What to Know Before Reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

What to Know Before Reading Les Miserables via From Left to Write

I’m no stranger to reading long, epic novels.  I’ve read Gone With the Wind (twice!), Crime and Punishment, six books in The Wheel of Time seriesand all the original Dune series (which is basically one book).

However, one book that’s intimidated me is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Penguin Classics recently released a new deluxe edition translated by  Christine Donougher with a beautiful new cover. Look at that gorgeous artwork by Jillian Tamaki. And I got my hot little hands on a copy! It’s 1300 pages long-not counting the endnotes. 

LES MIS Full jacket by Jillian Tamaki

Before I dig into this classic work of literature, I asked a few friends what I should know before reading Les Miserables.

What to Know Before Reading Les Miserables

My friend Dawn, who writes at 5 Minutes for Books, has been obsessed with all things Les Miz for twenty years. She’s my Les Miserables expert and here’s some pointers for first time readers:

It’s okay to skim or skip some parts of the book. Some parts that Dawn gave me permission to skip/skim are:

  • Waterloo (First chapter of Part Two: Cossette): This chapter is mostly about the battle of Waterloo with a small bit of action pertinent to the plot which comes at the very end of the chapter. Dawn recommends muddling through this chapter for your first read. For your second read, just skip to the end of the chapter.

(I love how Dawn assumes I will finish reading the entire book and jump in for a second read.)

  • Petit Picpus (Chapter Six of Part Two: Cossette): With its focus on the history of convents in France, this chapter has only a small bit of important action. I guess if you’ve always wanted to know about the history of convents in France, you should read it.

Take your time. This tip is from me. I know it’s obvious, but don’t beat yourself up if it’s taking you forever to read the book. It’s long and it’s dense.

Take notes. I know, I know. I’m reading this voluntarily and not for a class assignment. I think I make more notes in books I read outside of my college classes than I did the entire four years I was there! Les Miserables is a classic for a reason. Hugo’s social commentary about class in French society is the reason many people still love his work. Underlining passages or marking them with flags (because I have a hard time writing in my books) are how I remember important (to me) lines.

The movie version is nowhere close to the book. Another obvious one but I’ve only seen half of the movie with Hugh Jackman and listened to my theatre friends sing songs from the musical for their auditions. Don’t watch the movie hoping for a leg up on the book. The movie version is terrible, but I do enjoy the Broadway original cast recording.

If all else fails, read the abridged version. Is it cheating? Yes, but if you don’t have time for 1300+ pages, then it’s better than not reading it at all.

Thank you Dawn for sharing your reading tips. She also writes about children’s books on My Thoughts Exactly. Those no-brainer tips are from me; mostly to make myself feel better if I don’t finish reading Les Miserables.

Have you read Les Miserables? What should I know before reading it?

2 Comments
  1. March 31, 2015
    • March 31, 2015