Translated from French by Norman Denny

This is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best-known books, popularized by the musical starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. But since a two-hour film can only provide a brief summary, I decided to read it in its entirety and see for myself why it is so well loved.

Reading Les Misérables is like walking into another world. First published in 1862, and set in France between 1815 and 1832—after the French Revolution and Napoleon—the book is a sprawling canvas with many subplots.

Here is the story, briefly.

Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. The initial sentence of 5 years is stretched to 19 because he keeps trying to escape. It is in prison that he comes across Inspector Javert, who is the overseer of Valjean’s chain gang and who becomes his implacable enemy.

When Valjean is finally freed, he carries a card marking him out to be an ex-convict, which means he is not welcome anywhere. The gentle Bishop Myriel takes him in and by showing him kindness, makes him resolve to be a better man. But old habits are hard to break. By taking a 40-sous coin from a boy, Valjean is denounced for armed robbery and, if caught, would have to return to prison. 

But Valjean has no intention of going back. He adopts a new identity and settles in a small town. He is now Monsieur Madeleine, a successful businessman, liked and trusted and eventually elected mayor. But when the new local chief of police arrives, it is Javert. Javert does not recognize him immediately. When a man is nearly crushed by a cart and no one else will help, Valjean moves the cart single-handedly, and Javert, who has seen only one man with that kind of strength, starts to suspect that M. Madeleine is really Valjean.

However, another person crosses Valjean’s path and changes his life: Fantine, a young woman who has had a child out of wedlock, at a time when this was considered shameful. Unable to support the child, Fantine gives her to a couple whom she thinks are kindly (the nasty Monsieur and Madame Thénardier), sending them a monthly fee for raising her. The child, Cossette, is ill-treated, and Fantine ends up destitute, selling herself to survive. M. Madeleine finds Fantine, puts her in the care of nuns and promises to look for her daughter.

I won’t go into too much detail here—it would take pages—but Fantine dies, and Valjean finds Cossette. The child gives him something to live for. Meanwhile, Javert is still on his trail, and Valjean hasn’t seen the last of the Thénardiers either. He manages to evade Javert and raise Cossette, whom he adores. But Cossette becomes a young woman and falls in love with a young student, Marius, and Valjean finds his contentment threatened. Meanwhile, there is unrest in the country, and Marius and his friends get involved in the June revolution of 1832.

Hugo creates a world that draws you in. He writes with great detail, hence the size of the book—over 1200 pages. Some of the detail is fascinating. But Hugo does have a habit of putting the story on hold while going off at a tangent. I still don’t know why there are so many pages describing the battle of Waterloo in the middle of Valjean’s escape. Valjean ends up on the field where the battle took place, but that’s no reason for the long interlude. I found this a bit trying. But it might be better on a second read where I know what happens and so am not as impatient to get on with the story. Hugo’s knowledge of Paris is truly impressive. There is a section where Valjean walks through the sewer system, which Hugo seems to know well, detailing its history and all its twists and turns.

Some of Hugo’s characters are a bit one-dimensional—for example, Cossette as a young woman and Marius; and the nasty ones, like the Thénadiers (although they are far more interesting and vivid than the young couple). But the two men at the centre of the book—Valjean and Javert—are much more nuanced. Javert has a strong moral code, and Valjean has his darker side. It is interesting that Hugo based both characters on a single man who would have been their contemporary: François Vidoqc, an ex-convict who became the founder of the Surété Nationale, France’s national police force.

Hugo brings the period to life—the politics, the justice system (the fact that a man could be jailed for stealing bread and considered an armed robber for a minor theft is shocking), and the lives of people in all the social strata, from aristocrats to the desperately poor and the thugs in the underworld. You learn about the argot used by criminals in Paris; a little-known order of nuns; and, of course, the battle of Waterloo. All these details—like bits of a mosaic—coalesce into a larger picture, which made me feel as if I was, for a moment, a part of this world.