if he does like a long sentence with lots of commas. And probably have snacks and coffee ready for when you start to flag.


This Man Can And Will Ramble

If you know the musical of Les Misérables, you may remember the character of the Bishop, the kindly churchman who takes in Valjean when he is at his lowest and then sets him on the path to redemption. You might also remember that the Bishop pops up and then is gone again in the first 15 minutes of the show. Well, in the novel of Les Misérables, get ready to spend some time with this guy. Almost the first 100 pages of the novel detail the life of the Bishop of Digne, before Valjean ever appears on the page.

I tell you this specific example so you understand that Hugo is an author who knows exactly where he’s going with his story, but he is not going to be rushed while getting there. Other fun segways away from the main story include a 50-page summary of The Battle Of Waterloo and a long, detailed history of the sewer system of Paris. Some of these asides seem completely non-sensical and often they appear right when the main story reaches a climax, but you have to trust that Hugo knows what he is doing. He’ll get you there eventually.


Hugo Has An Agenda And He Is Going To Beat You Over The Head With It

As I mentioned earlier, Hugo was a dedicated philanthropist. For all the joking about when it comes to his personal life and his rambling style, he believed in his causes. In reading Les Misérables, you will be subjected to the harshness of the poverty in nineteenth century France, and it is unrelenting.

If you’ve seen the Les Misérables musical, I actually think they did a great job of distilling Hugo’s message into song. But in his own words, his writings, you see a man who was passionate about making his readers understand the extremity of the suffering in their own country.

Everyone in Les Misérables is suffering, even Inspector Javert, often cast as the villain of the piece when in reality he is as trapped as anyone else in the brutal cycle of life. But amongst this suffering, Hugo also creates endearing and enduring characters who try hard to be good, try hard to do the best that they can in terrible circumstances. If you love Valjean in the musical, wait till you experience the depth of his heart in the book. if you like the students, fall in love with their reckless bravery even more than you already have.

Les Misérables is a challenging read, but if you go into it knowing what you’re in for, it’s a remarkably rewarding one. Good luck, brave adventurer. I promise it’s worth it.

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