A lengthy story concerning one man attempting to redeem himself from past sins, Les Miserables encompasses a span of 16 years in French society between 1815-1831: a tumultuous political era full of inequality and political strife. The tale concerns one Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, imprisoned for an initial 5 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, whose sentence is increased to 19 years for repeatedly attempting to escape. Upon his release in 1815, he is unable to escape the heavy burden of his past sins, as the people around him are unwilling to accept an ex-convict into society, no matter how good his deeds are. This contradiction between reality and illusion figures heavily in the book, as the morality and virtue of a person are often misperceived. The novel deals with themes such as the importance of love, social injustice, redemption and immorality.
“Be it true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence upon their lives, and especially upon their destinies, as what they do”
A staple in the collection of books studied in high school, Les Miserables is a very smooth and accessible read compared to a lot of other famous novels, and for this reason it remains immensely popular. It serves as a harsh critique to the social injustice of the time: morally upright characters are often in abject conditions, whilst the degenerate, villainous characters are much better off, revealing the injustice inherent in the system. This illustrates the foolishness of holding certain prejudices: Jean Valjean becomes a great philanthropist, yet despite the fact he is clearly a good man, his past as an ex-convict clouds the judgement of those around him. It also criticizes the reciprocality of social injustice, evident in Jean Valjean himself, who transformed from a petty thief into a hardened criminal merely due to the decision by the justice system to keep him in prison for 19 years; and the prevalence of orphans, who are forced to become criminals because they lack the opportunity to escape from such poverty.
“A man is not idle, because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labour and there is an invisible labour.”
Quite an epic tale in scope, the huge time span, the highly detailed characters, and the vivid environments ensure Les Miserables has remained a classic for over 150 years. Set in both rural France, and later on in the busy city of Paris, the reader will absorb both spheres of life from the 19th century: the quiet, peaceful country life, and the hectic bustle of city life. The story is highly enthralling, and contains a wide range of sub-plots and stories that will keep you greatly interested; from the insidious Thernardier to the relentless Inspector Javert, Les Miserables contains a wealth of characters that will keep you gripped; a great read for teenagers upwards.
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”