Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables has, for some months now, sat on my bedside table, its 1200 page monolithic mass obscuring my alarm clock and thus confronting me, every morning, with the fact that I had not yet read one of history’s most important novels. Its sheer size, coupled with the dull thud it makes when dropped on my desk, reminiscent more of a bowling ball than a book, had intimidated me on previous occasions, but two weeks ago the sight of its unwrinkled spine and dust-covered front portrait were more than I could bear, and so, laden with guilt, I gave in to the inevitable and entered Hugo’s world. The first thousand pages passed with relative ease, but, reluctant to put it down for good, the final two hundred were completed with feverish excitement some time between the hours of two and five on a weekday morning.

Some seventeen years passed between conception and publication of Les Misérables, a fact that is abundantly evidenced on a page-by-page basis, but the author, in his Preface, succinctly lays out its general purpose:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

So here, by the author’s own admission, is a novel explicitly aimed at addressing social injustice, a scathing critique of France between the failures of the French Revolution, culminating in the lost battle of Waterloo, and the June Rebellion of 1832, as it marches inexorably from monarchism to democracy. And yet his ambition extends beyond mere social commentary, as the novel alternates between the narrative of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to hard labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and who emerges, nineteen years later, bitter and cynical, in danger of recidivism, and authorial musings on French society and history – most famously a recounting of the Battle of Waterloo. Hugo’s accomplishment is the seamless marriage of these two elements, the ease with which he transitions from the impersonal account of a battle between nations to the private confrontation between grandfather and grandson, or the intimate moments shared by young lovers, recounting each disparate scene with equal felicity and honesty.

Here, for example, is Hugo’s description of the guillotine, the morbid symbol inextricably linked with the French Revolution:

A scaffold, when it is erected and prepared, has indeed a profoundly disturbing effect. We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. […] The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders in the most confounding dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a framework, a machine, a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron, and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is the executioner’s accomplice; it consumes, devouring flesh and drinking blood. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals.

If the sight of the guillotine, as Hugo contends, brooks no neutrality, than neither does this passage: who could side with the flesh-devouring, blood-drinking “monster”? Were a single tone assigned to these textual asides, it would be righteous indignation, an almost palpable disgust with the injustices of society, and one Hugo shares not with Alexandre Dumas, that other scion of 18th century French prose epics, but Jonathan Swift, fiercest of English wits and social critics, and Voltaire, Swift’s less acerbic – if no less effective – French equivalent. Indeed, Hugo held Voltaire in particularly high esteem: on the centenary of Voltaire’s death, Hugo delivered an address commemorating Voltaire’s influence:

Let us say it with a sentiment of profound respect; Jesus wept; Voltaire smiled. Of that divine tear and of that human smile is composed the sweetness of the present civilization. Certainly, gentlemen, measure, reserve, proportion are reason’s supreme law. We can say that moderation is the very breath of the philosopher. The effort of the wise man ought to be to condense into a sort of serene certainty all the approximations of which philosophy is composed. But at certain moments, the passion for the true rises powerful and violent, and it is within its right in so doing, like the stormy winds which purify. Never, I insist upon it, will any wise man shake those two august supports of social labor, justice and hope; and all will respect the judge if he is embodied justice, and all will venerate the priest if he represents hope. But if the magistracy calls itself torture, if the Church calls itself Inquisition, then Humanity looks them in the face and says to the judge: “I will none of thy law!” and says to the priest: “I will none of thy dogma! I will none of thy fire on the earth and thy hell in the future!” Then philosophy rises in wrath, and arraigns the judge before justice, and the priest before God!

It was Voltaire who was Humanity’s representative, tasked with looking the magistracy and the clergy in the face and denouncing them for their crimes, and Voltaire’s influence pervades Les Misérables, most notably in the character of Monsieur Bienvenu, a priest elevated to the status of bishop through a chance encounter with Napoleon, who comes to embody hope, and whose example of asceticism, piety and mercy inspires Jean Valjean to abandon his anger and resentment and attempt to live a moral and purposeful life. I include the following less for its narrative importance than for its sheer beauty: Hugo, in a few short sentences, coded with allusions to Voltaire’s Candide and the famous advice to cultivate our own garden, encapsulates the bishop’s character:

What more could he need, this old man whose little leisure was divided between daytime gardening and night-time contemplation? Was not that narrow space with the sky its ceiling room enough for the worship of God in the most delicate of His works and in the most sublime? A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.

I trust I am not alone in finding these lines affecting. They come shortly after the description of the guillotine, and illustrate the scope of Hugo’s novel, which, like Shakespeare’s Henriad, delights in transitions of scale and jarring contrasts between the public and private lives of its characters.

By novel’s end, Hugo has given poverty a face, or rather faces, and made intelligible the kind of destitution, injustice and privation that marked so much of life in pre-industrial, pre-democratic France and, to our great shame, continues to blight even the wealthiest of our modern nations. Our compassion is enhanced by our attachment to his characters – to Valjean, society’s martyr, who suffers most and enjoys least; to Fantine, a young and beautiful woman whose lover abandons her when she becomes pregnant, and is forced to prostitute herself to feed and clothe her child; to Gavroche, a boy abandoned by his parents and living in the hollow of a public statue. And it is compassion, Hugo posits, that offers our only chance for redemption. The greatest crime is not the starvation, prostitution, ignorance or poverty inflicted on the peoples of France; it is society’s indifference. Hugo, like Voltaire before him and a chain of men and women after them, makes such apathy untenable, shedding light where before there was only darkness and giving a voice to the marginalized and disenfranchised.