Book 1 – Fantine
“In 1815, M. Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D—— He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D—— since 1806.
Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be superfluous, if merely for the sake of exactness in all points, to mention here the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him from the very moment when he arrived in the diocese. True or false, that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do. M. Myriel was the son of a councillor of the Parliament of Aix; hence he belonged to the nobility of the bar. It was said that his father, destining him to be the heir of his own post, had married him at a very early age, eighteen or twenty, in accordance with a custom which is rather widely prevalent in parliamentary families. In spite of this marriage, however, it was said that Charles Myriel created a great deal of talk. He was well formed, though rather short in stature, elegant, graceful, intelligent; the whole of the first portion of his life had been devoted to the world and to gallantry.”
For what is an immensely readable novel, this book is not a plot heavy book. What I mean by this is that while plenty happens, especially late, the novel is deeply character driven. The opening section begins with slowly unfolding the history and morality of Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel, the bishop whom we later see Jean Valjean have an important interaction with. This slow unraveling gives us a clear sense not only of the character, but also the beginning notions of the morality at the center of the book. The bishop is a kind man who believes that people act based on their material conditions, and were those conditions equitable, then people would act better. This discounts people who spend their lives wanting more and more, but for the most of people, the idea of having needs met is a driving force. So when we meet Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for stealing bread initially and has been in prison for the last 19 years, the bishop sees him as a man in need, not the prisoner and not the limiting definition of his yellow passport or his prisoner number. When Jean Valjean steals from the bishop and is met with kindness and further wealth, he almost goes through his transformation. It takes one more act of depravity, robbing the child, for Jean Valjean to understand he must atone.
This section, which is called Fantine, is also about the depravity that Fantine faces after she’s impregnated by a libertine. She turns to prostitution, sells her teeth to pay a debt (sending her daughter to live with the Thénardiers), and falls ill. When she is assaulted in the street, and fights back, she is arrested by Javert, only to be let go when Jean Valjean, now mayor, commands her release. The same kindness and compassion he is offered is extended to her.
Book 2: Cosette
“Last year (1861), on a beautiful May morning, a traveller, the person who is telling this story, was coming from Nivelles, and directing his course towards La Hulpe. He was on foot. He was pursuing a broad paved road, which undulated between two rows of trees, over the hills which succeed each other, raise the road and let it fall again, and produce something in the nature of enormous waves.”
The narrator of the novel is a version of Hugo, and we know this not only because of his intrusions of the text like this one from the present year of 1861, but in reference to an old Hugo, who the narrator tells us is an ancient relative. He begins with a long analysis of the Battle of Waterloo discussing how weather played a significant role, limiting the movement of the artillery. Ultimately though Hugo tells us that Napoleon was too large a force for God to allow to control all of Europe. That’s maybe a little fanciful, but the idea that too much was wrapped up in one singular figure, like Alexander the Great or Hitler, for the fate of a whole empire to rely upon. A few years later Tolstoy would suggest a different idea, that the fate of the world is controlled a near infinite number of minor actions adding up. He’s the Fox to Hugo’s Hedgehog. It would be interesting of course to know if Tolstoy had read Hugo (probably) and was responding in his own grand epic.
The rest of this section involves the fate of Cosette, Fantine’s daughter who has been living with the abusive innkeepers, and who becomes a much more instrumental part later in the book. Cosette also earns the passed on goodwill that runs as a motif throughout the book.
Book 3: Marius
In book three, we continue barreling forward to the summer of 1830 where anyone familiar with the story or the musical knows we must get to. At the beginning here, we are introduced to Marius, who at the start is trying to work out his place in the world and his worldview. He is the son of a high-ranking officer in Napoleon’s army, and this actually works to tarnish his reputation. Marius lives with his grandfather, unsure of what to think about his father, until he finds a document that tells the story of his fate in Waterloo. From this document Marius develops a deep passion for all things Napoleon, learns that his father awarded a title of Baron from the General, and now is passing it on to his son. Barons are not in fashion, so again, this is both a badge and a stain if Marius chooses to don it. Marius also learns about how his father was saved from death by one Threnadier, to whom Marius pledges a debt of honor. Obviously this will come back later.
We also get the first stirrings of the student rebellion as we meet the members of the ABC club and learn about their attitudes, feelings, and passions. This is where we meet Enjolras for the first time as well. Throughout this book we also learn more about where and how Jean Valjean has been living, and we’re introduced to Gavroche and, though unnamed for all of this time, Eponine. Marius learns of Cosette, though he doesn’t know her name yet, and he too must decide whether to honor his debt to Threnadier or whether to side with justice.
Book 4: The Idyll and the Epic
This book moves us toward the final threads of the story that will need to be resolved in Book Five. Cosette and Marius meet and fall in love much to the horror of Jean Valjean who was partly hoping to keep her in convent for the rest of her life. This is not his actually decision as he begins to doubt the fairness and humanity of such a choice, and realizes that his desire in based in fear of what might happen to Cosette and not in her wishes. Marius also notices the beauty and humanity of Eponine, which of course is a real problem. We get the adventures of Gavroche and the other thieves in Paris, and we get the continuing pursuit of Jean Valjean from Javert, both of whom are growing old. One of the things that’s happening now is the clear sense that time is passing in the story and in France, and what is left of the Revolutionary generations and the Napoleon generations must give way to what will come next, which the revolution of 1832 tells us is very much up for grabs. And don’t worry about my use of the phrase “up for grabs” because Hugo gives us a 30 page dissertation of the importance of narrating and using slang in novels, as slang is the spoken language of the dispossessed.
This also includes an essay on the differences between riots, rebellion, revolutions, and insurrection, coming to the conclusion this this specific riot is nothing revolutionary and worse, doomed to fail, and how wasteful it seems to die or kill for it. This is also where Jean Valjean saves Javert and lets him go, saves Marius, and descends into the sewers of Paris.
Book 5: Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is the center and morality of the novel. With all the love stories, deaths, tragedies, wars, and rebellions, it’s all still him and comes down to him.
But first! 50 pages about sewers!
Jean Valjean meets Threnadier outside the sewers who mistakes Marius for someone Jean Valjean has murdered and looking for a place to dump him. Instead, JVJ is taking Marius to his grandfather’s house, where he’s received with love and horror, to the point that don’t take note of the man who brings him. He recovers, and with his grandfather’s newly rewon affection marries Cosette, and is gifted the mass fortune that JVJ made in his factory.
Later on, Jean Valjean wants to make a clean breast of things and tells Marius that he was a convict and was twice convicted. Marius is disgusted but doesn’t want to include Cosette. He agrees that Jean Valjean can see Cosette, but can’t be a part of the family. He goes off to live by himself where he grows weaker and sicker over time.
Marius has a run-in with Threnadier who “warns” Marius Jean Valjean has committed murder, except it only shows Marius that Jean Valjean saved his life and delivered him to Cosette. Heartbroken, he and Cosette visit Jean Valjean with the intent to bring him back, but he’s too sick.
This is probably honestly the best thing I’ve ever read, however bombastic, however silly at times, and however digressive parts of it gets. None of those things are complaints, but part of what makes it great.