January 11, 2009
Book Review: Les Miserables, By Victor Hugo
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
Les Miserables is definitely a French epic. The vast and deep types of characters, the flawed hero, Jean Valjean, the ultimate story of redemption and the high idealism in spite of cruel realism is what grabs my attention in this book. It is a book that has at least one element every reader can relate to. Some moments grip your attention and others make you empathetic with the characters (be it Jean Valjean, Fantine or Cosette). It is a book that has great characters (in some ways), great plot and profound meaning. Something I would recommend to be read in high schools. The following quote I absolutely love and I have written down:
To owe life to a malefactor . . . to be, in spite of himself, on a level with a fugitive from justice . . . to betray society in order to be true to his own conscience; that all these absurdities . . . should accumulate on himself—this is what prostrated him.
Themes: There are themes everywhere jumping out of the pages. Many people in Hugo’s time viewed the novel to be very romantic (as in idealistic) and it does promote high ideals especially those of love, compassion, forgiveness and hope. When I read the story, I felt the book gave off a vibe that life always has another chance. It can be because Jean keeps slipping through. But there is a lot of social and historical criticism in the novel. In some of the footnotes I read in the book, Hugo references the French revolution and we see the French society being corrupt in many parts of the novel. For example, many women and children were in poverty and forced into terrible labor jobs or for women, prostitution. Then there is the terrible law enforcement with the cop and and some other criminals mentioned who can easily get out of prison (can’t remember on the top of my head). But one of the biggest themes I see is the theme of forgiveness and redemption in spite of all things Jean goes through. Life is filled with hope no matter how miserable things are. There is redemption both in the physical (with the police) and within himself (being better than a thief). The story is the transformation of a character and you see a lot of this kind of ‘renewal’ in Jean over and over in the novel and once more at the end of the novel.
Character development: There is a lot of character development, the most distinct is in Jean Valjean and maybe a bit in Cosette, but that is questionable.
Symbols: The only one I can think of that jumps out of the page is the Myriel’s silver candlesticks that Jean initially steals in the beginning and reappear at the end of the book. There is also light and dark imagery, but I think they work off the candlesticks idea.
Plot: Wonderful. At times, a bit confusing, but primarily wonderful.
Islamic Rating: 6/10 (For prostitution, some violence, theft, and I can’t think of anything else….)
Book rating: 9/10 I simply loved it. I can see some people may not going head deep into a thick novel like Les Miserables, but it is something I enjoyed. It may start a bit slow, but it will pick up and just impress you with Hugo’s deep insight of human behavior and the world. It was definitely thought provoking.
Les Miserables is a book of forgiveness and redemption. We often see things and immediately think they are unforgivable. Granted, they are irreversible, but there is always hope. If you keep looking at what you left behind/wat happened, you can never really see what lies ahead. And I think Les Miserables taps into that in a time where society is in decay and standard living was low. I saw the book as one of hope, (not extreme hope, but that of inner strength) and I think it is something all Muslims can take home.
Sorry this review isn’t that comprehensive. I read a chapter the other day and I totally had to write a review from my faulted memory of the book. I may update it later.