What Can We Steal From Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables?

Title of Work and its Form: Les Miserables, novel
Author: Victor Hugo
Date of Work: 1862
Where the Work Can Be Found: The unabridged book can be downloaded in various electronic formats here. The book can also be purchased from secondhand bookshops, including shops such as Syracuse, New York’s Books and Memories.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

One of the primary reasons that Les Miserables is one of the classics of Western literature is because the book engages in a meaningful discussion of nearly every human emotion and primal longing. This depth makes the book hard to summarize, but here are the basics: Jean Valjean wants forgiveness and a connection with the rest of humanity after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread intended to feed his sister’s children. The Bishop of D—- offers mercy to Valjean, giving a thief the silver that would make him an honest businessman and (relatively) caring employer. Inspector Javert, having been born in prison, has a dangerous infatuation with justice (in his view, synonymous with the law).  Valjean adopts Cosette, the illegitimate daughter of one of his employees and runs away from Javert to raise her.  When Cosette grows up, she falls in love with Marius, a student who is part of a group of revolutionaries.  Eponine loves Marius, but she never has a chance.  The French Revolution starts, lots of people die and Valjean carries a wounded Marius to safety through the sewers; it’s a happy ending for all.  (And by “all,” I mean Valjean, Cosette, Marius and the Thenardiers.  Pretty much everyone else is dead.)

Hugo is very shrewd in populating his stories with parallel characters.  Fantine is as great a mother as she can be, Madame Thenardier is a terrible mother.  Marius is a young man infatuated with love who will do anything to make it happen, Enjolras is a young man infatuated with freedom who will do anything to make it happen.  Valjean loves “real” justice and doing the right thing, Javert loves the immutable law and feels that legality makes something “right.”  The novel could be boring and didactic if he had instead engaged with these conflicting ideas on their own.  Instead, these characters represent their principles and the characters’ actions allow Hugo to make his grand argument in a captivating way.  (After all, stories are often more compelling than polemics.  Stories are also usually more popular.)

What responsibilities do we have to each other as human beings?  Instead of writing an editorial, Hugo depicts the life of a sympathetic character whose life is dictated by the opposing issues people hold.  Yes, Valjean broke the law by stealing bread…but did he really deserve such a long sentence?  He was trying to feed children.  Indeed, people in societies will always hold values that will inform rules that are eventually codified into law.  But does Fantine deserve all of the problems she experienced for the “crime” for being a single mother?  To what extent should society have helped or punished her?

Hugo is also careful to make his characters seem human.  Upon being paroled, Jean Valjean does not have a magic, instant epiphany and become a “good” person.  No, the nineteen years in jail have hardened him and made him doubt the humanity in the humans around him.  Hugo’s makes an important choice in allowing Valjean to change: he makes the transformation messy and difficult.  A lesser writer (like me) would have made Valjean turn “good” immediately after the Bishop gives him the silver.  “Why am I angry at the world,” I would have Valjean say.  “The Bishop told the gendarmes that he gave me the silver I stole.  The man of God lied!  For me!  Why am I being such a jerk?  I think I’ll head to Montreuil-sur-Mer and start a factory and give lots of money to the poor.”  Instead, the veil over Valjean’s soul isn’t lifted until later, when he steals, quite by accident, a coin from a little kid named Petit Gervais.  That’s when Valjean realizes he has been living like a cur and resolves to live a life dedicated to justice.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Populate your story with parallel characters.  A story may be an illustration of the conflict between good and evil.  More importantly, a story is a slice of life that just happens to be taken from a fictional world.  Great fiction may contain big ideas and fierce ideological argument, but it is really about the characters: real souls breathed to life by the writer.
  • Empower your characters to have messy internal conflicts.  Real people are complicated.  They contradict themselves.  They often act in such a manner that violates their strongest beliefs.  When you allow your characters these idiosyncrasies, they will seem all the more vital to your reader.
  • Read the classics early and often and appreciate your teachers.  I was introduced to Les Miserables by Miss Rowe in eleventh grade.  I’m sure that I looked at that brick of a book with some measure of suspicion, but her enthusiasm and patience coaxed me to begin a journey that has been tremendously fulfilling.  You never know when you are going to fall in love with a book.



One Comment

  • Definitely some great characterization by Hugo. I think you can steal a lot from him, actually. I remember reading a brief analysis of his symbolism, such as the images of the fly/spider web (Esmeralda caught in Frollo’s web) and the rose window of the cathedral (don’t remember the specific reading, something about those searching for light, I think). John P. Houston’s _Victor Hugo_ (Twayne’s World Authors Series) and Ayn Rand’s _The Romantic Manifesto_ include some good observations, I seem to recall.

    By the way, I love the concept of this website. Kudos.

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