On Unabridged Literature

6 Mar

So, yesterday, I went to my school’s library and picked up an unabridged copy of Les Miserables so I can reread it for L.M.B.P.U.S. I know it’s unabridged because it says “unabridged” on the front cover in big, bold letters.

Unabridged means that it has not been “abridged or shortened,” according to some authorities. And this was the definition I was working from, so imagine my surprise when I opened the book and found a page that stated quite clearly that the book had been shortened, that parts of the book had been deemed irrelevant. I looked to see how many pages it had been truncated by. The book I picked up is less than 600 pages long – the original text is over 1200. They cut out more than half the book, y’all. How is this not abridged? And they cut out the bit describing the Bishop of D____, who I had planned to write about in LMBPUS. I guess I can use the Project Gutenberg copy for that part, but the reason I checked out a copy from the library was so I didn’t have to rely on using a digital copy, because of my current computer situation. *sigh*

In general, I don’t approve of abridging literature. I think it screws up authorial intent, which is something that shouldn’t be touched without the author’s permission. When I was a kid, I had a copy of Little Women, which was abridged. This was something, I learned later, that Alcott had done. She wrote the book in multiple parts for publication, but after the second half was published, both parts were most frequently published together. So I’m of the opinion that it ought not be published in two parts. But this is different even from that. These aren’t cuts that Hugo approved, nor do I believe he would have approved most of them. I’ve read a bit more since I wrote the above paragraphs, and the editor cut out parts that are important to the plot – the events leading up to the impregnation of Fantine, Fantine’s job-loss and further fall into prostitution and hair/teeth-selling, the description of Waterloo, and my favorite chapter are all gone. The sections cut give so much to the overall theme of the book – all the minor characters are foils to Valjean, and to take any of their story away is damn insulting to the humanity Victor Hugo gave to his characters, and to the masterful writing it took to provide that humanity.

ETA: Just found this post waxing poetic on the parts that are missing from this “unabridged” copy. The writer rather eloquently points out why these parts are necessary for the fuller picture of the story, and why it disrupts the integrity of the book to omit them.

Part 2 of my Princess Bride analysis is coming, hopefully posted within the next 24-36 hours.


3 Responses to “On Unabridged Literature”

  1. fche626 March 6, 2009 at 11:09 pm #

    It’s too bad that they cut so much from great books! and then it gets hard to find the complete versions :S

  2. eloriane March 8, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    I’m surprised they cut so much! And I don’t get at all why they’d sell an abridged book while calling it “unabridged.” I get that it’s long. It’s supposed to be long. Your readers know it’s long. If you want to give a still-long-but-not-enormous version of it, tell people that’s what you’re doing! They’ll probably appreciate it!

    I have to confess, this made me really worried that perhaps I had been given an abridge “unabridged” version, since my copy was only 900-ish pages long, as opposed to 1,200. I think mine was complete, though– it had really tiny print and no margins. And it still had all kinds of crazy-long tangents– fifty pages on Waterloo! Eighty pages on the sewer system of Paris! Not to mention all the plot stuff you’ve mentioned here. And you’re right, they’re great sections– how could you possibly cut the whole to-do with Fantine’s boyfriend’s “surprise”? I found that the build-up, and the revelation after so long of what the “surprise” was, to be really effective, narrative-ly. It really delivered an emotional punch to the gut!

    But I’m also the sort of person who would never even consider reading an abridged version, let alone Spark Notes. If you’re going to read it, read the whole thing! Otherwise, what’s the point? You’re not reading the author’s actual story anymore, you’re just earning Conversation Points to make you look smart when you talk to other people. Even in school, I hated to do anything other than read the entire work, whatever it was we were reading. Often, if we were assigned to read only part of something, I would read the rest of it too, just to know what was there. It’s probably because I’ve always wanted to be A Writer, myself. I wouldn’t want people to read chopped-up versions of my own works, or only “select” chapters.

    Protect the sanctity of narrative! It matters!

  3. niemaodpowiedzi March 8, 2009 at 5:56 pm #

    Exactly! The things that made me fall in love with the book are gone. The way Hugo builds up to things (like with the section at Waterloo, and the subsequent revelation several hundred pages later on why it’s important to the central narrative and how that changes the hero-villain relationships in the story) is what makes the book so excellent. To take that out reduces the book to what the post I linked refers to as the “Valjean and friends” version, to the bare bones of what make it a story.

    And you can’t bloody cut from dropping Cosette at the Thenardier house (the first time Fantine is even mentioned!) to the scene where Fantine is arrested without knowing that you are disrupting the narrative, that you are making it unnecessarily difficult for readers to be able to fully appreciate the writer’s words.

    The way they justified cutting the sections seemed really bizarre, too. The editor’s note basically said that it was cut because our times are so different, and readers in this fast-paced world don’t want to hear Hugo’s blathering on about useless politics and human rights and so forth. Haven’t you heard – the world’s perfect now! All problems – they have been fixed! So I’ll definitely ask the librarian about the abridgement when I return the book next week – not sure how much faith I should have that they’ll care, as the first thing I noticed in the library was the big honking Twilight poster. Twilight doesn’t exactly scream “we care about well-written books” to me *ducks Twilight fans’ angry comments*.

    And ditto on the Spark Notes phenomenon. It doesn’t make sense to me to bother with the short version – if it’s worth reading at all, the full version is the one I will go for every. single. time. Otherwise, I’m afraid of missing some important context. This has gotten me into trouble more often than not – I read Frankenstein in high school when we were only supposed to watch the James Wales movie, and the movie was so confusing to me because the changes didn’t improve the story or even refer to the story at all. Perhaps you’re right – it may have to do with the fact that writing is the only thing I’ve ever been able to visualize myself doing long-term, and everything I know about writing suggests that if the author puts it there, it is important.

    Your copy sounds complete – they probably printed it that way to save paper.

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