Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Monday, September 03, 2012

Title: Les Miserables
Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: Julie Rose
Genre: Classic
Publisher: Modern Library, 2008 (Original publication date: 1862)
Source: Gift from my husband
Read for: Back to the Classics Challenge, Chunkster Challenge, A Classics Challenge

I know that I've been posting extensively about Les Miserables, but for those of you who haven't been following along with the in-depth posts about each individual section of Les Miserables, I thought this book deserved a few words as an intro.

Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict who reforms after a saintly bishop rewards his thieving behavior with an unbelievable gift and forgiveness. Trying to escape his past while building a worthwhile future, Valjean saves a town, rescues a young girl from poverty, and plays a heroic part in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. Woven into his story are the very heights and depths of the human character, from the most beautiful romance and stirring heroism to the lowest levels of despicableness.

There is so much to say about Les Miserables (and I know I've had a lot to say already) that I hardly know where to begin, so I'll just start with the translation. I was extremely impressed with Julie Rose's rendering of Les Miserables. I don't speak French well enough to judge how accurate or idiomatic it was, but I do know that I read an earlier translation several years ago and found the  book extremely difficult. While the Julie Rose translation was by no means an easy read (wade through those Waterloo chapters and see how you feel afterwards), I found it much clearer. In addition, the imagery was beautiful.

Speaking of the imagery, while I'm sure some of it was related to Julie Rose's skill as translator, it is clear that the majority is Victor Hugo's exquisite skill as a writer. He has a way of taking a simple emotion or experience and translating it into sheer poetry. I was constantly awed by the power and loveliness of the images conveyed in the words.

The characters were also extremely powerful, going through the entire range of human emotion and capability. I won't go into details here, because they are available in all the other posts I've written about this book, but I found so much to love and respect in so many of the characters (and so much to despise in others). I feel attached to these characters as if they are living beings -- in those 1200+ pages there is quite a bit of time to get to know them.

The plot of Les Miserables is difficult at times because the action is interspersed with pages of historical and political commentary. It is rendered skillfully and interestingly, but it can get a little dense. I think these sections are the biggest reason Les Miserables is a challenge to readers. However, the more plot-driven sections move very quickly. I tried to learn a lot from the historical sections, but I will confess at times they still went over my head. However, I think they are worth the effort in order to enjoy the book as a whole.

Les Miserables is a masterpiece, and I don't really feel up to the task of finding appropriate words to truly express that. I think anyone who takes the time and effort to read it will be duly rewarded.

5 stars

Warnings: Violence, some language, prostitution


  1. I absolutely love this story and its characters, and fell in love through the stage show. I own the 5 volume set, and a few years ago I managed to get myself into the 3rd book I think. The edition was published in the late 1800s (I forget the year) but the translation is very dense and difficult, and I haven't had the motivation to get back into it yet. Someday.... -Sarah

    1. Oh, it would be fun to have this in volumes! Mine is just this huge chunkster that I've been lugging around. Your edition sounds so beautiful, especially with its age, but if it is hard to get into the translation I would definitely recommend trying the Julie Rose translation, which is very accessible.

  2. This book was SO amazing! So powerful. I loved the theatrical production, too, but the book is so much more!

    1. I agree! And I definitely appreciate the theatrical production more now that I've read the book -- there is so much more subtlety and depth to it.


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