Les Miserables is one of those books I’ve always wanted to read, but just couldn’t ever get around to. Maybe it was the forbidding length; maybe it was pushback against the gushing fanbase of the recent film (despite the fact that I actually like the musical pretty well); maybe it was just laziness. Whatever the case, it was a book I knew I should read, but never did. And then, I found out I had to teach it this year, which has a way of motivating you to read things.
More importantly, though, it taught me a few things about Les Miserables – mainly, that for many people, the abridged version is all they’ll ever read. Even many fans of the book have their issues with the unabridged version – with massive chapters about the Battle of Waterloo, long digressions about minor characters, tours of the Paris sewers, and more infamously wordy passages (including a chapter named “Parenthesis” because Hugo wanted people to realize it was okay to skip it), the book is often cut down to let the story breathe and make it more accessible to people who want to experience the plot and characters without getting lost in the prose. What exactly gets cut, though, is up for some debate.
My students, for instance, are reading this abridged version, which seems to be the go-to default version for many people. It’s the one I first started reading, and in many ways, it’s a perfect starting point. The prose is whittled down throughout, and some of the more redundant or “unnecessary” passages are gone. But as I read more and more, I got increasingly frustrated at just how edited this version was. For instance, volume one of the book is named “Fantine,” a young woman who appears hardly at all in this version. One character abruptly gains a pair of pistols with little or no explanation. A young girl is rescued from her adoptive parents off-screen. Another character’s contemplation of death and suicide is excised entirely, leaving his final actions far more cryptic and less thoughtful than they should be. And those famous barricades? They appear almost out of nowhere, with little to no context. Yes, the book keeps the story more or less together, and it definitely abridges the book quite a bit. But you can’t help but feel that the scar tissue left from all that cutting is pretty noticeable, and that the cuts ultimately end up slicing out much of the heart, depth, and complexity of the book and its characters.
In frustration, I started digging around to see what else I could find. I needed something that still abridged the story for me – I didn’t have time to read the uncut version in its entirety before starting the unit – but did a less brutal job than this one. And that’s when I cam across this “Ultimate Fan Edition” of the novel. (The Kindle version is cheap and nicely formatted, but it’s also available on his website for free.) Make no mistake: this is still an abridged version, cutting out nearly half the word count of the novel. (Mind you, that still leaves roughly 254,000 words behind. I told you, it’s a long book.) But the pruning is far less extreme, leaving in character arcs, chapters that add nothing to the story but create vivid interior lives, maintaining Hugo’s rich prose, and aiding in not only the comprehension of Hugo’s masterpiece, but also in the enjoyment. I liked the version of the book I read for school; I loved this edition, and in reading it, I understood more why people could fall in love with this book. And it’s this edition that ultimately made me more interested in reading the unabridged edition at some point; if this one is so good, I’m fascinated to see what else remains out there.
The thing is, though, is that whichever edition you read, you’re still reading one of the most astonishing works of literature that’s ever been written. There’s a reason that Les Miserables was a bestseller upon release, a reason that it’s continually being told and retold, a reason that a musical based upon it has been so successful. It’s an astonishing and moving story, one that’s undeniably rooted in a certain time period and yet applies just as much today as it did back then. It’s got characters that come to life and linger with you far beyond the page – the selfless Bishop, the guilt-ridden Jean Valjean, the rigid Javert, the lovestruck Marius and Cosette – and a story that grips throughout. It’s got rich themes – redemption, love, tolerance, respect, and more – that resonate even with a casual reader, and inspire us to be more than ourselves. And it does it all with style, excitement, and even a sense of humor. It is, in fact, every bit the book I always heard it was, and then some. Do I have an edition I prefer? Undeniably. But whichever version you read, you’ll be enjoying a truly masterful piece of fiction that earns its place in the literary canon.