Anyone who's ever read Victor Hugo's immortal masterpiece Les Misérables knows that it's a long read... mostly because Hugo goes on a bunch of random tangents in the middle—on such topics as the battle of Waterloo, Paris and its urchins, a certain convent, etc.

In fact the book opens with about 70 pages describing the Bishop before even introducing the main character, Jean Valjean. I know he was a crazy genius and everything, but what exactly was the purpose of these tangents?

If he wanted to comment on the battle of Waterloo, why not separately write an essay on the battle and save me an hour of time when I'm trying to read Les Misérables?

  • 2
    Hugo isn't really the only "offender". Try "War and Peace" for a worse set of tangents.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 15:22
  • 2
    Or S. Morgenstern's work.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 15:32
  • 1
    @DVK S. Morgenstern is undoubtedly the true master of tangents.
    – CHEESE
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 16:33
  • 2
    He was paid by the word (for real) Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 4:55
  • 3
    @Jolenealaska Do you have a source for that? If so, it might make a good answer here.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 16:03

2 Answers 2


Norman Denny has this to say in the introduction to his translation of Les Misérables:

Hugo [...] had little or no regard for the discipline of novel-writing. He was wholly unrestrained and unsparing of his reader. He had to say everything and more than everything; he was incapable of leaving anything out. [...]

One reason for [so many digressions] is that it was written over a period of nearly twenty years. A first unfinished novel entitled Misères was written during the three years from 1845 to 1848; it was then put aside for twelve years, to be completed in 1860-62 as Les Misérables.

About Waterloo:

Hugo, as he tells us, had tramped over the battlefield, presumably when he was living in Brussels in 1853; he had studied maps and army-lists and such professional records as were available to him, and out of this he concocted his own elaborate and poeticized layman's version of an event [...]. This is the largest of the digressions, and it is reasonable to assume that the bulk of it was written long before Hugo returned to his novel.

About Parenthèse:

Hugo's publisher, Lacroix, feeling that this would be trying the reader's patience altogether too high, urged him to take it out; but Hugo refused, as it seems for purely personal reasons: his cousin Marie, to whom he was attached, had taken the veil in 1848.

Denny then proceeds to drop some of these digressions to appendices in his translation, making his Les Misérables a far more pleasant prospect.

  • 1
    Suggestion: change "far more pleasant prospect" to "far less miserable prospect". The pun opportunity is golden.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 19:01
  • @Randal'Thor I thought that would be too on the nose, so I went for the "les(s)"/"more", "miserable"/"pleasant" one. :D
    – muru
    Commented May 22, 2020 at 10:02
  • The link to the author page on Penguin Books UK seems to be broken.
    – user5387
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 14:32

I have a different opinion on this; These tangents are not random at all. They've all contributed to the content of the story in their own way. In fact, I believe that these tangents are one of the things that has made this book a masterpiece. Exactly in the same fashion that short and brief descriptions has made The Old Man and the Sea a masterpiece.

Let's talk about the Bishop description for example; as we read, Valjean is the farthest thing from a good person. He is angry, hates society for being unfair, etc. Hugo bothers himself a lot to describe his personality in this manner. Afterwards, it is read that a meeting with a Bishop, an accidental one, wakes a man as lost as Valjean is and later in the story, he becomes a savior for the society and people around him!

Now let's assume for a second that the description about Bishop was not included or was briefed. Then wouldn't we have wondered what just happened? who was this guy that turned a sociopath into a saint? But it is only after reading these descriptions that we realize that only a man as saintly as the Bishop, could turn a man as lost as Valjean into a saint:

It is not possible to know how far the infulence of any amiable honest-hearted man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one's self in going by...

Like Dickens said in Great Expectations.

This and all other tangents, in their own way, answer questions that may occur to the readers' minds or gives them a better understanding of individual parts of the story, like the in depth explanation about the sewage system. To conclude, I'd say that none of Hugo's tangents are random or just a way to wipe the empty spaces. Remove them from the book and in my opinion you'd kill what makes this book a masterpiece.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.