For years students have whined about every classic book they’re forced to read in English: To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, Fahrenheit 451, etc. They see the old-timey language and immediately get turned off from actually reading them, usually turning to Sparknotes to pass the quizzes without suffering through a few hundred pages.
I hate that kind of attitude towards these great classics because all of the aforementioned books have extraordinary social commentary that has remained relevant even as society has changed.
Teachers don’t just assign books that they think will make their students suffer; they assign these books because they critique certain aspects of society that they think should change. One such book that some students are expected to read as sophomores is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo who is also the author of several other classics such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Les Mis takes place in early 1800s France and is about an ex-convict Jean Valjean who gets out of jail after being imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a piece of bread. The story mainly follows his struggles and his story of redemption, but it also follows the lives of several other characters whose stories coincide with Jean Valjean’s.
Hugo gives scathing social commentary on the treatment of ex-cons by society, the social classes, the influence of religious institutions, and many more topics that are still relevant today. It brings up ideas about human nature, redemption, and the importance of love. Hugo wrote this book because he wants people to change their behaviors. He wants people to realize the difficulties of many people’s lives and convince them to let go of their biases.
On top of the important commentary the book provides, it is also chock full of literary devices and figurative language, the whole shebang. It makes total sense that this book would be taught at the same time students are expected to progress as writers and as readers. Hugo’s masterful writing leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
Although the mix of French words and the old-timey language may be somewhat confusing at first, the way the book is written was not meant to be hard to read. I definitely find the language easier to understand than Shakespeare and it honestly isn’t that hard to get through.
The most difficult thing I found about reading the book is that the version sophomores read is an edited version, so instead of being 1,200 pages long, it’s 400 pages. Although this makes it quicker to read, I feel that it cuts out scenes that would help the reader fully understand what’s going on.
I feel that most people who don’t like this book haven’t given it a chance. I know a student’s schedule can be messy, so it is hard to fit in time to read a lot of the books they are expected to read, but if they only read the Sparknotes then they don’t really have anything to base their negative opinions on. If people actually tried to read Les Mis and understand what Hugo is saying about society, then I guarantee they will have a greater appreciation for it.
(If you want another student’s opinion I would recommend checking out this review.)