Les MisÚrables (1862)

by Victor Hugo

Chances are you already know the broad outline of Les MisÚrables from seeing a live performance of the musical, or maybe a movie version. The convict Jean Valjean repents and finds redemption in loving the orphan Cosette. Relentless police inspector Javert, however, keeps him on the run. French society, rife with poverty and inequality, is erupting.

At more than 1,400 pages in some editions, Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece contains so much more than that bare outline, with many characters and both a personal story of redemption and a denunciation of early-19th-century social ills. Les Mis encompasses such a vast sweep — love, evil, forgiveness, oppression, second chances, compassion, intransigence, collective effort, endurance, saintliness, meanness, courage, self-sacrifice — that it can be said to be about all of life. It is inspiring, moving, and even suspenseful.

If the length intimidates you, know that Hugo went off on digressions that you can skip without losing anything essential to the plot. If you’re still intimidated, try an abridged version. Julie Rose’s 1996 abridgement (only 336 pages!) gets good reviews on Amazon.


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