From the Bookshelves: 'Les Miserables'

Les Miserables
"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo
Everyone’s seen Eugène Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People” at some point. Maybe it was in a history textbook, or on the cover of a favorite Coldplay album. What many people don’t realize, when they see its reproductions, is how gargantuan the painting is in real life. Its sheer magnitude and detail are so overwhelming that you have to sit down on the little bench that the Louvre so generously provides. Its wild brushstrokes, the emotions etched across each face—you can spend hours poring over it, always noticing something new. The painting is actually a depiction of the July Revolution of 1830, one of the smaller rebellions that echoed across France in the wake of the political turmoil under the Bourbon monarchy. For this reason, this painting is often associated with another French masterpiece, Victor Hugo’s 1862 “Les Misérables,” which is also set around this time, during the June Rebellion of 1832. When I first saw the painting, I was speechless; everything around me seemed to dissolve until all that was left was the painting. I realized that I had only felt this way once before—it was the same way I felt about “Les Misérables,” which I regard as an authentic depiction of the human condition.

Since I first purchased the book when I was thirteen, my copy has been to three continents, even accompanying me back to its hometown of Paris for several weeks, during which I first saw Delacroix’s painting in person. It remains the most battered book on my shelf, containing innumerable rips, bends, and water-stained pages—some by rain and others by tears. The last 306 pages of the book still fall out, despite the heavy amount of tape that desperately tries to keep the whole thing together.

For you, “Les Misérables” may conjure up thoughts of the most famous song, from its musical adaptation, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Maybe you think of a starving Anne Hathaway belting out the well-known song in the gutter. But for me, it will always serve as fodder for my imagination and as the greatest comfort in the darkest hours—a beacon of hope when everything around me is crumbling to pieces.

“Les Misérables” spans 17 years and centers on the life of ex-convict Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and repeatedly attempting escape. Despite his intentions of starting anew after his release, Valjean is thrust into a cold world in which his criminal past brands him as an undesirable. After finally meeting kindness and acceptance at the hands of the Bishop of Digne, Valjean carves a new life for himself[, under a false identity in order to evade capture by the tireless Inspector Javert, who pursues him for breaking his parole. The novel also focuses on Fantine, a beautiful young woman who must turn to prostitution to provide for her child Cosette after her lover abandons her. Fantine’s death by tuberculosis leaves Cosette in the hands of Valjean, who adopts her as his own. The rest of the novel follows them in Paris during this turbulent era. At the same time, we are introduced to a myriad of characters who weave their way in and out of this labyrinth of a novel: the cruel Thenardiers, the idealist Marius, the troubled Javert, and the tragic Eponine.

Though reading it in French would be ideal, given the difficulty of capturing Hugo’s unmatched eloquence, the beauty of his prose transcends language barriers. Hugo is also a slave to details, perfectly describing characters in such a way that they begin to take shape before you. In a mere paragraph, he can capture the most enigmatic human emotions, from utter despair and frustration to unparalleled joy. He possesses an almost obsessive compulsion to incorporate contrasting motifs in each scene, evident in his use of lighting, in the clothing or in the personalities of the different characters. In the novel as a whole, Hugo has mastered the stark contrast between ugly social injustice and his protagonist’s beautiful journey of redemption. In a world still plagued with similar injustices, I find Hugo's portrait as relevant today as it was in the 19th century.

Of the many overarching themes of the novel, it is Hugo’s belief in hope which feels the most powerful. Valjean becomes a symbol of the ultimate redeeming value and purity of love. The questions that Hugo raises regarding how we live or about how we treat the marginalized members of our society are more vital than ever, and his answer, an amalgam of compassion, love and justice, is one that we all need more than ever

—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at