Not the greatest prediction in history perhaps, but Victor Hugo's monumental Romantic epic still remains one of the best known and most popular works of the nineteenth century. A vast panorama of Parisian life during the first half of that century, Les Miserables seems to contain the author's entire world view and knowledge base, everything but the kitchen sink. Yes, when viewed through twenty-first century eyes it suffers from all the peculiarities associated with novels of that era: twists and turns born out of wildly improbable coincidences, a tendency to sentimentality and melodrama, familiar caricatures (misers, prostitutes, street urchins), odd attachments to unrelated children, and loose ends neatly tied up. But, like War and Peace it is a great sweep of life, like Moby Dick it is juxtaposed with digressions and immensely detailed descriptions (Waterloo, the Paris sewers), like Dickens's works the characters live and breathe even though they are flat and behave stereotypically. In sum, it is a magnificent slice of social history, teeming with life and detail, sometimes funny, often moving, always compassionate.
The story is basically simple. It revolves around peasant Jean Valjean who is sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and then to 19 years in the galleys for an escape attempt. He becomes a recidivist criminal on release until he sees the error of his ways after being befriended by a saintly priest. Then, making a stupid mistake on the spur of the moment, he is discovered and compelled to return to prison. However, escaping again, he spends the rest of his life seeking redemption, firstly by becoming a wealthy and respectable citizen and then by rescuing a young girl from abuse. Les Miserables is a morality tale which seeks to demonstrate the virtual impossibility of escape from poverty and injustice at a time and in a system where the less fortunate are excluded. Among a great canvas of characters many are memorable: Valjean himself, the obsessive policeman Javert, the ill-fated Fantine, the malevolent Thenardier couple, and the irrepressible urchin Gavroche. The numerous stage and film interpretations of Hugo's masterpiece are a testimony to its enduring popularity and its place in the pantheon of great European literature.