Book Review (Part One) – Les Miserables

*I do not own the rights to this image*
*I do not own the rights to this image*

Um, wow.  This is the first “classic” I’ve voluntarily read, ever. My Goodreads “read” shelf is chock full of other classic titles but believe me, had it not been for the English Lit classes I’ve taken over the years, most of those would have never caught my attention, let alone been read to the last page.

I decided to read Les Miserables after having been swept away by the musical.  I was late in seeing it and even still, ended up watching the movie version instead of being fortunate enough to have seen it on Broadway.  I’d heard wonderful things about it as a play, even met several of the actors in a traveling production when it stopped in Denver for a run. I was working the parking garage booth at the garage of the apartment complex in which many of the actors had been staying.

Anyway, after falling in love with the movie, I decided to tackle an English translation of the novel.  I started reading it September of last year.  It’s taken me almost a year to finish it for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that when it comes to descriptions, Monsieur Hugo did not skimp on the verbiage.  The book isn’t broken down into what I’d consider chapters, but it does follow some sort of segmentation formatting. What you end up with is a “chapter” dedicated to a description of a woman.  Yes, one woman.  An entire chapter to discuss how fair of skin, how fashionably dressed and how flirtatious yet chaste she was in personality. Then there are the French history lessons in which great detail is written about various rebellions, coups and such that occurred in France (click here for a well written article regarding the time frame in which Les Miserables is set.) Toss in another few chapters where Hugo’s thoughts regarding class, politics, crime, morality, etc. are eloquently (yet long winded-ly) expressed and you have one LONG love story.  Okay, it’s not just a love story, per se, but love factors a great deal in the real tale buried in the many lectures.

Speaking of lectures, I wanted to point out a couple of passages I highlighted – despite this novel having been written in 1862, these following sections I’m going to quote seemed to be speaking directly to our current political and economic situations today. Check this out:

First problem: To produce wealth.  Second problem: To share it.  The first problem contains the question of work. The second contains the question of salary. In the first problem the employment of forces is in question. In the second, the distribution of employment. From the proper employment of forces results public power. From a good distribution of enjoyments results individual happiness. By a good distribution, not an equal but an equitable distribution must be understood. From these two things combined, the public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity. Social prosperity means the man happy, the citizen free, the nation great. England solves the first of these two problems. She creates wealth admirably, she divides it badly. This solution which is complete on one side only leads her fatally to two extremes: monstrous opulence, monstrous wretchedness. All enjoyments for some, all privations for the rest, that is to say, for the people; privilege, exception, monopoly, feudalism, born from toil itself. A false and dangerous situation, which sets the roots of the State in the sufferings of the individual. A badly constituted grandeur in which are combined all the material elements and into which no moral element enters.

Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor. It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides. It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.

The two problems require to be solved together, to be well solved. The two problems must be combined and made but one. Solve only the first of the two problems; you will be Venice, you will be England.  YOu will have, like Venice, an artificial power, or like England, a material power; you will be the wicked rich man. You will die by an act of violence, as Venice died, or by bankruptcy, as England will fall. And the world will allow to die and fall all that is merely selfishness, all that does not represent for the human race either a virtue or an idea.

It is well understood here, that by the words Venice, England, we designate not the peoples, but social structures; the oligarchies superposed on nations, and not the nations themselves. The nations always have our respect and our sympathy. Venice, as a people, will live again; England, the aristocracy, will fall, but England, the nation, is immortal.  That said, we continue.

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to  call yourself France.


Whew!  In case it wasn’t obvious, what I read in this passage was a solid description of what ails our current society and how we might be able to turn things around. I wished fervently as soon as I read this passage that more people would read this and there’d be some push, some rebellion to rise up and demand that these ideals be made into action steps immediately.  This would be a platform I’d gladly support – if I thought the person campaigning on it wasn’t full of @#$% and just saying what I wanted to hear.  Ho hum.

( Back with part two tomorrow. All this excellent writing – I do so love the way 19th century writers wrote – has inspired me to work on my new novel.)

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