Happy families are all alike,every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way~ Leo Tolstoy.
Even though the said line is an excerpt from Anna Karenina, it suffices to summarize Les Misérables in a single line. Considered one of the greatest works of the nineteenth century, it portrays the endless misery in the life of the protagonists, as well as the people in the background, each morose at life in their own way.
The tale begins with lamentation of the apathy in the society towards the destitute is as guilty as the criminal; carving a brigand out of a citizen. A pruner sentenced to gallows for stealing a loaf of bread, and forever shunted from society with the yellow passport of a criminal engenders a monster. Filled with indignation, he elevates his crime till he is humbled by a Bishop, who ‘purchases his soul from the devil and returns it to god’. Yet years of benevolence doesn’t clear the tag of a runaway convict as he’s spit upon, chased by a doctrinaire inspector who holds ideas of morality and justice above humanity.
Elsewhere Hugo portrays the male hypocrisy, where an unmarried father is free of all responsibilities towards his illegitimate child whereas the mother is besmirched forever, falling to the abyss of flesh trade and consequently to death in order to support the child. The child is at even greater misery, in a shack reminiscent of the Cindrella tale, where her illegitimate tag prohibits her from demanding any of her innate rights to happiness. But when the two paths meet, the runaway convict finds love in the little child, while the child discovers the meaning of happiness.
Yet another tale begins of a scion, which lives its life with the fallacy of being unloved by his own father, while the father lives in greater misery of having love to shower but an agreement to honour for the sake of his son. The greatest misery is to discover love only after the loved one is no more,drenched by grief, the son goes into penance, leaving his grandfather’s palatial mansion to repay the debts of his father, fulfil his dying wishes and break the agreement that had cast a wall between him and his father. But misery lies ahead when all the characters meet at the crossroads of life, some live through it; some succumb to their demure graves.
The book is an ode to love, not to its romanticism but to its power of sacrifice. Each of the characters is at misery, as a condign for choosing to sacrifice for love. Hugo delineates their misery into something beautiful, carving a human side of sorrow. Ethereally composed, Hugo lived up to his reputation of one of the greatest poets of France for the tale is filled with metaphors and similes
that shall charm any bard on a given day.
Contributed by: Satya Brata Mishra.