Monday, 25 February 2013

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (3.5/5)

First published: 1862
Original title: Les Misérables
Original language: French
Translation to English by:
Isabel F. Hapgood, 1887 & Charles E Wilbour, 1862
Page count: 1463 & 987

The back says: One of the great Classics of Western Literature, Les Miserables is a magisterial work which is rich in both character portrayal and meticulous historical description. Characters such as the absurdly criminalised Valjean, the street urchin Gavroche, the rascal Thenardier, the implacable detective Javert, and the pitiful figure of the prostitute Fantine and her daughter Cosette, have entered the pantheon of literary dramatis personae.

I say: I alternated between the two translations because I downloaded the first one from Project Gutenberg and had mistakenly only bought Volume Two of the Wordsworth Ed of the other translation.

I preferred the second translation, but I won’t swear by it.

Having said that, I sort of enjoyed this ridiculously long novel, but essentially had the same issue with it as I had with War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy – there’s just too much digression from the story itself to focus on history. I understand giving some history of Paris/France, but Hugo went into such inane depth on so many occasions I wanted to pull my hair out. It was boring beyond words and it took away too much attention from the story.

Another thing that annoyed me was the narrator’s constant jibes at Voltaire. You don’t like him; we get it; so stop mentioning him all the time.


The story itself is probably about half the book and is filled with so many characters that commit so many mistakes I can’t even begin to know where to start. Essentially, they’re all idiots, and the only person with any redeeming qualities is Vajean. Oh, and the adorably hilarious Gavroche.

Everyone else was more trouble than they were worth.

Although I do pity Fantine her unfortunate demise; she brought it all on herself. She’s supposed to be the misfortunate mother who gives up everything for her daughter Cosette, whom she loves so much she abandoned her to people who abused her to no end, and only started weeping over her when she found out she was dying.


I could go on for days about this, but since it’s mostly negative I’m not going to bother. The reason this is getting a 3.5/5 is because of Valjean and the heart-breaking end that made me despise Cosette and Marius after having quite liked them up to that point.

It was Valjean’s despair that I loved more than anything.

Although I am not too fond of his writing in this, I must give Hugo due credit for weaving all of these people’s lives together in a rather masterful way. If he had only lessened the sentimentality of the lovers, the improbability of the escape in the sewers, the over-familiar narrator, the rambling history lessons and the constant jibes at Voltaire, I may have enjoyed this a whole lot more.

Also, I seriously doubt I’ll watch any of the film versions because it’s all just much ado about nothing, to be honest.


  1. I saw the 1998 movie version and remember enjoying it, but not enough to want to pick up this book. I don't even know why they made a remake of the movie though when that one didn't seem that bad. I've seen a lot of people saying they want to read the book now because of the new movie, but having read your review, I think most will be disappointed in it. And, I too, trusting your assessments, won't be picking it up either because I'm just not that interested in experiencing it. I'm not rushing out to see the new movie version either.

    1. I think I may have preferred to watch the film version because there's just sooo much in this novel - usually I like the details of books, but it was just too much. Also, I didn't really like Hugo's literary style, so that ruined a lot for me.

  2. Have you read the Hunchback of Notre-Dame? I think I vaguely remember you writing about it or I could have imagined that. Anyway, I read that l
    ate last year and it was similar. He seemed to go off in tangents. Some of it was relevant to the story but not all of it which made for slow reading. I would have given up if it hadn't been for his beautiful writing style itself.

    I want to read this one but I am put off by the fact that it is a HUGE book which means even more tangents and I fear I will give up on that one. Plus it takes me forever to read a light book these days. This one I would be spending a year on.

    Once again another entertaining review.

    1. No, I haven't read the Hunchback, but I have on my shelf - unfortunately it's now not so interesting since you said it was similar - it's Hugo and I don't think I like him. I'll read the Hunchback eventually, but I'm hoping the narrator is a lot less irritating.

      Alex says in a comment below that there's a version where all the random info is in the footnotes, so perhaps you should try that version (it'll probably be about 300 pages - ha!)

  3. I read this book way back in high school and remembered liking it a lot! I'm due for a re-read soon!

    1. Yeah, I think this would be something you'd enjoy as you like historical novels and romance, which is the opposite of what I tend to go for. Re-read and let me know if you still love it.

  4. So I'm reading this at the moment, and whilst I'm definitely like 'Oh wow, you sure like rambling, Victor H' I've also JUST seen the musical, and so at this point I'm pretty much IN LOVE with the story (i.e. the way abbreviated one in the musical) and reading the book is like 'WOW! So the priest had a whole life of his own too?! And THAT'S what happened with Fantine and Cosette's dad?' etc etc, although if I was just reading the book, I'd probably want to kill myself riiiight about now.

    Anyway. I'm not very far into it (about 200 pages) so I can still say I'm enjoying it! Also, I think you're way harsh on Fantine! She didn't KNOW that she left her child with evil scoundrels! How could she?! Poor Fantine.

    1. Ha ha ha, I think you have a lot more emotinal investment since you've just seen the musical and love the characters already. You know their general history and will love learning more about them - but the historical parts. Ugh!

      I am not harsh on Fantine. Of course she didn't KNOW, but she also didn't make enough effort to find out. She just left her kid with some random woman she met on the street. I mean, come on...

  5. Ick, I wouldn't touch the Hapgood translation voluntarily so that might have something to do with it too, her translation isn't respected very much these days. Denny's more modern and coherent translation is much much better and he also made the decision to move the whole 'running through the sewers and describing their entire history' section to an appendix at the back of the book which helps if you're not a Hugo fan. Still, at least you can now say you gave it a shot and Valjean is a wonderfully complex character to have met in any format. :)

    1. I'm not a fan of reading revised versions of books - I want to read them the way they were intended. Had the boring scenes been removed from the main body of the novel I'd have a different opinion of it, but it'd be an opinion not entierely based on truth. Since this is my first Hugo book, and I generally trust the Wordsworth Ed, it was due to my own stupidity I had to read the Hapgood translation. Ah well, we live and we learn.