Biographical Note


Title Page

Introduction by Adam Thirwell

Translator's Preface




I. Monsieur Myriel

II. Monsieur Myriel Becomes Monseigneur Bienvenu

III. A Good Bishop for a Hard Bishopric

IV. He Puts His Money where his Mouth Is

V. How Monseigneur Bienvenu made His Cassocks Last Too Long

VI. How He Protected His House

VII. Cravatte

VIII. Philosophy After a Drink Or Two

IX. The Brother as the Sister Tells It

X. The Bishop Before an Unknown Light

XI. A Qualification

XII. Monseigneur Bienvenu’s Solitude

XIII. What He Believed

XIV. What He Thought


I. The Night After a Day’s Walk

II. Prudence is Recommended to Wisdom

III. The Heroism of Passive Obedience

IV. The Cheesemakers of Pontarlier

V. Tranquillity

VI. Jean Valjean

VII. Despair From the Inside

VIII. The Dark and the Deep

IX. Fresh Grievances

X. The Man Wakes Up

XI. What He does Next

XII. The Bishop at Work

XIII. Petit-Gervais


I. The Year 1817

II. A Double Foursome

III. Four by Four

IV. Tholomy’s is so Cheery he Sings a Spanish Ditty

V. At Bombarda’s

VI. A Chapter Where Everyone Adores one Another

VII. The Wisdom of Tholomyès

VIII. Death of a Horse

IX. Happy Ending to Happiness


I. One Mother Meets Another

II. Initial Sketch of Two Shady Characters

III. The Lark


I. A History of Progress in Black Glass Beads

II. Madeleine

III. Sums Deposited With Laffitte

IV. Monsieur Madeleine in Mourning

V. Dim Flashes of Lightning on the Horizon

VI. Father Fauchelevent

VII. Fauchelevent Becomes a Gardener in Paris

VIII. Madame Victurnien Spends Thirty-Five Francs On Morality

IX. Madame Victurnien’s Success

X. Continued Success

XI. Christus Nos Liberavit

XII. The Idleness Of Monsieur Bamatabois

XIII. The Answer To Some Of The Municipal Police’s Questions


I. The Beginning Of Rest

II. How Jean can Turn Into Champ


I. Sister Simplice

II. The Perspicacity of Master Scaufflaire

III. A Storm on the Brain

IV. Forms Suffering Takes During Sleep

V. A Spoke in the Wheels

VI. Sister Simplice is Put to the Test

VII. The Traveller Arrives Only to Get Ready to Leave Again

VIII. Preferential Admission

IX. A Place Where Convictions are About to Shape Up

X. The Strategy of Denial

XI. Champmathieu More and More Amazed


I. In What Mirror Monsieur Madeleine Looks at His Hair

II. Fantine Happy

III. Javert Satisfied

IV. Authority Takes Back its Rights

V. A Suitable Grave



I. What You Meet with When You Come from Nivelles

II. Hougoumont

III. June 18, 1815


V. The Quid Obscurum of Battles

VI. Four O’clock in the Afternoon

VII. Napoléon in a Good Mood

VIII. The Emperor Puts a Question to Lacoste, the Guide

IX. The Unexpected

X. The Plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean

XI. Bad Guide for Napoléon, Good Guide for Bülow

XII. The Guard

XIII. The Catastrophe

XIV. The Last Square

XV. Cambronne

XVI. Quot Libras in Duce?

XVII. Do We have to Think Waterloo was a Good Thing?

XVIII. A Fresh Bout of Divine Right

XIX. The Battlefield by Night


I. Number 24601 Becomes Number 9430

II. In Which You will Read Two Lines of Verse that are Perhaps the Devil’s

III. How the Chain on the Shackles must have Undergone Preparatory Treatment to be Shattered Like That with One Whack of the Hammer


I. The Issue of Water at Montfermeil

II. Two Portraits Completed

III. Men Must have Wine and Horses Water

IV. A Doll Makes its Entrance

V. A Little Girl all on her Own

VI. Which Perhaps Proves Boulatruelle’s Intelligence

VII. Cosette Side by Side with the Stranger in the Dark

VIII. Unpleasantness of Putting Up a Pauper Who Might Just Be Rich

IX. Thénardier in Operation

X. Who Looks for the Best May Find the Worst

XI. The Number 9430 Comes Up Again and Wins Cosette the Lottery


I. Maître Gorbeau

II. Nest for Owl and Warbler

III. Mix Two Unhappy People Together and You Get Happiness

IV. What the Chief Tenant Noted

V. When It Falls on the Ground a Five-Franc Coin makes a Racket


I. The Zigzags of Strategy

II. It is a Good Thing the Austerlitz Bridge Takes Vehicles

III. See the 1727 Map of Paris

IV. Tentative Attempts at Escape

V. Which would Be Impossible by Gaslight

VI. Beginning of an Enigma

VII. The Enigma Goes On

VIII. The Enigma Intensifies

IX. The Man with the Bell

X. In Which it is Explained How Javert Came Up Empty


I. Petite Rue Picpus, No. 62

II. The Rule of Martin Verga

III. The Austerities

IV. Fun

V. Entertainment

VI. The Little Convent

VII. A Few Silhouettes in the Shadows

VIII. Post Corda Lapides

IX. A Century Under a Wimple

X. Origins of Perpetual Adoration

XI. End of the Petit-Picpus


I. The Convent as an Abstract Idea

II. The Convent as Historical Fact

III. On What Conditions We Can Respect the Past

IV. The Convent from the Point of View of Principles

V. Prayer

VI. Absolute Goodness of Prayer

VII. Precautions to Take in Laying Blame

VIII. Faith, Law


I. In Which the Way to Enter a Convent is Dealt With

II. Fauchelevent Confronted with a Problem

III. Mother Innocent

IV. In Which Jean Valjean Looks as Though He has Read Austin Castillejo

V. It’s Not Enough to be a Drunk to be Immortal

VI. Between Four Planks

VII. In Which We Find the Origins of the Saying: Don’t Lose Your Pass

VIII. A Successful Interrogation

IX. Enclosure



I. Parvulus

II. A Few of his Distinguishing Marks

III. He is Nice

IV. He can be Useful

V. His Boundaries

VI. A Bit of History

VII. The Gamin Would have his Place in the Caste System of India

VIII. In Which You Will Read a Delightful Saying of the King’s

IX. The Old Soul of Gaul

X. Ecce Paris, Ecce Homo

XI. Railing, Reigning

XII. The Future Latent in the People

XIII. Petit-Gavroche


I. Ninety Years Old and All Thirty-two Teeth

II. Like Master, Like Abode

III. Luc-Esprit

IV. An Aspiring Centenarian

V. Basque and Nicolette

VI. In Which We Catch a Glimpse of La Magnon and Her Two Little Boys

VII. Golden Rule: Only Receive Visitors in the Evening

VIII. Two Do Not Make a Pair


I. An old-World Salon

II. One of the Red Ghosts of the Time

III. Requiescant—R.I.P.

IV. End of the Brigand

V. The Usefulness of Going to Mass if You Want to be a Revolutionary

VI. What it is to have Met a Churchwarden

VII. A Bit of Skirt

VIII. Marble Versus Granite


I. A Group That Nearly Became History

II. Blondeau’s Funeral Oration, by Bossuet

III. The Amazement of Marius

IV. The Back Room of the Café Musain

V. The Horizon Expands

VI. Res Angusta


I. Marius Destitute

II. Marius Poor

III. Marius Grown Up

IV. Monsieur Mabeuf

V. Poverty, Misery’s Good Neighbour

VI. The Substitute


I. The Nickname as a Way of Forming Family Names

II. Lux Facta Est

III. The Effect of Spring

IV. Beginning of a Great Sickness

V. Sundry Thunderbolts Fall on Ma Bougon

VI. Taken Prisoner

VII. Adventures of the Letter U Open to Conjecture

VIII. Even War Invalids Can be Happy

IX. Eclipse


I. Mines and Miners

II. The Dregs

III. Babet, Gueulemer, Claquesous, and Montparnasse

IV. Composition of the Troupe


I. Marius Looks for a girl in a Hat and Meets a Man in a Cap

II. A Find

III. Quadrifrons

IV. A Rose in Misery

V. The Judas of Providence

VI. Feral Man in his Lair

VII. Strategies and Tactics

VIII. A Ray of Light in the Rathole

IX. Jondrette Very Nearly Weeps

X. Rates for Cabs: Two Francs an Hour

XI. Misery Offers Pain its Services

XII. Use of Monsieur Leblanc’s Five-Franc Piece

XIII. Solus cum Solo, in Loco Remoto, Non Cogitabantur Orare Pater Noster

XIV. Where a Police Officer Gives a Lawyer a Couple of Punches

XV. Jondrette Does his Shopping

XVI. Where You Will Find the Words of an English Tune Fashionable in 1832

XVII. Marius’s Five-Franc Piece Put to Use

XVIII. The Face-off of Marius’s Two Chairs

XIX. Dealing with the Darkest Depths

XX. The Ambush

XXI. You Should Always Arrest the Victims First

XXII. The Little Boy Who Cried Out in Part Three



I. Well Cut

II. Badly Stitched Together

III. Louis-Philippe

IV. Cracks Beneath the Foundation

V. Deeds from Which History Emerges and Which History Ignores

VI. Enjolras and his Lieutenants


I. The Lark’s Field

II. Embryonic Development of Crimes in Prison Incubators

III. Father Mabeuf’s Apparition

IV. Marius’s Apparition


I. The House with a Secret Entrance

II. Jean Valjean as a National Guard

III. Foliis ac Frondibus

IV. Gate Change

V. The Rose Realizes She is an Engine of War

VI. The Battle Begins

VII. Sadness, and More Sadness

VIII. The Chain Gang


I. Wound Without, Healing Within

II. Mother Plutarch Doesn’t Mind Explaining a Phenomenon


I. Loneliness and the Barracks Combined

II. Cosette’s Fears

III. Embellished by Toussaint’s Comments

IV. A Heart Under a Stone

V. Cosette, After the Letter

VI. The Old Are Made for Going Out at the Right Moment


I. Nasty Trick of the Wind

II. In Which Petit-Gavroche Puts Napoléon the Great to Good Use

III. The Ups and Downs of Escape


I. Origins

II. Roots

III. Slang That Cries and Slang That Laughs

IV. The Two Duties: To Watch and to Hope


I. Broad Daylight

II. The Giddiness of Complete Happiness

III. The Beginning of a Shadow

IV. A Cab Rolls in English and Yelps Like a Mutt in Slang

V. Things of the Night

VI. Marius Falls to Earth and Gives Cosette his Address

VII. Old Heart and Young Heart Face-to-Face


I. Jean Valjean

II. Marius

III. Monsieur Mabeuf

BOOK TEN. JUNE 5, 1832

I. The Issue on the Surface

II. The Heart of the Matter

III. A Burial: An Occasion for Rebirth

IV. The Seething of Days Gone By

V. Originality of Paris


I. Some Insights into the Origins of Gavroche’s Poetry—Influence of an Academician on This Poetry

II. Gavroche on the March

III. A Wigmaker’s Just Indignation

IV. The Boy Marvels at the Old Man

V. The Old Man

VI. Recruits


I. History of Corinthe from Its Foundation

II. Preliminary Gaieties

III. Night Begins to Fall on Grantaire

IV. An Attempt at Consoling Widow Hucheloup

V. Preparations

VI. While Waiting

VII. The Man Recruited in the Rue des Billettes

VIII. Several Question Marks Regarding a Man Named Le Cabuc Who Was Perhaps Not Le Cabuc


I. From the Rue Plumet to the Quartier Saint-Denis

II. Paris as the Owl Flies

III. The Extreme Edge


I. The Flag—Act One

II. The Flag—Act Two

III. Gavroche Would have Done Better to Accept Enjolras’ Carbine

IV. The Powder Keg

V. End of Jean Prouvaire’s Poem

VI. The Agony of Death After the Agony of Life

VII. Gavroche a Profound Calculator of Distances


I. A Blabber of a Blotter

II. The Kid as the Enemy of the Enlightenment

III. While Cosette and Toussaint Are Sleeping

IV. Gavroche’s Excessive Zeal



I. The Charybdis of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and the Scylla of the Faubourg du Temple

II. What is There to do in a Bottomless Pit but Talk?

III. Brightening and Darkening

IV. Five Fewer, One More

V. The View from the Top of the Barricade

VI. Marius Haggard, Javert Laconic

VII. The Situation Gets Worse

VIII. The Gunners Get Themselves Taken Seriously

IX. Putting That Old Poacher’s Skill to Use Along with the Infallible Shot That Influenced the 1796 Conviction

X. Daybreak

XI. The Gunshot That Misses Nothing but Kills No One

XII. Disorder, a Supporter of Order

XIII. Passing Glimmers

XIV. In Which You Will Read the Name of Enjolras’ Mistress

XV. Gavroche Outside

XVI. How You Go from Being a Brother to a Father

XVII. Mortuus Pater Filium Moriturum Expectat

XVIII. The Vulture Turns into the Prey

XIX. Jean Valjean Gets his Revenge

XX. The Dead Are Right but the Living Are Not Wrong

XXI. Heroes

XXII. Inch by Inch

XXIII. Orestes on a Fast and Pylades Drunk

XXIV. Prisoner


I. Land Impoverished by the Sea

II. The Ancient History of the Sewer

III. Bruneseau

IV. Details Nobody Knows

V. Current Progress

VI. Future Progress


I. The Cloaca and Its Surprises

II. Explanation

III. The Man Tailed

IV. He, Too, Bears his Cross

V. With Sand as with Women, There is a Kind of Fineness that is Perfidious

VI. The Subsidence

VII. Sometimes We have Run Aground When We Think We have Landed

VIII. The Torn Bit of Coat

IX. Marius Looks to be Dead to One Who Knows

X. Return of the Son Prodigal with his Life

XI. The Absolute, Rocked

XII. The Grandfather


I. Javert Derailed


I. In Which We Once More See the Tree with the Zinc Plaster

II. Marius, Emerging from Civil War, Gears Up for Domestic War

III. Marius Attacks

IV. Mademoiselle Gillenormand Winds Up Deciding it is not Such a Bad Thing that Monsieur Fauchelevent Came with Something Under his Arm

V. You Are Better off Putting Your Money in a Certain Forest Than Leaving It with a Certain Notary

VI. The Two Old Men Do All They Can, Each in his Own Way, to See That Cosette is Happy

VII. Dream Effects Fusing into Happiness

VIII. Two Men Who Can’t be Found


I. February 16, 1833

II. Jean Valjean Still Has his Arm in a Sling

III. The Inseparable

IV. Immortale Jecur


I. The Seventh Circle Eighth Heaven

II. The Obscurities a Revelation May Contain


I. The Room Down Below

II. Other Steps Back

III. They Remember the Garden in the Rue Plumet

IV. Attraction and Extinguishment


I. Pity for the Unhappy, but Indulgence for the Happy

II. Last Flickerings of a Lamp with No Oil

III. A Feather Crushes the Man Who Lifted Fauchelevent’s Cart

IV. Bottle of Ink That Only Manages to Whiten

V. Night with Day Behind It

VI. The Grass Hides and the Rain Erases




Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon in 1802, the third and youngest son of Léopold Hugo, an officer in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies, and his wife, Sophie. The family followed Major Hugo to Italy, Elba, Corsica, and finally Spain, where Léopold rose to the rank of general thanks to the protection of Joseph Bonaparte, whom Napoléon had installed on the throne in Madrid. The Hugos’ marriage, however, was an unhappy one, and Madame Hugo left her husband for good in 1812, returning to Paris with their three sons. Madame Hugo blamed the collapse of the marriage on her royalist principles, a polite half-truth that her poet son echoed—famously describing himself as the son of “my father the old soldier, and my mother the Vendéenne”—but in fact their separation was due to far more banal causes. Sophie Hugo saw to it that her sons received an excellent education, which included the great works of French and classical literature, as well as political writings in sympathy with their mother’s beliefs. Victor and his two elder brothers were largely estranged from their father until their mother’s death in 1821.

Young Victor displayed a precocious literary talent while still in his teens, winning prizes for his poems and even founding, with his brothers, a literary magazine entitled Le Conservateur littéraire. He was barely twenty when he published his first collection of verse, Odes et poésies diverses, which earned him a national reputation and a royal pension that allowed him to marry Adèle Foucher, who had been his playmate as a child. In 1825, Hugo was named to the Legion of Honour, and invited to be the official poet of the coronation of Charles X, youngest brother of Louis XVI and the last Bourbon king of France.

But Hugo’s youthful royalism quickly gave way to a growing liberalism. The famous preface to his play Cromwell became a manifesto for a generation of French Romantics. In 1829 he published a remarkable novel, Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man), which was an eloquent denunciation of the death penalty (a lifelong cause of Hugo’s), and his poetry began to show more political ambiguity than had been evident in his earlier work. In the history of French literature, the legendary “bataille d’Hernani”—when the Parisian literary and political worlds were divided between pro- and anti-Hugo camps—marks the triumph of Romanticism in nineteenth-century France. Hugo’s play broke with all the rules of the neoclassical tradition that had dominated French theatre. There were literally fistfights in the audience between Romantics and conservatives. In retrospect, the “bataille d’Hernani” came to be viewed as a cultural precursor of the Revolution of 1830.

Under the July Monarchy of 1830–48, Hugo’s status as the leading figure in French literature increased steadily as he successfully published the novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) as well as several collections of poetry, including Les Feuilles d’automne (1831), Les Chants du crépuscule (1835), Les Voix intérieures (1837), and Les Rayons et les ombres (1840); he also enjoyed considerable success as a playwright. Even after he became a member of the literary establishment, Hugo’s work continued to reveal a growing concern for social justice. In 1834, he published Claude Gueux, a brief account of a murderer who went to the guillotine; Hugo used his book to dare his bourgeois readers to consider their responsibility for a society that drove men to crime, and women to prostitution. In his poetry too, amid Romantic contemplations of nature and celebrations of his love for his children or his mistress, Hugo’s social and political conscience is clearly present. Publicly, the 1840s brought Hugo to new professional and political heights, as he was elected to the Académie Française and named by the king to the Chambre des Pairs. Personally, Hugo was devastated in 1843 by the sudden death by drowning of his eldest and favourite child, Léopoldine, a loss that would inspire some of his best-known poems.

It was in 1845 that he began work on a novel, first called Jean Tréjean renamed Les Misères, the story of a convict, a poor man persecuted by a system in which justice has been overshadowed by the law. Hugo had completed most of the book when the Revolution of 1848 drew him back into politics. Elected to the new National Assembly of the nascent Second Republic as a member of the centre-right, Hugo was soon calling for such progressive measures as free public education, penal reform, including the abolition of the death penalty, and international cooperation. In June of 1848, Hugo played a leading role in the suppression of a popular insurrection that saw barricades raised up in the streets of Paris. It was a searing moment for Hugo, who was appalled by the misery that provoked the uprising, but felt compelled to side with civic order. Hugo also supported the return from exile of Napoléon’s nephew Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, as well as his subsequent candidacy for the presidency. By the time the so-called “prince-président” seized power as Emperor Napoléon III, Hugo had become one of his most vocal and courageous opponents. Hugo soon judged it prudent to leave France, eventually taking up residence in the English Channel Islands, where he would await the fall of the Second Empire for almost twenty years.

It was in exile that Hugo’s political transformation became complete. The poetry he wrote in exile—Les Châtiments, La Légende des siècles, La Fin de Satan—was politically and artistically daring, and revealed a greater commitment to changing the social order of France and Europe than his previous writings. Hugo also publicly lent his support to such movements as abolitionism in the United States and Italian unification under Garibaldi. This was the Hugo who in 1860 returned to Les Misères, which he had given up for politics in 1848. In 1861, sixteen years after he began, and with significant revisions to his original, unfinished novel, Hugo travelled to Belgium, where the book now called Les Misérables was to be published, and visited the battlefield of Waterloo, in order to verify certain details for a brief digression he intended to include in his novel. A massive publicity campaign in every capital of Europe preceded the publication of the first volume, Fantine, in April 1862. The Parisian literary establishment did not quite know what to make of the novel, which defied every expectation of the genre. Critical reaction was typified by the Goncourt brothers’ pronouncement that a man of genius had written a novel intended for the cabinets de lecture (i.e., the uneducated people who visited the reading rooms). Such cautious snobbery was not reflected in the book’s sales. In Paris, bookstores sold every copy within three days. Factory workers were reported to have pooled their money to buy shared copies. Conservatives denounced a book that presented a criminal as a hero. Pope Pius IX placed Les Misérables on the Church’s Index of proscribed books, and copies were publicly burned in Spain. In Paris and all around the world, Les Misérables solidified Hugo’s reputation as the champion of the poor and the enemy of tyranny. The novel was devoured by everyone from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War.

When the Franco-Prussian War brought down the government of the Second Empire, Hugo returned to France, his status as a national icon unquestioned. He served again in government, the last time as a senator of the Third Republic. He also continued to write, including a sentimental verse collection entitled L’Art d’être grand-père. In 1874, his last novel, Quatre-vingt-treize (Ninety-three), reached back to the previous century to examine the lost opportunity that was the French Revolution.

Victor Hugo died on May 22, 1885. He had outlived his wife, his principal mistress, and three of his four children. More than two million people—a number greater than the official population of Paris—turned out to witness the funeral procession as, according to Hugo’s instructions, a pauper’s hearse bore his casket from the Arc de Triomphe, where Hugo had lain in state for twenty-four hours, to the Panthéon, which had been re-established as a national mausoleum just in time to receive his mortal remains.



An Essay on Seven Themes by Victor Hugo, with a Coda

1: The Infinite

To begin with the central problem: the exorbitant length.

Perhaps this might not seem a problem. It’s just a matter of pages. Obviously, therefore, Les Misérables is one of the longest novels in European literature. But length is not just a question of pages. It’s also a question of tempo. And this is why Les Misérables is longer than the arithmetic of its length.

Yes, length is difficult.

In his essay The Curtain, Milan Kundera writes how “Aesthetic concepts only began to interest me when I first perceived their existential roots, when I came to understand them as existential concepts …” A form is not free-floating; it is not purely a technical exercise, an external imposition. It is intimately, intricately linked to what it describes. “In the art of the novel,” Kundera added, “existential discoveries are inseparable from the transformation of form.”

And the most obvious transformation Hugo effects in the novel’s form is sheer gargantuan size. This megalomania was intentional: it was a conscious choice on Hugo’s part. To describe his work in progress, Hugo jotted down a list of hyperbolic adjectives.

Les Misérables as a List

“Astounding, extraordinary, surprising, superhuman, supernatural, unheard of, savage, sinister, formidable, gigantic, savage, colossal, monstrous, deformed, disturbed, electrifying, lugubrious, funereal, hideous, terrifying, shadowy, mysterious, fantastic, nocturnal, crepuscular.”

The size was the centre of Hugo’s discovery in the art of the novel.

And this is visible immediately: it’s visible, to the perturbed reader, in the second of this novel’s many sentences. The beginning, it turns out, is not a beginning at all. “There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell—not even on the background.” Les Misérables begins with a digression from a digression (thus resembling, therefore, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which a few years earlier had begun with a digression, too).

There is a reason for this immediate advertisement of Hugo’s digressive style. It is trying to set up a convention. This convention is based on the deep theory of Hugo’s novel.

When the book was finished, Hugo tried—and failed—to write a preface. The preface would have begun like this: “This book has been composed from the inside out. The idea engenders the characters, the characters produce the drama, and this is, in effect, the law of art. By having the ideal, that is God, as the generator instead of the idea, we can see that it fulfils the same function as nature. Destiny and in particular life, time and in particular this century, man and in particular the people, God and in particular the world, this is what I have tried to include in this book; it is a sort of essay on the infinite.”

The subject of perhaps the longest novel in European literature is—what else?—the infinite.

That is why its tempo is so explicit with slowness, syncopated with digression. But in this novel there is no such thing as a digression. Everything is relevant—since the subject of this book, quite literally, is everything: “This book is a tragedy in which infinity plays the lead”, writes Hugo. “Man plays a supporting role.”

“When the subject is not lost sight of, there is no digression”, Hugo wrote later on. But how can the subject of the novel ever be lost sight of, if the lead character is infinity? In that case, nothing will ever be a digression.

Yes, the length of this novel is important. Its quantity is its quality. It represents an answer to a central artistic question, which was not an answer the tradition of the novel has ever quite believed in since. This is one reason why Hugo’s novel is so strange, and so valuable.

“Really, universally, relations stop nowhere,” Henry James would write, forty years later, in his preface to the New York Edition of his early novel Roderick Hudson, “and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” Life was infinite, argued James, and so the novel therefore required a form which gave the illusion of completeness. James, after all, had learned the art of the novel from Gustave Flaubert. According to this modernist tradition, the novel was an art of miniaturization, and indirection.

Victor Hugo, however, had come up with a new solution, no less artful than the solution proposed by Flaubert and James. He wanted to create a novel which would try to represent everything by pretending that it did, in fact, represent everything. It would be wilfully ramshackle and inclusive—both on the level of form, and on the level of content: an essayistic novel, or a novelistic essay. “Apropos or not apropos, it doesn’t matter”, the great imaginative essayist Michel de Montaigne had written at the beginning of his essay ‘On Cripples’. It didn’t matter because everything, in the end, would relate to everything else.

“The eye of the drama must be everywhere at once”, wrote Hugo. For every plot, seen from the angle of Hugo’s style, was infinite.

2: The Coincidence

In some ways, the plot of Les Misérables is simple. It is the story of an escaped convict, Jean Valjean, who determines to reform after being saved by the Bishop of Digne; Javert, the policeman who wants to see him rightfully punished according to the law; a dead prostitute, Fantine, and her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, who is entrusted to Valjean’s care; an evil innkeeping couple, the Thénardiers, and their urchin children, Éponine and Gavroche; and Marius, who falls in love with Cosette, and who is the son of a Napoleonic hero who died believing wrongly that he had once been saved on the field of Waterloo by Thénardier, who was in fact a scavenging thief.

This might sound tightly plotted, taut with melodrama. It might sound like a good plot for a musical.

But no reader can read Les Misérables for the cleverness or subtlety of its plot. It is not a novel which prides itself on believability.

This might seem surprising. One natural assumption, perhaps, is that the improbability in a novel should diminish with length. Every novel depends on a series of coincidences. And length should diminish the scandal of this. In Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, if people coincide, or marry each other, it still seems probable. Every decision retains its fluidity. And yet in Les Misérables, this isn’t true. In this gargantuan novel, everything seems utterly improbable.

Every plot operates through coincidence. Normally, novelists develop techniques to naturalize and hide this. Victor Hugo, with his technique of massive length, refuses to hide it at all. In fact, he makes sure that the plot’s coincidences are exaggerated. They are gigantically tenuous.

That is one way of describing the story of Marius.

Marius’s father was a hero in Napoleon’s army. But Marius has been brought up by his Royalist uncle to believe that his absent father was a moral disgrace. One day, after his father has died—an event which has naturally moved Marius very little—he sits accidentally in someone else’s place in church. It turns out to be the regular spot of the churchwarden, Monsieur Mabeuf. Mabeuf apologizes to Marius for being so upset at losing his place, and tells Marius why he likes to sit there so much. From there, he could see how a noble father came to watch his son every week, forbidden to see him because of his political opinions. It was so moving, said Mabeuf, to see such paternal devotion.

An Unbelievable Coincidence

“He lived in Vernon, where I have a brother who is a curé, and his name was something like Pontmarie or Montpercy. He had a beautiful sabre cut, incredible.”

“Pontmercy?” said Marius, going white.

“Exactly. Pontmercy. Did you know him?”

“Monsieur,” said Marius, “he was my father.”

In some ways, perhaps, it could be argued that the persistent weakness of the plotting is its strength. This, after all, is how coincidence often happens in real life—thinly.

But the overwhelming impression is schlock. And so it might be right to remember that Hugo’s original title for his novel was Les Misères, not Les Misérables, which echoed Eugène Sue’s recent bestseller: Les Mystères de Paris. Hugo’s novel would offer Miseries, not Mysteries. But it would be part of the same urban pulp tradition.

Schlock, however, can make existential discoveries too.

One way in which Hugo emphasizes the coincidences in his novel is the persistent failures of recognition. This occurs on the level of the characters—where a father does not recognize his son, or a criminal does not recognize the very person he has been pursuing for years. And it occurs on the level of the narration, where the narrator withholds the name of a character throughout an entire episode. Partly, perhaps, this adds to suspense: it creates moments of dramatic irony. But really it’s to create a bifocal effect.

Hugo wants a plot that is at once about total randomness, and also total predetermination. This novel, therefore, is written from two perspectives. The perspective of mankind; and the perspective of God, or Destiny. The reader observes one story, while the characters, blindly, observe another.

“We chip away as best we can at the mysterious block of marble our lives are made of—in vain; the black vein of destiny always reappears.” Hugo is paraphrasing Hamlet here: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will …” His aim is to stress the weird mixture of freedom and predetermination which is the essence of his novel.

Les Misérables, with its mass of orchestrated detail, is a game with destiny: it dramatizes the gap between the imperfections of human judgements, and the perfect patterns of the infinite.

3: The Real

Hugo’s technique of massed detail constitutes an existential investigation. And this technique was Hugo’s constant preoccupation. In his biography of Hugo, Graham Robb describes the strange aleatoric form of Hugo’s journal Things Seen, which Hugo worked on for most of his life. It was his workshop. “A long meditation on the death of the Duc d’Orléans, for instance,’” writes Robb, “reads like part of Les Misérables filleted of its plot. The Duke had fallen from his runaway carriage ‘between the twenty-sixth and the twenty-seventh tree on the left … on the third and fourth paving-stones’. ‘The house where the prince expired is number 4b and stands between a soap factory and a wine merchant’s.’ What did it all mean? What lurked beneath the compost heap of apparently useless information?”

Its theory functions throughout Hugo’s work in prose. As he put it in Les Misérables: “How do we know the creation of worlds is not determined by the falling of grains of sand? Who, after all, knows the reciprocal ebb and flow of the infinitely big and the infinitely small, the reverberation of causes in the chasms of a being, the avalanches of creation? A cheese mite matters; the small is big, the big is small; everything is in equilibrium within necessity – a frightening vision for the mind.” The mass of detail, paradoxically, proves how metaphysical a writer Hugo was. The reason for including so much of the world’s matter was to work out how mystical the world was, after all. He wanted pattern. But he wanted it only after subjecting the form to its limits, stuffing it with random accreted details—like the man fighting at the barricades, who “had padded his chest with a breastplate of nine sheets of grey packing paper and was armed with a saddler’s awl.”

What—this was Hugo’s question—did it all mean? And it was a question which he could only answer by slowing down the tempo of each scene: pausing it in the infinity of its detail.

On the one hand, Hugo was drawn to the delicate filaments of a pattern. On the other hand, he experienced an existential nausea at the world’s minutiae. He was baffled by the real—the prose of the world indifferent to humanity’s attempts at poetry. So that in his description of the 1848 barricade in the Faubourg du Temple, Hugo notes how “There were a few corpses here and there and pools of blood over the cobblestones. I remember a white butterfly that came and went, up and down the street. Summer does not abdicate.” It is an image of nature’s indifference to man, which recalls another image of the simultaneous earlier in the novel, where he describes, this time, man’s indifference to man: “People shoot at each other at street corners; in arcades, in dead-end streets; barricades are taken, lost, and taken back; blood flows, house fronts are riddled with grapeshot, bullets kill people in their beds, dead bodies choke the pavements. A few streets away, you can hear the clinking of billiard balls in the cafés.”

Hugo’s detail is always true to the obscurity of things: like his extraordinary description of a barricade—“You saw hands with blood on them; there was an unbearable deafening; there was also a terrible silence; there were open mouths shouting and other open mouths that kept quiet; you were in smoke, in the darkness perhaps. You think you felt the sinister ooze of unknown depths; you look at something red you have under your fingernails. You don’t remember anymore.” It was something the poet Charles Baudelaire had already praised Hugo’s poetry for, in a different context: “Not only does he express clearly …; but he expresses with indispensable obscurity what is obscure and confusedly revealed.”

The real, for Hugo, was a category of the excessive, the formless. And so his prose so often transforms itself into extended, adagio lists.

A Revolution as a List

In the rue du Poirier and the rue des Gravilliers, barricades got under way. In front of the porte Saint-Martin a young man armed with a carbine attacked a cavalry squadron single-handedly. Out in the open, in the middle of the boulevard, he went down on one knee, raised his weapon to his shoulder, fired, killed the captain of the squadron, and turned on his heel, quipping: “There’s another one who won’t do us any more harm.” He was promptly run through with a sabre. In the rue Saint-Denis, a woman fired on the Municipal Guard from behind a lowered venetian blind. At each shot you could see the slats of the blind quivering. A fourteen-year-old boy was stopped in the rue de la Cossonnerie with his pockets full of cartridges. Several posts were attacked. At the entrance to the rue Bertin-Poirée, an extremely lively and completely unpredictable fusillade greeted a regiment of cuirassiers at the head of which marched General Cavaignac de Baragne. In the rue Planche-Mibray, they hurled shards of old crockery and household utensils at the troops from the rooftops.

The list represents a staging of a zigzagging question: how does anyone know what is relevant, and what is not? In the chapter on Waterloo, Hugo mentions a ditch which was important to the strategy and outcome of the battle. But he then veers from this ditch into local history: “The road was so narrow at the entrance to Braine-l’Alleud that a traveller was crushed there by a wagon, as attested by a stone cross standing near the cemetery that gives the name of the dead man as Monsieur Bernard Debrye, merchant of Brussels, and the date of the accident as February 1637.” Then follows an asterisk: a digression from the digression. The asterisk points to a footnote, which gives us the inscription on the stone cross itself.

An Accident in a Footnote







AT BRUSSELS ON (illegible)


What is relevant? This is the meaning of Hugo’s long novel and its slow tempo—heavy with detail. How can you know what fact will emerge, and destroy you? How can you know what is a trap, and what isn’t?

We live our lives so blissful in our ignorance of an infinity which could invade us at any moment.

4: The Trap

At one point, the policeman Javert begins to suspect that the mayor of Montreuil is not really called Madeleine, but is the escaped convict, Jean Valjean. He is on the verge of confirming his suspicions when he discovers that a man believed to be Valjean, called Champmathieu, has been arrested, and identified by Valjean’s fellow convicts. He goes to Valjean, therefore, to apologize for his mistake, and inform him of Valjean’s arrest. This leaves the real Jean Valjean with a dilemma. He can either let the wrong man be convicted, and imprisoned, and so create Valjean’s freedom. Or he can go to court to present himself as the true Valjean, and save a man from wrongful punishment, even at the cost of his own recapture.

Finally, he decides he has to go to Arras, where the case is being heard.

Very early that morning, therefore, he sets off in a tilbury—in his speed, he collides with the mail coach, which damages one of his wheels. At the next village, the wheelwright tells him it needs a full day’s repairs. He won’t get to Arras until tomorrow. Valjean asks if he can buy a new wheel, but is told that he can’t be sold a new wheel, as it won’t fit the axle. And Valjean becomes relieved. “It was obvious Providence had a hand in this.” He had done everything he could. “He had faithfully and scrupulously exhausted every means; he had not shrunk either before the season or before fatigue or before the expense; he had nothing to reproach himself with. If he were to go no further, it would not worry him. It was no longer his fault; it was not an act of his own volition but an act of God.”

Everyone knows this kind of relief.

At that moment, however, it turns out that a boy has overheard his desperate conversation with the wheelwright, and found someone who is happy to provide him with a cariole. So he can continue on his way. Finally, therefore, he gets to Arras at eight. He finds out that the case is still being heard. He tries to get in, but is told that the room is full, and no one is being let in.

Again, it seems that providence is too much for him. Then he remembers there is one thing he can try. He sends a note to the judge, informing him that the mayor of Montreuil wishes to observe the trial. And the judge admits him.

Everything is a game with fate.

Aesthetic techniques, after all, are only interesting in so far as they analyse existential problems. And Hugo’s form, predicated on length, on digression and detail, is a deliberate accretion of overlapping examples: his scenes are all variations on the same theme.

In one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, given in Harvard, the composer Luciano Berio describes Anton Webern’s experiments with musical form: inventing “a form of development that cannot be termed ‘thematic’ because it always remains a kernel”. Famously, Webern wrote miniature pieces of music. But this cellular structure, based on repeated kernels, is not just visible in miniature. It is also the structure of Hugo’s massive novel: an intricate restatement, over and over, of a limited set of themes and structures.

So many of Hugo’s scenes operate as kernels: they all develop the same stern pattern. They are all games with fate.

That is why the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has described how Hugo’s main scenes are “irresistible traps”—volcanic craters, where chaos suddenly acquires logic. But the idea of the irresistible must be understood as incorporating some elasticity. How strenuously do Hugo’s characters try to resist the traps of the world!

This is true of Valjean on his way to Arras; and it is true of Napoleon at Waterloo. Whether writing about the historical battle of Waterloo, or the fictional journey to Arras—Hugo’s scenes obey the same constraints: a mass of infinite detail, which coalesces to form a trap, an unstoppable destiny.

According to Hugo, the battle of Waterloo was determined by the weather. “If it hadn’t rained during the night of June, 17–18, 1815,” writes Hugo, “the future of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, brought Napoléon to his knees. So that Waterloo could be the end of Austerlitz, Providence only needed a bit of rain, and a cloud crossing the sky out of season was enough for a whole world to disintegrate.”

It looks like an essay on Waterloo; just as it had looked like a story about the tribulations of an escaped convict. In both cases, however, the true story is chance: “the immense strokes of luck, good or bad, that are calibrated by an infinity that escapes us.” It is a description of the traps set by the infinite unknown.

5: Politics

There is another aspect, however, to Hugo’s technique of length. As well as representing a philosophy, it is also a politics. But then, it is the length itself which makes these distinctions untenable.

In Les Misérables, there is a correlation between the infinite and the unknown; and another correlation between the unknown and the miserable—the destitute. This is why Hugo can move so fluently from a detail to its moral or political halo. Everything is linked by his thematic network. Perhaps it’s a pity, therefore, that all that survived of his preface to the novel was a single, politicized sentence:

The Epigraph to Les Misérables

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.

Hugo’s epigraph limits his novel too neatly. It’s true that the same triad of the needy—which corresponds to Valjean, Fantine and Cosette—is restated by the dying republican, in his discussion with the Bishop; and by Enjolras, the revolutionary, on the barricades. But Hugo was not simply a political writer.

How could he be? His subject was the infinite.

In an abandoned section on prostitution, Hugo wrote: “The portion of fate that depends on man is called ‘misère’, and it can be abolished. The portion of fate that depends on the unknown is called ‘Douleur’, and this must be considered and explored with trepidation.” He was an ontological pessimist, and a historical optimist. This was why Flaubert was unfair to mock Hugo for “the Catholic-socialist dregs … the philosophical-evangelist vermin” who admired his novel. Hugo’s novel was grander than its politics. It was not so limited.

Many years earlier, in his preface to a collection of poetry, Inner Voices, dated 24 June 1837, Hugo had said that the poet’s duty was to elevate political events to the dignity of historical events. This fludity between the political and the historical is central to Les Misérables.

Instead, he was interested in transforming politics into history, and rewriting history so that it included the unknown, the ignored, the forgotten—a version of history which would inevitably, therefore, be both an exercise in philosophy and an exercise in politics.

Les Misérables, let’s remember, was a historical novel on its publication. It was always an exercise in archiving. But what is a historical novel? What’s the meaning of the genre? With Les Misérables it allowed Hugo to rewrite history: to show how far history is fiction; how far fiction had always been taciturn about the mass of its editing.

One example of this editing is Gavroche’s elephant.

Gavroche—the Parisian urchin—lives in a model elephant, erected on the place de la Bastille: a plaster model of a monument intended to commemorate Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. And this elephant is doubly erased. It is erased at the time, in the 1830s—“it stood there, in its corner, mournful, diseased, disintegrating, surrounded by a rotting paling fence pissed on at every turn by drunken coach-drivers; cracks zigzagged up its belly, a lath stuck out of its tail, weeds were pushing up between its legs”. And it is also erased now, in the 1860s. Now, it is “a bizarre monument that has already been wiped from the memory of Parisians”. It has disappeared both politically and historically. Just as in his chapter “The Year 1817”, a four-page list of minute events, Hugo concludes: “History neglects nearly every one of these little details and cannot do otherwise if it is not to be swamped by the infinite minutiae. And yet, the details, which are wrongly described as little—there are no little facts in the human realm, any more than there are little leaves in the realm of vegetation—are useful.”

This devotion to the infinitely unknown is why Hugo is meticulous at giving the reader Valjean’s prison numbers; and why Valjean’s name, in any case, is almost a tautology. Valjean is everyman: the anonymous, the ignored. That is the secret of his repetitive name (like Nabokov’s criminal hero in his novel Despair: Hermann Hermann, or, approximately, Mr Man Mr Man).

And it is also why Hugo is so careful to set the novel on the outskirts of Paris: in the suburbs. It was the Communist Surrealist Louis Aragon who stated that “with Victor Hugo, Paris stops being the seat of the court to become the city of the people”. Hugo was expert at describing the formless suburbs: “that funny, rather ugly semi-rural landscape, with its odd, dual nature, that surrounds certain big cities, notably Paris. To observe the urban outskirts is to observe the amphibian. End of trees, beginning of roofs, end of grass, beginning of pavement, end of furrows, beginning of shops, end of ruts, beginning of passions, end of divine murmuring, beginning of human racket …”

For Hugo’s novel is written according to the ethic of the archive. It restores real life to the truth of its infinite length. This ethic, therefore, is inseparable from an insecurity. The archive believes in the refusal of selection. It believes that everything, at some point, can return to haunt the powerful: like the repressed, or the misérable.

6: Shit