Thursday, 27 August 2015

Les Misérables Read-Through: Chapters I.i.1 - I.i.10

My struggles with Les Misérables are very well-known to my friends, especially those who had to sit next to me while we watched the film adaptation of the musical. After seeing the film again last weekend I decided that something of the book's magic had to have been lost in the transition from book to musical, from French to English, and then from musical to film. So the time had come for me to dig into the novel myself and form a proper, informed, opinion. And since it's such a whopper of a novel I thought it would be fun to do a read-through. This is my first ever attempt at a read-through so hang in there as I find myself in it. I will read ten chapters a week and, every Thursday, write a post about them! I'd love it if anyone else wanted to join in or just comment along the way! Les Misérables is also one of my 100 Classics list which I put together for The Classics Club.

Plot Summary:
In the first chapter we're directly introduced to Bishop M. Myriel. Victor Hugo makes it really easy for the reader to like this guy since he seems to be utterly amazing at being a bishop. Kind, generous and calm, Myriel just seems to take everything in his stride, be it a nonsensical Senator or highway robbers. It is rather difficult to write a character that is truly good because it comes off as a caricature very quickly. Rather than try to convince us of Myriel's goodness himself, Hugo "shows" us by closely detailing his actions, budget, etc. It also helps that Myriel has a sense of humour which shines through every once in a while.

A surprising amount of things happen in these ten chapters without anything actually happening at all. Next to M. Myriel we're introduced to his sister and housekeeper, get to explore some religious philosophy with the previously mentioned Senator and find ourselves in the company of a member of Convention. What these chapters do successfully, though, is show the importance of kindness and charity, while also setting up the idea that sometimes people are forced to do terrible things out of necessity.

Feel of the Chapters:
So far the tone and feel of Les Misérables has been extremely relaxed. When you've only seen the film you expect the whole book to be one long, miserable journey up the mountain of tragedy and sadness. But in the first ten chapters this book has practically been a stroll through sunshine valley. On the one hand this is great because it has made the reading so far quite fun. The chapters are short and sweet, more like diary entries than complete chapters. On the other hand I am now worried for what's to come. If it's this good now, without any of the actual main characters having been introduced yet, then surely all the misery is still waiting for me and will come like one blow after the other.

General Thoughts:

  • I was not expecting to like reading Victor Hugo's writing style this much. Although it is quite dense, using a lot of words and preferring long sentences, it is very readable, even enjoyable. Hugo will tell you a lot, in a short space of time, but it is all relevant. 
  • Victor Hugo also has a very strong authorial voice. He will pop in to the narrative whenever he pleases and make a comment, either about the characters or where the plot seems to be going. He'll tell you what is relevant, what is only an anecdote, etc. and infuses the whole with a sense of humour as well. 
  • The character I have enjoyed the most is the member of Convention. For some reason I wasn't expecting Victor Hugo to be so sympathetic towards the Revolution or be such an advocate for the opposing parties to putting their differences aside and working together towards the greater good. I loved the debate between the Conventionist and Myriel, it was probably my favourite part of the ten chapters.
  • One final thing, why hasn't the actual plot started yet? Although I'm enjoying the relatively light tone of the story so far I do want to meet the actual main characters soon. Since I have already seen the film and therefore now the basic plot there are a lot of details and extra plot lines I know nothing about but which I really want to get to.

Something Interesting:
The French Revolution is one of my favourite periods in history because there's so much happening in those years. The upheaval of a whole society is fascinating and I was hoping that Les Misérables would teach me something new about it. What popped out to me in these chapters was the Convention and the year 1793, which was the year in which the Terror started. Marie-Antoinette was executed in this year and during the whole Reign of Terror, which lasted until mid 1794, more than 16,000 people were executed by guillotine and another 25,000 by summary execution. That's something to lift the spirit, no?

Favourite Quotes:
'Err, fall, sin if you will, but be upright.' Ch.4
This sounds like a motto to live by. You're bound to make mistakes in your life but as long as you make your choices consciously and in the moment you don't have to regret them.
'We have caused the fall of the old world, and the old world, that vase of miseries, has become, through its upsetting upon the human race, an urn of joy.' Ch.10
I just love the beauty and tragedy of this quote. It's from the member of Convention, of course, but not only do I love some of the expressions in it such as 'vase of miseries' and 'urn of joy', but the whole idea of Revolution and toppling the old world gets me excited!

So, overall, I found myself really enjoying the first few chapters of Les Misérables. I did have to take a moment to accept this truth because I had sort of been waiting for Hugo to confirm my suspicions and have written a dreadful book.


  1. Les Miserables is my favorite book of all time. Hugo does wander a bit with extra bits here and there - but the story is an eye-opening call-out to the plight of the little people, and the brutality of the judicial system.

  2. OMG. This is a great way to re-appreciate a book. I must get my Les Mis out this winter .... and I so agree that the many many versions sometimes dull the original. Which why original is always the best!!!