A Story for all Times: Les Miserables


Cosette
By Emile Bayard, via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Muir and Mike Procter look at the famous French book "Les Misérables". Why does it continue to be so popular?

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Transcript


Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Anne Muir.

Voice 2 

And I’m Mike Procter. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 3 

The words people say about another person have a great influence on that person’s life. They particularly affect that person’s future. The words have even more influence than what a person does.

Voice 1 

These words come from the book "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo. The book was first published in France in 1862, but people still read and study it today. It has been a film, and a famous musical play. So why is it still so popular? Today’s Spotlight is on "Les Misérables".

Voice 2 

"Les Misérables" follows the story of one man, Jean Valjean. But it is also about many other things – history, politics, and problems in society. It is also very long - the longest versions are 1900 pages! The events happen over many years in the early 19th century.

Voice 1 

The book is very complex, with many events. At the beginning of the book, Valjean is a poor young man. His parents have died. His sister and her children have no food. So Valjean steals some bread for them. The police catch him and put him in prison.

Voice 2 

This starts a long and difficult time for Valjean. He is in prison for 19 years - just for stealing bread! When the authorities free him, he is alone, without friends or family. One man does help Valjean. His name is Bishop Myriel, and he is a leader in a Christian church. Bishop Myriel gives Valjean a place to stay. But that night, Valjean steals some valuable silver objects from the Bishop. Valjean believes that this is the only way he can live - by stealing. He runs away. But soon, the police catch him again. Valjean expects the Bishop to accuse him.

Voice 1 

Instead, the Bishop protects him. Bishop Myriel tells the police that he gave Valjean the silver. He also gives Valjean more valuable things. And he encourages Valjean to change his life. Valjean never forgets what the Bishop has said. After more events, Valjean begins to think that he has been very wrong. He will spend the rest of his life doing good things.

Voice 2 

This is a time of great change for Valjean. He moves to a different part of France, a small town. He changes his name. He starts a successful business. All of this is very good. But one more change is coming. Valjean employs a young woman named Fantine. Fantine is also alone in the world. But she has a little daughter named Cosette. Fantine has many problems in her life. Finally, she becomes very sick, and dies. But before she dies, Valjean promises to care for Cosette.

Voice 1 

Cosette comes to live with Valjean. Together, they return to Paris. Cosette is like a daughter to Valjean. He loves her very much, and she loves him. As she gets older, she meets a poor student. They fall in love. This student’s name is Marius. Marius becomes involved in a student rebellion. During a conflict with police, Marius almost dies. But Valjean rescues him. He carries him away through the sewers, the great pipes underneath the city. This is one of the most famous parts of the book.

Voice 2 

Finally Cosette and Marius marry. Valjean tells Marius about his history. At first Marius rejects Valjean, because he was in prison. But then, Marius understands that Valjean was a good man, who tried to do the right things. Marius and Cosette return to Valjean, just before Valjean dies.

Voice 1 

Through all these events, there is one more important character. This is a police officer, Javert. Javert is searching for Valjean. He believes that Valjean must return to prison. He catches Valjean many times, but Valjean always escapes. Finally, during the student rebellion, Valjean has the chance to kill Javert. But instead, Valjean saves Javert. Javert struggles with his conscience. Valjean showed Javert kindness. Javert cannot now capture and kill Valjean. But he believes that the law requires him to do so. Finally, Javert kills himself.

Voice 2 

So why has this story been so popular? It contains many subjects that are common to all people. The main idea is redemption. Jean Valjean decides to stop doing wrong. He decides to do right instead. This decision shines through the whole book. Valjean gives money to the poor. He sacrifices to save and protect many people. At the end, Valjean dies a happy man. His family loves and accepts him. But in his life, he suffers much. People do not understand him, and he is always trying to escape from Javert.

Voice 1 

Forgiving other people is another important idea in the story. Valjean forgives Javert. But Javert cannot forgive himself. He wants to do his job well. He is devoted to the law. He always wants to do things right. In the end, he cannot accept his failure to capture Valjean.

Voice 2 

But these are not the only reasons "Les Misérables" has been successful. Hugo’s social conscience is also clear in the book. In the characters of Fantine and Cosette, he describes the problems of poverty. In Valjean’s long struggle with Javert, he explains the problems of crime and punishment. He has sympathy for all the characters, even the characters who continue to do bad things. Valjean is not the only character with a criminal past. Many people steal, tell lies, and do all they can to get money.

Voice 1 

In many parts of the book, Hugo also stops telling the story to describe the social and political conditions of France. In one part, he describes in detail the character and policies of the French king Louis-Philippe. In another part, he describes the history and condition of the sewers under the city of Paris.

Voice 2 

"Les Misérables" was very successful when it was published. Many people bought copies in France. But the publisher also translated it into many other languages. It was popular across Europe, and in North America. And since then, it has remained very popular. People connect to the ideas, the characters, and the history.

Voice 1 

In the beginning of the book, Victor Hugo wrote his reasons for the book. These reasons may be why the book has stayed important and popular. He talks about the way society can create terrible conditions for people. In particular, he talks about poverty, lack of food, and spiritual emptiness. The book deals with all of these issues. He closes this part with these words:

Voice 3 

“As long as lack of knowledge and great sadness exist on earth, there is a use for books like this.”

Voice 2 

The writer of this programme was Shelagh Godwin. The producer was Nick Mangeolles. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ’A Story for all Times: Les Misérables’.

Voice 1 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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Question:

Have you ever read the book Les Misérables? Why is this old French book still popular today?

Comments


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Quan Van Ngo
said on May 06, 2012

I have ever bought ‘Les Misérables’, but when i known Victor Hugo was famous writer in France…
This story showed for people know society of France in 19th Century,
I will to read ‘Les Misérables’...Friends - We will read it, together:))

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paulo86nirisco
said on May 13, 2013

thank you for this beautful program

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Dela
said on May 18, 2013

This is an unforgettable, impressive story by a world-famous writer! I know and love this book very well, I have read it many a time and I have again borrowed it from the library recently.
Thanks for an interesting article!

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ptquan
said on May 18, 2013

I have never read that book before. Through this program, I know “Les Misérables” is a famous book and its variable characters.  Thank you for a new knowledge !

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huevu
said on May 19, 2013

i have ever seen this musical play. So awesome.

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Mykola
said on July 24, 2014

Well done!
It is good story!
I believe you are doing right things

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oleksandrk
said on August 11, 2014

Thank you for program! Promlems in Les Meserables are important and common for all people. And for us, becouse this book is so popular

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Mss Flamboyant
said on August 30, 2014

I have never read this story. But I really impress with this program. After listening this program I will buy this story:)

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kenhieuloilam
said on February 21, 2019

Law protects life. We live to be good persons. Being a human, we are fragile and weak. We need love and tolerance to perfect ourselves. We are small before difficulties. We are small before challenges. A good person is a righteous person. A good person is a merciful person. Law protects life. We live to be good persons. To live to be good and righteous is difficult. To live to be good and righteous is a big challenge.

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Honneur
said on February 24, 2019

I have not read Les Mérables yet. The only French author I
read is Charles Baudelaire and now I see, on my shelf, his wonderful book “As Flores do Mal”, The Flowers of Evil.