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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Toni Morrison
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Les Misérables

Les Misérables - Victor Hugo, Norman Denny

Victor Hugo's classic Les Misérables is a good story bogged down by many digressions. It's probably what anyone should expect from the era. Authors of the time did frequently step away from the narrative and give their opinions about this matter or that, then tell you about the historical context (Hugo departed from his opinions occasionally to tell the story). More than once, Hugo wrote, “The following is an authentic incident which, although it has no bearing on our story...” “Although it has no bearing on our story”--this is a problem. Half the book could be eliminated and you'd still have the same story. Fortunately, the tale that is the backbone of Les Misérables is memorable enough than the reader still recalls the story by the time Hugo finishes his thirty or forty page rant.

 

So I will say flat out that Hugo was not a great novelist as we think of it today. Not only did he try to lure the reader into a book of philosophy, political theory, and whatever other train of thought Hugo wanted to follow, but he tried (unsuccessfully, I believe) to trick the reader with moments of suspense. He played this game where he tried to suspend the revelation for several chapters. Maybe it's effective the first couple times, but it becomes clear too early that it is a gimmick. This man, the man you've been reading about for the past thirty pages, is really...

 

All that thrown to the streets and left to beg, Hugo was a wonderful storyteller. The tales of Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, et al are epic. They may only be loosely connected to one another, but their bulk is comprised of one theme. Parallels can certainly be made to the Bible when viewed as a work of literature. Both are filled with tragedy, history, love, and enough digressions to reinterpret and make a religion out of. But the stories that many people remember from the Bible—Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the exodus, the birth of Jesus, the prodigal son, Paul on the road to Damascus, et cetera—these stories carry much of the same love, jealousy, anger, and hope that the stories in Les Misérables impart on the reader. And when you take a step back, look at the story in its full context, try not to let your annoyances or biases get in the way, you'll find a story of redemption. That is the Bible. And that is Les Misérables.