I was quite optimistic in my reading plans for Les Misérables when I initially chose to read it. Although it is really very easy going (just very long), I'm moving along more slowly than I anticipated. If I devoted more reading time to it, I could make better progress, but my attention is being pulled so many different ways right now that I've only managed to complete the first of five sections. Last weekend I finished "Fantine" and now I am working my way through the second section, "Cosette", having just finished reading about the Battle of Waterloo. There's really no rush to finish the book, so I've decided to just sit back and enjoy the story, even if it does end up taking me most of the summer. My only small fear is that I might abandon it (not due to the story but other books cutting in line) unless I set little goals for myself.
I'll probably post on each section as I finish it. Hopefully I won't give away any important spoilers, but it will be much easier to write about the book if I can discuss the plot at least generally. I tend to like to know very little about a book I am setting out to read, so I'll give fair warning here. The book is narrated by an omniscient narrator, and occasionally he will speak directly to the reader, which gives the story an intimate feel, as if he is telling me this story personally. Conveniently he also knows what the characters are thinking and guides the reader along historically as well.
The story begins in 1815 when we are introduced to M. Myriel, who is Bishop of Digne. He's also a very, very good man, sharing all his wealth with the people in the village. He's a pillar of the community, and he'll be a guiding influence in the life of Jean Valjean, one of the main characters in the novel. Jean Valjean arrives in Digne after having spent the previous nineteen years in jail. His offense? Stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. His original sentence was only five years, but his incarceration was so miserable he spent the next fourteen trying to escape and being caught and returned to jail. Although his intentions are honorable when he passes through the village, he's a known criminal and therefore turned away from every tavern and hotel. M. Myriel is the only person who will give him food and a place to rest. Since he's accepted only as a criminal he decides to act like one and steals from M. Myriel. Being a forgiving soul, M. Myriel will tell the police, who quickly catch Jean Valjean, that he gave him the silver candlesticks, allowing him to go on his way a free man. Jean Valjean will take M. Myriel's actions to heart.
Fantine is a young, naive woman from the working classes, and later in the story she will cross paths with Jean Valjean. She innocently gives her heart to a Parisian student of the bourgeoisie class, but to ill consequences. What he considers harmless fun, Fantine believes is love. He'll leave her pregnant, unwilling to help her or the child. With nowhere to turn she will return home. Knowing she will not be able to find work with a child, she leaves Cosette, her daughter, with the Thénardiers. She believes them to be a kindly middle class couple who will care for her daughter. She leaves money and clothes for her with promises to return. Do you want to guess how Cosette is treated?
I don't want to go into great detail and give all the plot away (there's so much that happens it would be impossible really, so I don't think I've ruined any surprises), but I will mention another important character, Javert. Javert is a policeman who's fixated on the idea of capturing Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean and Cosette's paths will cross and Javert will be in the middle of things, making life difficult for all. End of section one.
I'm sure there is nothing in this story that's ended up here by chance. Different characters and situations give Victor Hugo the perfect opportunity to make his opinions on society known. He uses all sorts of symbolism--light and dark, and foreshadowing to tell his story. He satirizes the bourgeois class, as well as France's prison and court systems. The Industrial Revolution is shown in a good light. Even though the first section of the book is less than a fourth of the way into the novel, there's much to think about. More than I can attempt to talk about in one post, but I at least wanted to put down a few thoughts before I get too far into the next section. I'm really enjoying it and I found a book of criticism in the library to help me get more out of my reading. Not very surprisingly (and how many books can this be said about) one reading is probably not enough to really appreciate everything Hugo is trying to do and say here. In any case, it's an entertaining story irregardless of anything else floating beneath the surface! How is everyone else doing?