5 months in Les Misérables…Worth it?


Les Misérables is big book. With a big story. Not just in number of pages or characters (although those too), but in scope of relationships and God and choices.

I was particularly interested in the main storyline—all things involving the main character Jean Valjean. If you’re familiar with the book or plays or films, you already know that he steals a loaf of bread for his sister’s hungry kids, and gets banished to hard prison labor for 19 years.

Upon his release, Jean Valjean steals silverware from the nicest bishop ever, Monseigneur Myriel, who in turn shows him so much grace (he lets him keep the silverware and throws in two silver candlesticks to boot) that Jean Valjean is forever changed.

The story starts from there.

And the story is an incredible one.

For that story of grace, I endured all the pages and myriads of rabbit trails and the five months it took me to read Les Misérables.

All worth it.

That’s not to say there wasn’t frustration along the way. Valjean’s past continues to haunt him over and over. He’s faced with many difficult decisions regarding his life and the young Cosette. Author Victor Hugo allows us to see inside the decision-making of many of those choices, and allows us to experience the anguish of their difficulty.

But when the joy comes, he lets us feel that in full force, too.

So my apologies to Hugo for all the times I griped about his long soliloquies on topics such as “ANCIENT HISTORY OF THE SEWER.” (Yes, really.) (And did Hugo not even realize his propensity for digressions? “. . . the reader will permit us one other little digression, utterly foreign to this book, but characteristic and useful, since it shows that the cloister even has its original figures.”)

Les Misérables is not a book to be taken lightly or read quickly. It asks much of the reader. Especially we modern readers who have short attention spans. (Having read this and The Brothers Karamazov in the same year, I feel somewhat drained. )

But rising to the challenge of hard reading (it was hard reading to me anyway) can be satisfying. A great book combines the beauty of art with the sanctity of the divine. It’s rare and is to be treasured.

To quote the Bishop when he was confronted by Madame Magloire about “wasting” a spot of land for flowers—“Monseigneur, it would be better grow salads there than bouquets”—the Bishop responds, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a pause, “More so, perhaps.”

Time spent inside Les Misérables was as useful as it was beautiful. And that’s saying a lot for a die-hard non-fiction reader like me.

Here are a few favorite excerpts.

“That evening, before he [the Bishop] went to bed, he said again: ‘Let us never fear robbers nor murderers. Those are dangers from without, petty dangers. Let us fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers. The great dangers lie within ourselves.

What matters it what threatens our head or our purse! Let us think only of that which threatens our soul.’”

~ * ~

“He did not study God; he was dazzled by him.”

~ * ~

“This humble soul loved, and that was all. That he carried prayer to the pitch of a superhuman aspiration is probable: but one can no more pray too much than one can love too much.”

~ * ~

“Civil war—what does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not all war between men, war between brothers? War is qualified only by its object. There is no such thing as foreign or civil war; there is only just and unjust war.”

~ * ~

“Jean Valjean surveyed the doctor and Marius serenely, almost without ceasing to gaze at Cosette. These barely articulate words were heard to issue from his mouth: ‘It is nothing to die; it is dreadful not to live.’”

* * *

What do you think about Les Misérables? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

And with this, I’m officially finished with my 2014 Book Challenges. What a great year of reading!

24 thoughts on “5 months in Les Misérables…Worth it?

  1. floyd

    Those are great quotes… almost makes me want to undertake the massive challenge! Thanks for sharing, Lisa. Of all I’ve heard about this book, yours is the best description and explanation.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It’s really hard to describe this book in a short blog post so I’m glad you got something out of this anyway, Floyd. 🙂 If you ever decide to undertake it, let me know and I’ll give you some tips of what to skim over. ha.

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Interesting! I’ve never read Les Miserables, and at this point I probably never will.

    Part of it, I’ll say with some regret, is that my reading reflexes and skills have been coarsened to the point where I can’t fully appreciate Hugo’s delicate yet richly textured prose.

    A parallel exists in flying . Going from small aerobatic airplanes with delightful control response to restored WW2 fighters – large, heavy aeroplanes which require sheer muscle to achieve results – is to some degree a one-way trip. One’s personality is imbued with the need to subdue an aeroplane through physical force, and the delicacy of touch needed to fly a more cooperative aeroplane is lost, perhaps forever.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Hugo is a bit dense, I’ll say. In the midst of the central story, he’s riveting. But in his digressions, I got frustrated (and started skimming).

      I love your analogy to flying because I wouldn’t have thought of it myself. Closer to my experiences would be driving a car without power steering or automatic transmission versus one with it. 🙂 These older books do require more attention and sheer force at times to keep plodding through.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, you’re so right; it does feel like leaving a friend behind when you’ve spent so much time together with the characters in a book. Sometimes I slow down when I near the end of a book because I don’t want it to end.

  3. Barbara H.

    Very much worth it! Such a beautiful story with so many rich undertones. The rabbit trails were frustrating at times. I’d love to read it again some time, but its size makes it a daunting prospect. I don’t know if I’d go with the abridged next time – usually I prefer unabridged, but in this case I can see using an abridged version. But I am glad to have read the whole unabridged version at least once. My review of it from a few years ago is here: https://barbarah.wordpress.com/2009/04/07/book-review-les-miserables/

    Congratulations on being done with all your reading challenges! I am done with all but one book, and am about 3/4 of the way through it. I don’t know if I will do any next year. I do like that they expanded my horizons a little but I didn’t like the feeling of pressure (even though it was a self-imposed feeling) or the feeling that I had to get those done before I could read anything else.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I agree that although I’d love to read it again, it probably won’t happen for me either. I can see using an abridged version for this, even though usually I abhor them. ha. (Just read your review–very informative. You have such wonderful book reviews. Glad you linked here.)

      I’m deciding now about which challenges to do next year. I haven’t really looked around at any yet except the TBR one. It helped me be more intentional this year with reading some things I’d been putting off (like Les Mes!), but I do like the freedom to read whatever I like as well. It’s a balance.

  4. Lynn Severance

    Congratulations, Lisa!

    The Brothers K. and Les Miz in one year is an amazing accomplishment.
    When you view the musical film again, you will appreciate even more the special feature commentary by the director. He goes into why he make his decisions based on EACH scene and often deferred to the novel in his choices of what he portrayed. He did what he felt moved the story in the direction that was better served – even putting songs in new places to serve the novel’s message.

    xo Lynn

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Thanks, Lynn! It was quite a miracle for me to read both those in one year. ha. I did watch the musical film again (loved it even more this time around because I understood what was going on!!!), but I didn’t see the special features. I’ll have to find that at the library and watch because I would love to hear the background story of why the director pieced it together as he did.

      Now I hope to start The Book Thief before much longer! Even though it’s also long, I think it’ll be much easier to read. Right? 🙂

  5. David

    Dear Lisa

    You are such a wonderful reader and reviewer, and this is such a wonderful review! I have too many questions: about the book; about what you say about art.

    After Dostoevsky and Hugo, perhaps blander fare will no longer satisfy you 😉 Do you have your eye on some more classics for next year?


    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Thank you, David. There was so much more that could be said about this book. There were lengthier quotes that I’d like to share too. Maybe another time.

      I think I’m ready for some blander fare actually. ha. One day I’d like to reread the Harry Potter series, but that won’t be for awhile. 🙂 The next classics to read? Good question. I’ll be thinking about it in the next couple of weeks though.

  6. June

    A great accomplishment, Lisa! I’ve always felt like this story would be too overwhelming for me. I really enjoyed your review. Perhaps one day, when life eases a bit, I’ll manage it! Blessings!

  7. Beverley

    Well done Lisa! My friend also finished it, but i on the other hand watched and really enjoyed the film. My friend says i should read it and although it contains long chapters of irrelevance to the actual story (his words) it was actually very good.

    I on the other hand have been reading the Old Testament this year, one chapter a day, it will take me another year to finish it, but it has been worth it. yes, i thought about reading more each day but then decided it felt like i was rushing to get to the end, so stopped that and went back to my one chapter.

    Maybe Les Mis will come at the end of that? I normally read Dickens for Christmas but i haven’t even got my head around that this year – oh well – there is always another year or time or place.

    So what’s next, Lisa?

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Your friend is right–I think you would get so much more out of the book than the film, but just be prepared for the long irrelevant parts. (At least they’re easy to spot–they’re not mingled in very well with the real story.)

      One chapter a day is a great goal for reading through the Old Testament. That’s somewhat similar to what I do. I take about 3 years to read through the whole Bible. Otherwise, I find myself rushing through just to check off the boxes, and not getting anything out of it.

      What’s next for me? Good question. 🙂 I haven’t decided yet but will soon!

  8. Jean Wise

    Never read the book but love the story line. The quotes you pulled out are wonderful and do tempt me to try reading the whole thing someday. Like you say with today’s short attention span I find myself reading shallow not deep. Something I am aware of and have put in my journal to pray about. Good thoughts as usual, Lisa.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’m reading another book now called “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” which addresses that problem many of us face with reading today: shallow not deep. That’s definitely how I read online–mainly skimming here and there. Which isn’t necessarily bad–some things should only be skimmed. ha. But when I sit down to read one of these longer classics, I feel how short my attention span has shrunk.

  9. tinuviel

    Those quotes are all beautiful. I loved the way Valjean kept the candlesticks all the way through his wanderings, sometimes at great risk. I also found the ending, from Marius’s cold shoulder onward, to be immeasurably more moving in the book than in the musical. For me, Hugo at least made amends for his digressions in the way he conveyed through actions Valjean’s grief and dejection and Marius’s changes of heart. Just took my breath away.

    Blessed Advent and Christmas to you, friend!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, those candlesticks. Such an integral symbol of the story. I loved that too. And definitely yes—the ending of the book was SO much more moving than even the musical (which I also loved). So, so good.

      Praying for you and yours to have a Merry Christmas!

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