The Temptation of the Impossible

Mario Vargas Llosa states that Victor Hugo attempted two impossible goals in Les Misérables (1862). Hugo set about creating a complete fictional world that contained its own fictional reality independent of the real world. Moreover, he wanted to effect positive change in the real world. In a brief introduction to The Temptation of the Impossible, Vargas Llosa looks at Hugo the man and Hugo the creative novelist. Then he analyzes Les Misérables in terms of the novel’s various components in order of importance: narrator, setting, characters, and language. Finally, he examines Hugo’s intention for the novel.

In the introduction, Vargas Llosa describes his experience reading Les Misérables as a student at the boarding school of Leoncio Prado Military Academy. He affirms that the novel made his life better, as the novel’s fictional world gave him refuge from the boring, dreary reality of his own life, yet he admits that it also made reality even more colorless. He then turns to the questions of who Victor Hugo was and what he believed about literature and himself.

Vargas Llosa profiles Victor Hugo as a man of immense talent, energy, and appetite for life. He discusses Hugo’s knowledge of Spanish, his capacity for sexual activity, his enormous literary output, and his social concerns, particularly his desire for reform of the justice and prison systems and opposition to the death penalty. He reminds the reader of Hugo’s great popularity during the nineteenth century. He was admired as a poet, dramatist, and novelist, as well as a political leader and social reformer.

Hugo believed in the power of literature to make the world a better place by improving human beings and by making God known to them. Vargas Llosa proposes that Hugo envisioned Les Misérables as a religious tract and actually had come to consider himself as more than a novelist. Hugo was excessively concerned with the afterlife and held séances resulting in what he believed to be communication with the dead. In Vargas Llosa’s opinion, Hugo wished to fulfill the role of a seer who revealed the truth of life after death. His novel was intended to go beyond the redemption of humankind to the forgiveness of Satan.

In chapter 1, “The Divine Stenographer,” Vargas Llosa introduces the narrator as the most important character and the real hero of the novel. This narrator is endowed with omniscience, exuberance, and omnipotence, and while he does not actually participate in the story, he is always present. He switches from first-person to third-person narrative as he wishes. He attempts to convince the reader that he is Victor Hugo. Of course, the narrator is a fiction, a creation of Hugo’s mind; he is not the author but rather the first character that the author must create. Vargas Llosa points out that the way in which an author handles the narrator is one of the major distinctions between the classical novel and the modern novel. With its ever-present narrator, authoritarian and judgmental, Les Misérables is a great classical novel.

Vargas Llosa also emphasizes that it is through the narrator’s monologues that Hugo lengthened his novel in the 1862 version. The narrator digresses for chapters on various subjects, such as the sewers of Paris when Jean Valjean carries the wounded Marius through them. According to Vargas Llosa, this is an essential part of the fictional reality of the novel. The fictive society is obsessed with wordiness. It is not only the narrator who is given to monologue but also the characters.

The chapter concludes with a refutation of the idea that the novel is a children’s book. Vargas Llosa believes that it is precisely the visible, controlling narrator who refuses to let the reader participate in the novel that has caused the work to be seen in this fashion. He stresses that the nineteenth century reader did not view it this way.

Next in importance to the novel’s creation is its setting, which includes not only the places and time period but also the controlling force of the events and of the characters’ lives. In chapter 2, “The Dark Vein of Destiny,” Vargas Llosa looks at how Hugo uses chance and coincidence to regulate the lives of the characters and to move the plot forward. Hugo uses three important scenes to connect and bring together the various stories within the novel: the ambush at the Gorbeau tenement, the barricade at La Chanvrerie, and the Paris sewers. Vargas Llosa refers to these scenes as...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)


Booklist 103, no. 17 (May 1, 2007): 64.

Library Journal 132, no. 8 (May 1, 2007): 81.

Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2007, p. R7.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 11 (June 28, 2007): 52-54.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 5, 2007, pp. 12-13.