Victor Hugo, the subject of today’s Google Doodle, is one of the most beloved authors that most Americans have never read.
Most know the bare outlines of the plot of Les Misérables, Hugo’s most celebrated work, whose last chapter was published on this date in 1862. They know why the virtuous former thief Jean Valjean goes on the run and is pursued by the obsessive Inspector Javert. They know about Valjean’s redemptive love for his adopted daughter Cosette. They know about the revolutionaries dying at the barricades, and how Marius and Cosette marry.
For at least 60 million of them, that’s because they saw the musical based on the novel. Many fewer people, however, have braved the 1,500-page novel itself — not because Americans are lazy or illiterate, but because holy hell, that is many, many pages about 19th-century France, and we all have things to do.
But that also means that many fans of the musical aren’t acquainted with those infamous, lengthy, hundred-page-long digressions that have delighted and frustrated generations of Hugo fans: not the one about the history of the convent where Valjean and Cosette take shelter, not the one about the Battle of Waterloo, and not the one that develops a detailed policy proposal on proper Parisian sewer maintenance.
But when Victor Hugo’s novel itself, not one of its many adaptations, was really popular in America, it was both beloved and widely mocked for its digressions.
“I’ve been reading Hugo’s account of Waterloo in Les Miserables and preparing my mind for something of the same sort,” wrote Wilky James, a member of the Civil War’s famous Massachusetts free black regiment, in 1863. “God grant the battle may do as much harm to the Rebels as Waterloo did to the French.”
The Times, meanwhile, published a satirical article the same year titled “What If Your Uncle Had Been Your Aunt,” which riffed on Hugo’s assertion that the French might have won at Waterloo if it had not rained that morning. “Supposing Lincoln to have swallowed his tooth-brush on the 3rd and to have died of it on the 4th of March, 1861,” the article argued, “we are willing, for the sake of quiet, to concede that this country would now be in the enjoyment of profound peace.”
The digressions in Les Misérables are prevalent and unavoidable — but they inspire such strong reactions because they are not really digressions as such. They are fundamental to the work of the novel.
Hugo drafted Les Misérables over 20 years. His manuscript began as a polemic against the French justice system of his time, evolved into a paean to revolution, and ended as a philosophical examination of the nature of sadness, from angles theological, political, economic, and erotic. The long historical and political passages that leave behind the novel’s central action are the crux of Les Misérables’ central philosophical argument, and what distinguish the novel outside of its now-familiar plot beats.
None of which means that Les Misérables can’t be an immensely frustrating or even dull read. But it does mean that if you’re a fan of the musical, or any of the other many Les Mis adaptations, it might be worth poking around in the original novel in order to understand what made Hugo’s story so resonant in the first place.