October 12, 2020

Book Review: Les Misérables

I still can't quite believe the fact that 2020 is the year that I can say that I finally read the entirety of Les Misérables! I was unable to ever break past the 100 page mark on my previous attempts at reading this classic, but for some reason, I was determined to finally make it happen this year... and I finally made it all the way to the very last page. Les Misérables is about the noble peasant Jean Valjean and how the trajectory of his life dramatically changes after he steals a loaf of bread and winds up imprisoned. It ties together his story with that of a great many other folks, and sets in France at a time of political turmoil and unrest. 

Like the vast majority of folks I know, my familiarity with the tale of Les Misérables is rooted in the musical. I became familiar with Jean Valjean and his peers through the onstage adaptation that filters the plot and themes into the lyrics and scenes chosen to represent this brick of a book. But I've always itched to experience the source material, and while it took time to get through, I found the experience worth the effort and time. 

There are a great many other folks who have likely read this with a more academic, critical eye, so before I dive any deeper into my thoughts, I must make it clear that I read this for fun and that my opinions are very much biased towards my subjective experience. 

To me, Les Misérables is one part compelling narrative, one part detailed history and one part argument of philosophy, politics, ethics and morality. It took time to understand the narrative flow of this novel, as each section would start with a history or musings on morality. But once I picked up on the way that those bits would in some way tie into the turn of events for our rather large cast of characters in that same section, it suddenly became easier to follow the ebb and flow of the tale as I continued to read. I appreciated the character work, and how it felt like I was getting a more intimate glimpse at the characters because of the amount of page time we spend accompanying them and their thoughts. (This is not, to say, that I actually ended up loving these individuals. It's more complicated than that, because the portrayals felt honest and nuanced and very human.) And I appreciated the variety of themes - political, religious, ethics and more - that are sprinkled throughout the narrative too, often leaving me with things to ponder or sentiments that resonated.

Les Misérables was, without a doubt, the most difficult classic reading experience I've ever had. But it was also extremely satisfying, both in terms of the sense of accomplishment and the enjoyment I had. I'm really glad I finally read it this year, and feel fully empowered to read other lengthy, challenging classic reads in the future too.

If you want to try reading Les Misérables too, here are a couple of suggestions to make it easier:

  • Find a translation you get on well with (the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition translated by Christine Donougher is one I personally preferred of the many I've tried). You may alternatively want to try an abridged version or an audiobook format, if either is your cup of tea.
  • Break your reading up into sections. I personally set my goal to be reading a set amount of pages per day, but I know folks who broke it down by books or by chapters.
  • Watch an adaptation first. This is mostly applicable to folks unfamiliar with the story, as it might help you get a sense of the characters and the main plot points already prior to picking up the novel.

Pub Info: (originally 1862) February 24, 2015 by Penguin Classics | Add it on Goodreads | Buy the book!


  1. I saw the musical/movie and loved it. And then I had a cousin who doesn't read much say that the book was her favorite, so I bought it to read, but I think the size has really kept me from ever actually picking it up. I like your tips for choosing a certain translation, I may have to do that! Great review, thanks for sharing!
    Lisa Loves Literature


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