The Situation: Oh there is so much here...like a crazy amount, but I guess I'll just start with Jean Valjean, who remains at the center of everything throughout the novel. Valjean is an ex-con who breaks parole in order to start a new life for himself and prove that a man with a dark past can become a virtuous member of society. He does just that and becomes mayor of a prosperous town.
Then there is Fantine, who is let go from her job in a factory where she earns money to send back to the Thenardiers for taking care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. After being fired, she becomes a prostitute and (spoiler alert!) eventually dies of what appears to be tuberculosis. After learning about her and her fate, Valjean vows to find her daughter Cosette and raise her himself, which he does.
The Problem: Once again, there is just so much, but again I'll just start with Valjean. He could have easily continues to be mayor and raised Cosette to be a beautiful young woman (which he gets to do anyway), except that before he even gets Cosette his true identity is revealed when another man is about to be convicted for his crimes. Valjean (spoiler alert!) admits to being the real prisoner 24601 but manages to escape the hand of justice once again and find Cosette. And here is another issue: the Thenardiers, who have been taking care of Cosette all this time, are complete pariah's and bottom feeders and only let her go for a price, only to keep popping up again and again throughout the book to take advantage of people. And Javert, the police officer who first wanted to accuse Valjean of being 24601 also continues to pop out and chase Valjean throughout his life so he can arrest him and force him to serve his debt to society. Oh yeah, and there is a whole student rebellion going on in the background and one of the quasi-leaders falls in love with Cosette, and those kinds of situations are never easily dealt with.
Genre, Theme, History: It is definitely a novel, and a long one. In my personal opinion, the running theme throughout the novel seems to be one of grace. Valjean continually exercises it, but cannot for the life of him seem to be able to accept it. This problem of his shows up in the very beginning when a priest shows him the true meaning of grace (I won't spoil the scene for you because it is just so good) when he has first gotten out of prison. And Javert cannot exercise grace or accept it, and this is ultimately what makes him such an awful person to deal with. The Thenardiers don't seem to have any grace at all and it shows. And Cosette is the product of grace from one of the most unselfish men in all of literature and she grows up to be all sweetness and light.
As for history, I constantly make the mistake of thinking that the battle going on in the background is the French Revolution, but it is so not. The French Revolution took place in the 1700s, and this story is set in the 1800s. Really, the only revolution portrayed is the June Rebellion which is led by students, which makes sense as Marius and his friends are a part of it. Also, at various points Hugo does take many opportunities to voice his opinions on the many issues concerning the politics, society, and religion of France (and more specifically, Paris) at the time. Hugo's tangents can be incredibly lengthy, but there is more story than there are digressions, I promise.
My Verdict: It is a masterpiece. That is all.
Favorite Moment: This is hard for me because there are more than a couple. But I'll spare you and only choose one. Or I'll choose two and justify it by saying one is for the musical and the other is for the book. I would go for the movie as well but there are so many versions and about to be a new one come December 2012. IMDb it...
The Musical: When Valjean decides to confess to being prisoner 24601 before going back to Fantine's death bed. Chills.
The Book: I won't reveal it all, but basically the last 10 pages or so of the entire novel. It takes an incredible amount for a book to get me to do something like cry or laugh out loud. But the final pages of this book left me pretty much inconsolable.
Favorite Character: Jean Valjean. Hands down. No contest. The man is a living saint and only went to jail in the first place for stealing bread for a family member. He then goes on to sacrificially give of himself for other people, even if that means he potentially goes back to jail and is executed. Oh yeah, and he is pretty indestructible and has incredible strength. And Hollywood had to top it off for me by getting Liam Neeson to play him. Awesome.
Least Favorite Character: Okay, I won't point out my least favorite character in these posts unless that character is not a villain or antagonist. In the case of Les Miserables, I definitely go against the grain of the female population and have to say that Marius is my least favorite character. He just generally gets on my nerves and is such a...well...boy. And I guess it doesn't help that I adore Valjean so much because no one can stand up next to him, so my standards are going to be ridiculously high. But even so, the boy just needs to get a grip and I feel like he does after it is already too late.
I hope I didn't ramble on too much in this post. This is a book that is very dear to my heart and I wanted to talk about it without just gushing and going on and on. It will most likely be awhile before I hit on another door stop (gotta space those suckers out), so next post look forward to something more contemporary.
Recommended Reading: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo: almost the same amount of action with less than half the pages.