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Prefaces to Famous Novels: Les Misérables

alex atkins bookshelf literature“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

From the preface to Les Miserables (“The Miserable Ones”), published in 1862, by French novelist and poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885). The novel, one of the longest written (containing 655,478 words), is considered by many literary critics to be one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Although the central story concerns ex-convict Jean Valjean’s difficult path to self-redemption while relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert, the novel explores many important themes; Hugo elaborates: “The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.” Literary critic and novelist Italo Calvino once wrote that a classic book is one “that has never finished saying what it has to say. And Les Misérables is such a timeless classic — it has been adapted more than 100 times for film, television, radio, and theatre. Hugo expressed the novel’s timelessness this way: “Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.'”

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