Reading Les Miserables is a serious commitment. Even if you’re a fast reader, it’s going to take a long time. At the same time, when you finish it, you’ll feel like it could have gone on forever. Like it should have gone on forever.
When I read Les Miserables, it helped me realize a few things about writing that I didn’t understand before. Here’s what I learned:
1. It’s okay to get all descriptive.
Hugo is the king of descriptions. He spends entire chapter simply describing character appearances and habits and nothing else. For me, this was such a liberating thing to read, because it made me bolder about writing my own descriptions.
Because, like most kids, I was raised to fear passive verbs, I’ve always found descriptions tricky to write. For instance, if you can’t say, “her hair was blond,” you have to say something like, “her blond hair waved in the breeze” or manufacture some kind of useless action for the sole purpose of introducing her hair, which often sounds contrived. Hugo, however, describes things with abandon and in such an easy, un-self-conscious manner, you feel like you really know the characters, and that your good friend Victor is just telling you a great story about some crazy people he met once.
2. Build a story like a gothic cathedral.
There’s a huge section in Les Miserables about the Battle of Waterloo, which is only very loosely related to the main story. Then, of course, there are all the other flourishes: an essay about slang examining the relationship between language and social class that I was tempted to send to my Translation Studies professor, the long exposé about the intricacies of the Paris sewage system, and reflections on the relationship between politics and the oppression of poverty. In the afterword of Julie Rose’s translation, Andrew Gopnik compares Les Miserables to a gothic cathedral, an expansive building with several rooms and wings that allows the reader room to wander and travel. This is an apt description.
Even after reading 1,500 pages of one of the longest books ever written, I still felt like I was in Hugo’s world, and that there was more to the story. I’m not alone, either; the huge fandom on Tumblr and the amount of Javert/Valjean slash fiction that exists in the world is evidence that many other people are reluctant to leave this story behind, too.
3. A good story can provoke social change.
Les Miserables starts with this epigraph:
“As long as social damnation exists, through laws and customs, artificially creating hell at the heart of civilization and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century—man’s debasement through the proletariat, woman’s demoralization through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness—are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view, as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are, perhaps, not entirely useless.”
If that doesn’t convince you of the power of reading and writing, nothing will.
4. The more you know a character, the more you’re going to miss him or her.
Why does everyone cry at the end of Les Miserables? It’s not because they’re chopping onions. It’s because they’ve gotten to know all the characters inside-out, from childhood to adulthood, from convict to philanthropist. You get to see all the good and bad sides of each character, and their stories become, to quote Hugo’s preface, “an essay on the infinite.” This is what makes their loss so much more horrible. As a writer, this incredible attention to human behavior and flaws inspires me to think more about what makes people do what they do, then work harder to translate those observations to paper.
5. Be forgiving.
The overarching theme of Les Miserables is that redemption is attainable, and as Hugo writes (and Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine sing together in the epilogue of the movie), “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Through the many iterations of this epic novel from book to musical to movie, I think that this idea comes through crystal clear. The idea of love and forgiveness as salvation is also relevant to writing. Instead of being fettered to all these rules about what a story should be like, Les Miserables freed me, instead, to tell stories in an infinite way. And, of course, it taught me to listen (gif from ethelreds):