This regards the 1987 Signet Classics edition of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, complete and unabridged, translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the original French to English translation by C.E. Wilbour. All spoilers to follow.
I'd tried reading Les Misérables several years ago but quite honestly got tired with Hugo's overwrought prose somewhere in Volume II. Since the world is ending and I ran out of library books, I figured this was a good time to give it another go. I'm glad I did because while Hugo doesn't get any less wrought as the story grows, it's both a fascinating exploration of 19th Century society in the shadow of revolution and an insight into the psyche of the time, still wrestling with old aristocratic habits and new republican ideals.
But having said all that - and planning to say more - what really defines this gargantuan novel is a morality play, centered on the character of Jean Valjean. Imprisoned for stealing bread and kept for four times his original sentence because of repeated escape attempts, he is both sympathetic while being hardened and cunning enough to be a compelling hero. Some might be attempted to call him Byronic but rather his turn from a life of wickedness - or what society deems wicked - to the good is much more religious. Embittered and alienated from all humanity at the start, the kindness and forgiveness of a provincial bishop sets him on his path to redemption at the start to which he pursues with as little regard for the mores and norms of society as when he was a criminal but with rather with a focus on compassion and relieving the suffering of others.
Valjean finds his project of human betterment embodied in the orphaned Cosette. Orphaned by his own charitable machinations in his guise as Monsieur Madeleine, the benefactor from nowhere who builds up the factory town Montreuil-sur-Mer. A factory that employs - and degrades and throws away - Cosette's martyred mother Fantine. But before he can swoop in and save the poor orphan, Valjean's past catches up with him in a morality play within a morality play.
Enter Inspector Javert, Hugo's embodiment not of Good but of Order. Javert's commitment to law and authority is tautological - it must be obeyed because it is law and authority - and he takes visible pleasure in subjecting others to the law's severity. At first suspecting the beloved Mayor Madeleine of being the convict Valjean, he later recants his theory as some poor dolt in a neighboring town is arrested for stealing apples and roundly accused of being the infamous Valjean. Real name Champmathieu, he is subjected to a Kafkaesque trial in which his insistence upon his true identity is proof of his guilt.
This play within a play serves to illustrate Hugo's larger point about the society of his day and law and order. How stealing bread or simply mistaken identity can condemn someone to lifelong ignominy, the old feudal castes persisting under different names, as further demonstrated when "Monsieur Madeleine" storms the trial to proclaim himself the true Jean Valjean, to which everyone reacts with incredulity. He can't possibly be a convict because he is a respected mayor and businessman.
However, as much as Hugo challenges these lingering ideas of inherent goodness and wickedness, of castes assigned either success or misery for all time, he still cannot break free of the essentialist view of human nature. This Great Man theory is a constant theme through Hugo's novel, often in tension with his professed republican ideals. For all his focus on the dignity and suffering of the lower classes, it's only through the superiority of Mayor Madeleine - the reformed Jean Valjean - that uplifts the community of Montfermeil. When he surrenders himself to the law to save Champmathieu, the whole town goes back to seed.
The long digression on the Battle of Waterloo further cements this paradox in Hugo's thinking. Hugo talks glowingly of Napoleon, of how his incredible successes had to be ordained by Providence, and contrasts this with the dull and offensively un-brilliant Wellington. But the dull guy won.
To go on my own brief digression - and Hugo would approve, having dedicated an entire chapter to the history of the sewers of Paris - this Great Man theory so enraptured the French post-Napoleon that it arguably led to their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The Grand Armee had long been accustomed to being the instrument of their supreme commander's genius, but where Napoleon III proved timid and dejected the mid-rank officers of the Prussian forces quickly exploited every opportunity to drive the fight across Europe and back to Paris. Not through any particular genius but rather through disciplined efficiency.
Speaking of the siege of Paris and glorious Great Men getting ground under by forces of history, the tension between Hugo's conflicting ideals also manifests in the dichotomy between Enjolras and Thenardier. The former a young republican idealist and leader of a sort of proletariat salon of downwardly mobile intellectuals styling themselves revolutionaries, the latter an unscrupulous thief and con artist always striving after a new payday. Thenardier appears first in the narrative, he and his wife nominally accepting Cosette into their home to care for her while Fantine works herself to an early grave to provide for the little girl. Thenardier naturally makes the little girl a Cinderella-like slave, while constantly demanding more and more payments from Fantine, citing the many expenses incurred raising Cosette. Which is a blatant lie.
When Valjean escapes the chain gang yet again and comes to rescue Cosette - his coat sewn up with bank bills from his Madeleine fortune - Thenardier lets the little girl go for a song and a mere 15,000 Francs. He's got a good grift going with a tavern at the time, where his wife gets to lord it over everyone and his own daughters get to play with dolls and a kitten. But when this family appears again, they are fallen much lower in circumstances and are living in a squalid boardinghouse. Thenardier is left to composing fraudulent letters begging well-to-do Parisians - or who he thinks are well-to-do - for a little remittance here and there, while quite literally whoring his own daughters out to his criminal contacts. As much pains as Hugo goes to in portraying society beating down the "good" scoundrels like Jean Valjean, here he offers no such compassion for low and grasping people in a chapter even named "The Noxious Poor."
Contrast with the impoverished in matter but not in spirit Enjolras and his coterie. At first secondary to the bildungsroman of Marius that makes up the second half of the novel, they represent the boiling political radicalism that claimed descent from the Revolution but doesn't have much to show in terms of concrete plans - at least as presented by Hugo. They have plenty of noble airs and when the uprising of 1832 comes, they all take up arms and man the barricades gladly, but they have no real plans beyond dying gloriously for "the cause."
Really, the particulars don't concern Hugo so much as Progress. Like Hegel, he sees a deliberate direction to history, rising from the barbarous Ancien Regime into the glorious Republic of freedom and reason. And in service of this Progress, the violence of the barricades is completely warranted. Enjolras feels morally empowered by his ideals to kill not just the gendarmes mobilized to suppress the uprising but also to execute those whose rebellion is too sloppy and undisciplined. He even plans to execute a police spy within the barricade - the long absent from the narrative at this point Inspector Javert - but is bamboozled by Jean Valjean who arrives to rescue not just his nemesis Javert but also Marius, who is due for a wedded ever after ending with Cosette. In the process, he manages to assist the barricade without taking a single life - allowing Hugo to maintain Valjean's sainthood while also indulging in the thrill of revolutionary violence.
In the midst of all this bloody climax though, we get to see an unintentionally more compelling character. Eponine, daughter of Thenardier whose arc takes her from playing with a kitten in the Thenardier Inn to walking barefoot and broken through the slums of Paris illustrates how society fails the unfortunate. She descends through the lower strata of acceptable morality not out of any personal failings or even mistakes, but rather from the misfortune of birth. Her father - and mother, to a lesser degree - are the few truly wicked in Hugo's novel and their vulgar machinations drag their daughter into ignominy, poverty, and an untimely death. A better illustration of how society fails the less fortunate than the transcendent sainthood of Jean Valjean.
All of this being said, I can appreciate how much of a classic Les Misérables is but I wouldn't recommend it as a quarantine read. You'd have a better time with George Eliot's Middlemarch, which offers a more digestible prose style and greater psychological depth. But if you've read that already, you should give Hugo's magnum opus a go.