Les Miserables is the longest book I have ever read. It is massive not only in its page count but more importantly in the gut-wrenching, heart pumping feelings it evokes, the visions it creates, the horror and hope it instills… It is a book you need to read leisurely and at your own pace. The density of detail and lengthy digressions (to be real, I did skim those sections!) on politics or language or religion made me take a few breaks. But that does not imply boredom, I was riveted throughout.
The story follows Jean Valjean, a convict who committed a petty crime and by cruel fate becomes a pariah. He is relentlessly pursued by the law and is constantly on the run. He adopts a little girl and raises her as his own. She becomes the only light in his dark and ominous life. Despite all the evil forces conspiring to crush him, Valjean remains heroic and saintly in his perseverance. His bottomless goodness and deep faith put him in the ranks of angels. But that doesn’t mean Valjean was effortlessly good-his goodness was contested and conflicted. So many times in the story Valjean had to internally battle with his base nature, and to refuse the easier (and morally questionable) path. Hence his is not simply a freedom journey but a spiritual one. How does one elevate oneself and transcend to the best of what it means to be human? Jean Valjean’s life choices give a compelling answer.
One cannot talk about the hunted without mentioning the hunter. Javert is the cold, calculating Inspector who spends decades chasing after his prey, Jean Valjean. I haven’t come across such a haunting character in a long time. Javert is reminiscent of many in law enforcement who are religiously committed to their duty but are blind to its injustice. I was honestly shocked at what ends up happening to Javert but after finishing the book it all makes sense.
Many other memorable and spectacular characters become entwined in Valjean’s epic drama. These characters are used to expound on other themes of the book such as the grave injustice of poverty in the seedy underbelly of Paris. The reader witnesses the ills of prostitution and falls in love with witty street children. There is also the undercurrent and after effects of the French Revolution, political turmoil, the author’s constant emphasis on civilizational progress (hinged on uplifting the poor) and the awe-inspiring courage of democratic uprising. It made me wonder how we nowadays lack that zeal and bravery to fight for and possibly even die for our values. And of course what is an epic without young, cherubic love.
Overall this is a masterpiece and a sweeping achievement that has inspired through the ages. I see myself re-reading this again in the future because the English translation is fantastic and there are passages in this book that reads like poetry and touches my very core.