Let’s be honest: you’re probably never going to read Les Miserables. You will, however, most likely see the musical (and eventually the movie) or hear some of the more popular songs (Who are we kidding? They’re all popular). I started my expertise in this subject as a devoted fan of the music. Then I saw the show. Then I was in the show. Then I read the book and was surprised to find that the content of the musical holds only a fraction of the content of the book. I had intended to use it as a simple character study guide- granted, a very long one- but found that Hugo does not so much intend to tell a story as he intends to shed light on social problems. Hugo’s Les Miserables, is more than anything else, a social treatise.
People tend to focus on Jean Valjean, which makes sense, because his life threads all of the separate plots together, but after two years of study, I have a difficult time tying it down to just him. The preface of the novel supports my thinking by listing “the three problems of the age” as “the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night” (3). The plight of women and children not only appears in the book but consistently influences the direction of the plot (think Fantine, Cosette, Eponine, Gavroche). We’ll discuss that more later.
SPOILER ALERT (as if the title wasn’t enough): Almost every character endures a bitter life and then takes his leave of the plot through death. That’s a very nice way of saying that Hugo does not save his characters for the sake of his reader. He’s very much like J.K. Rowling in a sense, for any of you who are Harry Potter fans. For Fantine, Eponine, and Gavroche, we feel sympathy, but Hugo kills them off to make a point: these are fictional characters easily created, but social status can actually kill real people. It seems excessive to put these untraditional heroes through deep suffering only to eventually kill them, I know. But what Hugo does through these deaths is neat. They’re all sacrifices made out of love for something or someone. The “miserables”- or the true human faces of crime- these sacrifices illustrate ultimate redemption, and you see, that’s what it’s all about.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1998. Print.