Is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, as David Bellos would have us believe, “the greatest novel of the nineteenth century”? A number of titles in that greatest century of the novel can surely lay claim to this accolade: War and Peace, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, Middlemarch, maybe also The Charterhouse of Parma, Great Expectations, Lost Illusions. I don’t think Les Misérables makes the cut, though not because it isn’t great in its peculiar way.
Bellos comes closer to the truth, and the problem, when he writes: “The episode in the sewers,” in which Jean Valjean carries the wounded Marius after the fall of their barricade, “makes Les Misérables something grander than a novel in the nineteenth-century mode. It reaches out towards the creation of a legend and the transformation of a character into a myth.” Whatever it is, Les Misérables doesn’t quite qualify as a novel. It’s some kind of monstre sacré. It has lent itself well to various adaptations over the decades since its publication in 1862, perhaps a sign that its form is so elastic, or unimportant, that its matter can easily be reworked without losing the book’s essence.
Flaubert, who admired Hugo greatly, was caustic:
I found in this book neither truth nor grandeur…. The characters are mannequins, sugar candy figures…. You are not allowed to paint such a false portrait of society when you’re a contemporary of Balzac and Dickens.
Flaubert wanted a greater realism. It is true also that Hugo doesn’t have the ability of Dickens, Balzac, or even Eugène Sue to make his plots dramatize the issues at the heart of the novel. He always has to intervene in his own voice, endlessly sermonizing. Social realities are not so much observed as postulated by an Olympian author. It’s at times like the garrulousness of an old man in love with his own voice. Reading Les Misérables, one often wishes Hugo would shut up.
Yet even Flaubert conceded that Hugo’s subject was great and important. Les Misères, as the original working title of the novel had it—poverty, misery, social destitution, the creation of a class of the wretched of the earth—was the profound and inescapable issue for thinking persons of the nineteenth century. How had the evolution of society and industry created such a vast and growing underclass? It remains a crucial issue for us today, though one has the impression that it has ceased to have the moral urgency it had for Hugo and many of his contemporaries.
Nineteenth-century France produced some remarkable inquiries into social misery, including Eugène Buret’s De la misère des classes laborieuses en Angleterre et en France (1840); Louis-René Villermé’s report on textile workers in Tableau de l’état physique et moral des ouvriers employés dans les manufactures de coton,…
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