Maneuvering the 19th Century Parisian Sewers in “Les Miserables”

First, I’m going to shout this out because it’s finally true and because I have earned the satisfaction of saying it:


les mis book cover

A few months back, when a couple of old college girlfriends and I talked about reading the book together and discussing it over Skype, I didn’t really know how big this book was. Then I got it at the library and remembered why I’d never read it:  I was amazed by the size of the damn thing. Almost 1,500 pages for one novel . . . how many other books could I read in that time, anyway?

Cosette portraitBut then last year I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I loved Hugo’s writing, and I also finally (after about 30 years of putting it off) read A Tale of Two Cities and got interested in the French revolution. So here I was at my library, checking out Les Mis.

Eponine_and_Patron-MinetteIt’s a monster of a book and it’s about everything. It took me over three months to read it, because I read other books at the same time, but the library didn’t mind my having to renew it, and finally last night I finished it and had the Good Cry.

Finally I know Jean Valjean. I know Fantine. Cosette. The horrid Thenardier. Javert. Gavroche. Eponine. Marius. They’ve been my friends for several months now. When I was away from the book, I wondered what they were up to.

When I first started the book, I was killing time in a restaurant in Minneapolis. I was traveling alone for work, and I had a few hours to kill before my next meeting, so I ordered lunch and started Les Mis. When my waitress brought my check, she gushed, “oh, by the way, bravo DOE reading that book! It’s so wonderful! And unabridged!” (Another English major.) We laughed for a minute about how long the book is and how Hugo tends to digress for several chapters, or at least you think he’s digressing, but then 300 pages later you realize that hadn’t really been a digression—you now need to know what he said. The waitress concluded our conversation by saying, “don’t worry too much if you sort of skip through the long, drawn-out section describing the vast sewer system of Paris in the 1800’s.”

Let me back up a minute. Before I read the book, I didn’t know this story, except that it must be about miserable people and that it started out with a guy who stole a loaf of bread to feed some poor children, and was sent to prison for it. I knew nothing else. I didn’t know the characters. I didn’t see the musical or the old movie or the new movie. I didn’t read the Cliffs Notes. I had no expectations except I thought it would be a sad book. I mean, the title, come on. I only knew to brace myself.


Jean Valjean and Marius in the sewers

So, when I got to page 500 or so, and I hadn’t read about any sewers yet, I thought, huh. Then page 700. 900. 1000. 1200. 1300. Still no sewers. I decided that the waitress in the restaurant must have had her books confused. There’s no sewer system in Les Mis. Then as soon as I decided that . . . ah yes, the Parisian sewer system! It’s dirty and stinky and hellish. There are rats everywhere. It’s dark and scary and swampy, you could drown, or at least you could easily lose yourself in the maze of sewers like in a cave. (How terrified I was when Tom and Becky got lost in the dark cave—and in Missouri, there were no rats.) But the wonderful Parisian sewer system enables Jean Valjean to save Marius! —Oh, and my point about the sewer portion of the book:  it wasn’t boring or even particularly lengthy. Descriptive, yes. I loved it!

I loved the book not because I finished it, but because Jean Valjean is such an inspirationalhugo character who makes me realize I could be so much better than I am. He is a remarkable hero.

And I also love the book because Victor Hugo had a wide-reaching vision and he just kept hammering it out until it all came together on paper. His “digressions” are some of the best parts of the book, even if you don’t know why he’s running off in this direction or if he’ll ever return to the “real” plot. I needn’t have worried. The book was complete, and lovely.

I’ll never forget it. Thank you, Mr. Hugo.

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