“Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo

This book is a drama in which the leading character is the Infinite. Mankind takes second place.

– from Les Misérables, part 2, book 7, translated by Norman Denny

Not many novelists, I imagine, would have the nerve to make, and be so unembarrassed about making, so grandiose a statement of intent. Not even if they thought it. But such a statement (made at the beginning of one of the longer and duller of Hugo’s many digressions – so long and dull, indeed, that the translator of the volume I read felt it best to detach it from the main body of the narrative and place it in an appendix) seems perfectly in keeping with the general tone of the novel. For Hugo’s vision was nothing if not grand – megalomaniac, even. Not for him piddling little subtleties, or those minutiae of everyday that the likes of Austen or Flaubert seemed so preoccupied with; not for him those infinitely small brush-strokes that aim for precision, for exactitude, or even for that matter, shading and nuance. Hugo seems loftily above all that. His brush is broad, and he applies his strokes with vigour and with energy, if not necessarily always with grace. He has the confidence of one who sincerely believes that nothing is beyond him – not even Infinity.

Generally, I am tempted to think that such matters as Infinity, Eternity, the Soul, Transcendence, and all the rest of it, are best left to the Russians: the French are too down-to-earth for that sort of thing. At most, they will lament, as Flaubert did, the inability to achieve transcendence: language, even when applied with infinite care and with the greatest genius, is, Flaubert famously lamented, but a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we really want is to move the stars with pity. But Hugo has no such misgivings: moving the stars with pity is precisely what he set out to do. None of old Gustave’s pessimism here: Hugo is convinced that once he rolls up his sleeves and get down to it, damn it, those stars will move with pity! Just see if they don’t!

There is a certain naivety – and I do not use that word in a pejorative sense – both in Hugo’s ambition and also, I think, in his execution. On grounds of strict realism, one may take issue with all sorts of things. For instance, is it very likely for a man so saintly as the Bishop of Digne to have led so untroubled a life? (One may be tempted to think that a man of the cloth determined so unequivocally to live by the principles of the Beatitudes is more likely to resemble the eponymous hero of Nazarin by Pérez Galdós.) Is it at all likely that Monsieur de Madeleine could be so unstintingly generous to all who are needy, and still make a fortune? Or that Javert, no matter how devoted he may be to his duties, should spend so much time and resources tracking down one man over so many years when there are surely any number of felons with far greater crimes on their heads who have eluded justice? If one is to pick holes in the plot, there is no end to it, but picking such holes is, I think, to miss the point. For this is not a realist novel such as Flaubert’s (although written a few years after Madame Bovary), far less a slice of gritty naturalism in the manner of Zola: the world presented here is realistic certainly on the surface, and its depictions of historic events is clearly the product of immense study, but the moral world it presents, and the psychology of the characters, seem to me entirely products of Hugo’s fantasy. And none, perhaps, the worse for that: so much of this novel, after all, has now become mythic – part of the consciousness even of those who have not read it.

Given its vast dimensions of this novel, and its huge ambition, Les Misérables is sometimes compared with War and Peace, but the comparison seems to me misguided. A more apt comparison is surely The Count of Monte Cristo. The opposition between these two masterpieces by Tolstoy and by Dumas is instructive, for if War and Peace is the closest the modern world has come to Homeric epic, The Count of Monte Cristo is surely the closest we have come to A Thousand and One Nights. Like the anonymous authors of the A Thousand and One Nights, Dumas’ interest is purely in plot: the development and motivation of the characters – that were so important to so many novelists of the nineteenth century – are restricted to only so much as is required to make the plot intelligible. The delight comes from the sequence of events – or, rather, the sequences of events, as Dumas, like one of those plate spinners who delight audiences by keeping a seemingly impossible number of plates spinning on sticks simultaneously, thickens his narrative texture with more plot strands than one might have thought feasible, keeps them all spinning, and, somehow, uncovers the most unlikely connections between them to link them into a unity. It is an extraordinary display of the art of the storyteller – never, to my mind, bettered, or even equalled. In War and Peace, on the other hand, we are in a very different fictional world: here, characters have feelings and motives that do not necessarily serve the plot; they grow and develop over time as they interact with each other; and perhaps above all, they have inner lives – they have souls. Infinity is indeed depicted – the Russians, as I said, are good at this kind of thing – but not by putting Mankind in second place.

In the spectrum between Dumas and Tolstoy, Les Misérables seems to me far closer to the former than to the latter. Hugo’s characters are memorable, certainly; at best, they are what is generally termed “larger than life” – i.e. they have about them a mythic quality. But their motivations are generally straight-forward and uncomplicated – naïve, if you like; and, more significantly, none of them have an inner life. What you may see on the surface is really all there is to them.

Purely in terms of plot, there are many similarities between Dumas’ novel and Hugo’s – far too many, indeed, to be put down merely to coincidence. In both novels, the principal character is a former convict (Edmond Dantès had been framed, Jean Valjean imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread during hard times) who, once out of prison, take on new identities, acquire wealth, and devote the rest of their lives to what they regard as their life’s mission. In both novels, various characters re-emerge in different environments and often under different names, and are not identified immediately to the readers. Both novels are punctuated by big, dramatic set-pieces; and, at one particular point, Hugo unashamedly recycles one of Dumas’ finest plot devices: just as Dantès had taken the place of a dead person to escape from the Château d’If, so Valjean takes the place of a dead person to make his way out of the convent without Javert noticing. (Well, to be fair, it is too good a piece of plotting not to recycle!) It is true that Hugo doesn’t match Dumas in his plate-spinning act: while, admittedly, Hugo does have quite a few plates spinning, they aren’t all spinning at the same time, and when a particular strand of the plot takes centre-stage, the others retreat into the background, and are effectively put on hold. Indeed, even the central character, Jean Valjean, barely appears for a few hundred odd pages in the central sections of the novel when the spotlight is on Marius.

But unlike Dumas, plot for the sake of plot is not really what Hugo was aiming for. He wanted to put into this novel everything that was important to him, everything that he found interesting, so that, piece by piece, it would build up, as he states, into a depiction of Infinity itself. One may personally prefer dumas to Hugo, but it cannot be denied that Hugo aimed much higher.

Amongst other things, the missions taken on by Dantès and by Valjean are very different in nature. For Dantès, the mission is revenge, while for Valjean, converted to sainthood after his encounter with the Bishop of Digne, it is to look after the unfortunates of the world as best he can; and, in particular, to ensure the happiness of Cosette. In short, Dantès’ mission makes for an exciting plotline; Valjean’s makes for reflection on the moral natures of our lives.

Of course, the theme of revenge could also lead to moral reflection, but that is certainly not Dumas’ aim; Hugo, on the other hand, cannot stop moralising. He is happy to interpolate polemics on whatever topic takes his fancy, at any point of the novel he fancies. Even at some of the most exciting points of the storyline – and indeed, it is very exciting at times – Hugo is happy to break the narrative line with digressions. Except that these aren’t really digressions; or, rather, they are digressions only if one thinks of the plot as being the principal point of the book. But Hugo has set out to depict Infinity itself, and to that end, nothing can be considered digressionary.

Some of these “digressions” are, indeed, fascinating. I particularly enjoyed, amongst others, his essay on the nature of revolution, and his thoughts on the circumstances under which revolution may be morally justified. As well as his polemical digressions, we get also narrative ones – pieces of narrative that have little if anything to do with the central thrust of the story. The flashback depicting the Battle of Waterloo, for instance: apart from the little incident narrated near the end, the entire sequence – taking up about fifty or so closely printed pages in my edition – has absolutely no bearing whatever on the central plot. But Hugo includes it because he finds it interesting: he needs no further reason. And it is interesting: it is among the finest depictions of the field of battle I have encountered in fiction. Tolstoy had famously chosen Stendhal’s depiction of Waterloo (from La Chartreuse de Parme) as the model for the battle scenes in War and Peace, but what Hugo gives us here is just as impressive as the battle scenes either by Stendhal or by Tolstoy; but unlike the other two writers, Hugo depicts the battle not from the perspective of any of the participants, but, rather, an objective “God’s eye” view. It is magnificent, yes, but in his mad attempt to depict Infinity, Mankind does indeed – at this point, at any rate – take second place. And it shouldn’t: when, as the title itself suggests, one’s principal theme is the injustice of human suffering, it is Mankind, and not Infinity, that should take centre stage.

Or take the description of the Paris sewers. Admittedly, this does come at one of the most exciting points in the story, but the evocation of place is extraordinarily vivid (although I suppose I could have done without those extra chapters detailing Hugo’s view on how sewage should ideally be processed); and once the story does get going again after this, we have those magnificent chapters of Valjean carrying the half-dead Marius through the sewers – as fine a piece of pure storytelling as I have come across.

But sadly, all these “digressions” are not equally interesting. The problem with Hugo is that he never knew when to leave something out. I generally try not to make that penny-in-the-slot criticism “it needed a good editor”; indeed, I find this unthinking piece of criticism generally quite annoying; but I cannot think of any other novel I have read – certainly not Moby-Dick, to which this criticism is all too frequently applied – where I have been so tempted to resort to this. For Hugo can often be tiresome. As a completist, I do not like to leave out any bits – not even the bits translator Norman Denny has placed as appendices – but in retrospect, I really should have left out those huge chunks of Hugovian pontificating, and that rhetoric of his that all too often slips over into bombast.

Which, of course, raises the question of what it is precisely that distinguishes rhetoric from bombast. After giving the matter much thought, it seems to me that it is rhetoric if you like it, and bombast if you don’t. So when I speak of Hugo’s rhetoric often shading into bombast, I suppose I should make it clear that I am offering it only as a record of my personal reaction, and not as a piece of literary criticism.

But bombast or rhetoric, as you will, once the story gets going, it is fine stuff. Whatever higher ambitions Hugo had, he could spin a rattling good yarn; and some of the purely narrative sequences in the story are such that even Dumas would have been proud of. Admittedly, when he had to depict pure and innocent young lovers, he was no more successful than Dickens had been on that score, but when one considers, say, Valjean’s escape from the ship; the sequence where Javert tracks him across the streets of Paris; or the big showdown at the Gorbeau tenement; or the scenes at the barricades, or the splendid sequence set in the sewers (clearly the inspiration for Grahan Greene for the finale of The Third Man); we are left in no doubt that we are in the hands of one of the greatest of all storytellers.

It is difficult by the end to know quite what to make of this vast and often unwieldy novel. The storytelling is magnificent, and the characters as vivid and colourful as one is likely to encounter in any novel. But those longueurs are – well, long. The mad ambition of depicting Infinity is nowhere near achieved – it never was likely to be achieved anyway – but what we get on the way, though frequently dull and frustrating, is also, even more frequently, exciting, and even, at times, mythic, and magnificent. But I must confess that after some twelve hundred and more pages of this, I do long for something a bit more deftly shaded, a bit more subtle and nuanced. A bit more Flaubertian, perhaps, with its sad admission that the stars cannot really be moved with pity, rather than a mad and megalomaniac attempt to do so.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on November 3, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    Good piece. However, I think that one needs a big ego to write any novel in the first place. I suspect that a lot of authorial modesty is contrived, with a lot of very conscious self control needed.


  2. Great commentary Himadri. There is really so much to say about this work.

    The digressions are fascinating as they are so puzzling. I really tried hard to figure out why Hugo included that Waterloo piece. I did find it interesting but I kept thinking that it had to relate some way thematically. I remember almost forgetting that I was reading a larger work in while I was immersed in it.


    • Hello Brian,
      Thinking back on the novel, it seems to me very un-French-like in many ways. The first is that it is utterly devoid of cynicism. The French novelists, especially of the 19th century, I tend to find a very cynical lot: even Stendhal, who, somehow, managed to combine his cynicism with a wide-eyed Romanticism. But with Hugo, I don’t get this at all. there is, of course, much wrong with this novel, but it is so obviously written by a writer with a big heart, that I, for one, am happy not to make too big a deal of the flaws.

      the other area where it seems to me very un-french-like is hugo’s seeming diregard for form. If he wants to write about Waterloo, or about teh street-life of Parisian urtchins, or about concvents and monasteries, he just goes ahead and does it. It doesn’t bother him whether or not it’s integrated with the rest of the novel: the fact that he finds it of interest is sufficient. This can, admittedly, be frustrating at times, but I must admit I rather like his chutpah!


  3. I adored the Flaubert quote. Reminds me of Nietzsche, and words as “rainbow-bridges.”

    I think one thing that Hugo does very well is weave in classic moral philosophy problems into his story. Ought Valjean give himself up and destroy the entire industry that he has set up over the years, and cost so many people their jobs? It’s the eternal utilitarian dilemma. And Hugo doesn’t let us escape it either, since he specifies that after Valjean’s recapture, the entire region went to the dogs. Was saving the life of one innocent man worth destroying the lives of so many others? I don’t know, but Hugo puts it with greater clarity than the abstract philosophers do.


    • Hello Gautam,

      Hugo certainly addresses serious moral issues. I too was wondering whether it can be morally justified for Valjean to reveal himself at the trial, given what is bound to ensue.

      And there is an anger at the heart of this novel – but, as Orwell famously said of Dickens, it’s a generous anger. I did enjoy reading this, although, to be honest, I doubt I’ll want to re-read it. I nowadays prefer subtlety and nuance to broad-brushed vigour, impressive though that can be.


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