Lessons about Life and Literature (well, Writing) from “Les Misérables”

The Bishop of D-'s candlesticks change Jean Valjean's life in ways he never could have expected.

The Bishop of D-‘s candlesticks change Jean Valjean’s life in ways he never could have expected.

There’s nothing like a favorite book to teach us how to live, how to read, and how to write. In my case, my favorite books are my favorite books because they teach me these things.

Today, I admit, I was bone dry for inspiration about something to write about. That being the case, I figured, I could always go back to where I always go for inspiration: the classics. The pillars of literary achievement that have done so much to shape me.

Since I write fantasy, I’ve written before about the lessons I’ve taken from Harry Potter and from “The Once and Future King.”

Now it’s time to turn to my favorite book of all time: Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”

Whether you’ve read the book or not, you can be sure I have. Multiple times. In multiple languages. And I know that the book has reinforced a lot of valuable tricks of the writing trade in my case.

  1. IT’S MY NOVEL, AND I’LL DIGRESS IF I WANT TO. Hugo’s masterpiece is full of digressions–including 1oo “unneeded” pages about the Battle of Waterloo–that tie amazingly well into the novel’s theme of chance versus providence. Today, no one would have let Hugo publish that. Every editor on earth would have asked him what the heck he was thinking. But the digressions work, in their way. Lesson: you’ve got to be true to yourself and the spirit of your work.
  2. CHALLENGE YOUR CHARACTERS’ WORLDVIEWS. SEE WHAT HAPPENS. We all have crises of faith and of other sorts. We all can relate to that, and the human spirits finds value in exploring such events. When Valjean and Javert, at different moments, each have to confront a moment of mercy rendered unto them that completely shatters everything they believed about life…. Those chapters are some of the most powerful I have ever read.
  3. YOU HAVE TO PREPARE YOUR READER FOR TRAGIC EVENTS. Hugo’s masterpiece is tragic in many respects. But the novel works because the tone of the piece–everything about Valjean’s history, about Javert having been born in a prison to a prostitute–prepares the reader for the losses s/he’ll experience. I’ve mentioned in a post or two here, and I state in my writer’s handbook as well: make sure you aren’t leading your readers on to expect eternal bliss if that’s not what you’re going to give them. That’s not fair.
  4. CHARACTER MATTERS. In the sense of who we are and being true to what is right and not letting others browbeat us into betraying that, character matters. As a lifelong Catholic, I firmly believe that. Character also matters in fiction: character development, getting to know and exploring the depths of who your characters are. I feel that contemporary fiction is MUCH less character-centric, in a lot of ways, than older fiction. Contemporary fiction is more action-driven because the goal is to “entertain.” (Just think of Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) But I encourage you to challenge your readers, and to force them to think, by delving deep into character. You don’t have to have whole chapters where nothing happens but thought and planning and psychology. That said….

The chapter in “Les Miserables” where Jean Valjean learns that someone else has been arrested for theft and for breaking parole, mistaken for Valjean, is incredibly, incredibly moving. Nothing happens in an “action” sense. The whole long scene is a tortured Valean pacing his bedroom, trying to think, trying to figure out if he could live with himself if he let this man, this stranger, go to prison in his name for the rest of his life as a repeat offender.

The back and forth, the agony of it all, the arguments he makes and then breaks down and then refutes or feels tempted to accept, are incredibly absorbing and thought-provoking. You can’t help but wonder: would I have the strength to do the right thing in this situation?

Have you read Les Misérables? Seen the play or the movie? What did you think? What do you think of the points I describe? Please feel free to comment.

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10 responses to “Lessons about Life and Literature (well, Writing) from “Les Misérables”

  1. I’ve never read the book, but I’ve seen the movie and I’m very familiar with the music – I don’t think it left my iPod rotation for two months. Very touching, tragic story.

  2. Les Miserables is one of my all time favorite books, and is my all time favorite musical (the various film adaptations were all right at best). The novel explores almost every notable literary theme with its complex, well-rounded characters, and paints a vivid portrait of the time period.

  3. This book made me an instant fan of Hugo. I agree with you about character in contemporary fiction–It’s just secondary. That goes for film and videogames, too.
    Hugo used the plot to define his characters by–like you said–challenging their world-view, and that’s what makes this novel so enduring. It also makes the characters more relatable to the readers because, readers will ask themselves, “If faced with that same situation what would I do?” It really helps them put themselves in the characters’ shoes.
    Great Post!

  4. I have not read the novel (I’m going to rectify that now!), but I have seen the stage play twice and love it for its emotional quality and the complexity of the characters. They have this scene in the play where they are at the barricade and a dying boy throws ammunition over the wall to those who need it. The one time I saw the play, he managed to throw it over (a triumphant and bittersweet moment). The other time I saw the play, it didn’t quite make it over the wall, and it fell as he died (a tragic moment). It always made me think about how one little character event can affect the emotional tone of an entire scene. (I still don’t know which version was the intended one!)

  5. Good article with interesting points. Les Mis is my all-time favourite book too – have read it a few times, studied it in a French class at university and I’ve seen every movie and several live plays. Every time I am moved, and I learn something that seeps deeply into me. 🙂

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