Seth's Reviews > Les Misérables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
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Oct 01, 11

bookshelves: french-literature
Read from May 09 to September 25, 2011

I have finally finished reading this epic masterpiece, but rather than relying on my own observations, I would prefer to pass along a few insights of Mario Vargas Llosa, who devoted an entire book (The Temptation of the Impossible) to analyzing this seminal work of Western literature.

According to Vargas Llosa, Les Misérables is an example of utopian literature in the sense that the author intended it to motivate readers to strive for “a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one they live in.” (The Temptation of the Impossible, pp. 176-177) Hugo believed that history is moving humanity inexorably on the path toward social progress. For example, he believed that the ideals of French Revolution, which he regarded as divinely inspired, would outlive temporary setbacks such as the Battle of Waterloo. However, he was also convinced that ordinary people have a role to play in encouraging this progress.

In this spirit, the plot’s direction is repeatedly shaped by improbable acts of heroism by Jean Valjean, who serves as a deus ex machina. Like many other characters, Valjean is an archetypal figure, in contrast to Marius, who embodies normal human frailties. Valjean is a saintly figure, who represents Jesus-like righteousness, just as Javert personifies fanaticism and Thénardier evil. The contrast between Valjean and Thénardier is Manichean in the sense that unmitigated virtue is cast against unmitigated evil.

Another important feature of Les Misérables, according to Vargas Llosa, is the omniscient narrator, who is actually the most important character in the novel. He is not just omniscient, but at times even overbearing and impudent. Such a narrator is characteristic of classical novels, in contrast to modern novels, such as Madame Bovary, in which the narrator steps into the background, or is ‘effaced,’ to use one of Hugo’s favorite words.

Hugo’s masterpiece inspired Tolstoy to write War and Peace, which adopts a similar theory of historical determinism. However, the theme of War and Peace revolves more around the heroism of ordinary people in war than social justice.
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Reading Progress

05/09/2011 "I decided to read Les Misérables instead of Swann's Way for now. I think it's more accessible."
06/18/2011
26.0% "My fellow readers may be interested that Mario Vargas Llosa published a book offering his interpretation of Les Misérables: "The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables." According to the publisher's description, "Hugo...had at least two goals in Les Misérables--to create a complete fictional world and, through it, to change the real world...The book embodies a utopian vision of literature.""
06/26/2011
35.0% "Parallels with War and Peace abound, yet the two novels are fundamentally different. Hugo's theme is social justice, whereas Tolstoy's themes are Russian patriotism and debunking the great man theory of history. Both feature examples of extreme piety and self-sacrifice. For all her altruism, Marya Bolkonskaya is at a loss when she encounters restive serfs. Bishop Welcome and Jean Valjean do not share this reticence."
07/04/2011
40.0% "Les Misérables is making me miserable. The story of Jan Valjean is quite exciting at times, but the author's digressions into the minutiae of French history and culture are extremely tedious. I will soldier on because it is my duty to do so."
07/31/2011
56.0% "Marius could be a bit more decisive."
08/07/2011
61.0% "A series of improbable events is bringing Marius and Cosette together."
08/14/2011
68.0% "Two-thirds of the way through the book and Marius finally connects with Cosette. Now on to the adventures of Little Gavroche, who fits into the pattern of exemplary conduct and selfless sacrifice demonstrated by Bishop Welcome and Jean Valjean. Utopian literature, indeed."
08/29/2011
75.0% "The action is heating up. I took an early look at Mario Vargas Llosa's critique of Les Mis. So here's a quiz question: According to Vargas Llosa, who is the most important character in Les Mis? a) Monseigneur Bienvenu b) Jean Valjean c) Fantine d) Gavroche e) Marius f) Cosette g) the narrator"
09/05/2011
84.0% "The answer to the quiz question is g) the narrator. According to Vargas Llosa, the main character in Les Mis is the "insolent narrator who is constantly cropping up between his creation and the reader." (Mario Vargas Llosa, The Temptation of the Impossible, p. 11)"
09/18/2011
93.0% "When Jean Valjean improbably rescues Marius at the barricade and carries him to safety through the Paris sewers, he is being used as a "deus ex machina" literary device (Latin for "God out of the machine.") Wikipedia describes it as a "plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.""
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Marieke Ich gratuliere!


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