“Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo

After a bit more than 1250 pages, I am happy to announce that I have finally finished “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo. Initially I got this book asa gift for Christmas 2019 but only started to read it at the end of this September as a challenge to be done with it before Christmas.

My main thought about this book is that it is absolutely epic. The main reason why I would give it that characteristic is not because it gives a grand picture of the French society through the eye of those who were poor as well as depicts some historical events, but because while reading it I went through all possible emotions: I was frustrated with the book when I could not get through the chapters that described some unknown to me French dukes or were listing things one after the other which seemed to have very weak connection to the storyline; I was saddened and shocked at the cruelty of the French towards the poor and whose who had committed a crime such as stealing a loaf of bread to feed their families; I was in awe and admiration of the characters’ moral standards and faith; I was bored through some parts of the book, perplexed through others and could not stop reading at some point. Is it not epic for the book to evoke all this spectrum of emotions when you are reading it?

The storyline itself is centered around Jean Valjean, ex-convict, who now is living to the highest moral principles but still can not be accepted under his real name in society because of what he did (and that was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his nieces and nephews). At some point in the book, his path crosses with this of Fantine, a young woman who had a child outside of the wedlock and tried to feed it with her honest work but society pushed her to the very edge – she eventually passed away, leaving behind a daughter of which Jean Valjean promised to take care. From that moment, the adventures of Jean Valjean and the small child, Cosette, begin and we follow them until the marriage of Cosette and the very death of Jean Valjean. This is a very simplified description of the whole story, of course, – it is more complex, grand, intricate in so many ways that it can not be reduced to that single paragraph. It is, though, a good introduction into the story full of love, hope, despair and cruelty.

When I read any piece of fiction, I always highlight two or three quotes that stood out to me. Here are some of my favourite ones from “Les Miserables”:

Daring deeds dazzle history and are one of man’s great sources of light. The dawn dares when it rises. To attempt, to brave, to persist, to persevere, to be faithful to one’s self, to grasp fate bodily, to astound catastrophe by the small amount of fear that it occasions us, now to affront unjust power, again to insult drunken victory, to hold one’s position, to stand one’s ground,; that is the example that nations need, that is the light that electrifies them. The same formidable light proceeds from the torch of Prometheus to Cambronne’s short pipe.

This one resonated with my a lot as I know exactly how it feels and what it means from the personal experience:

Poverty in youth, when it succeeds, has this magnificent property about it, that it turns the whole will toward effort, and the whole soul toward aspiration. Poverty instantly lays material life bare and renders it hideous; hence inexpressible bounds toward the ideal life. […] The poor young man wins his bread with difficulty; he eats, when he has eaten, he has nothing more but meditation. He goes to the spectacles that God furnishes gratis; he gazes at the sky, space, the stars, flowers, children, the humanity among which he is suffering, the creation amid which he beams. […] From the egotism of the man who suffers, he passes to the compassion of the man who meditates. […] He is firm, serene, gentle, peaceful, attentive, serious, content with little, kindly; and he thanks God for having bestowed on his those two forms of riches that many a rich man lacks: work, which makes him free,; and though, which makes him dignified.

On love:

What a grander thing it is to love! The heart becomes heroic, by dint of passion. It is no longer composed of anything but what is pure; it no longer rests on anything that is not elevated and great. An unworthy thought can no more germinate in it, than a nettle on a glacier. The serene and lofty soul, inaccessible to vulgar passions and emotions, dominating the clouds and the shades of this world, its follies, its lies, its hatred, its vanities, its miseries, inhabits the blue of heaven, and no longer feels anything, but profound and subterranean shocks of destiny, as the crests of mountains feel the shocks of earthquakes. If there did not exist someone who loved, the sun would become extinct.

A lot of food for thought! And this is why I liked the book: reading it was a great experience which won’t make me forget this book for a long time. To more epic stories!

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