Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo


The book which the reader now holds in his hands, from one end to the other...treats the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Heaven to Hell, from Limbo to God. Matter itself is the starting point, and the point of arrival is the soul.
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Twenty years in the conception and execution, Les Misérables was first published in France and Belgium in 1862, a year which found Victor Hugo in exile from his beloved France. Enemies and admirers throughout the world devoured his works—poetry, political tracts, and fiction—and the effect of these works upon the public was always sensational. On the morning of 15 May, a mob filled the streets around Pagnerre's book shop, eyeing the stacks of copies of Les Misérables that stretched between floor and ceiling. A few hours later, they had all—thousands of books—been sold. Hugo's critics were quick to condemn him for making money by dramatizing the misery of the poor, while the poor themselves bought, read, and discussed his book in unprecedented numbers. True to Hugo's political stance, he had written a book about the people that was for the people, a book that demanded a change in society's judgement of its citizens.

The story is set between 1815 and 1832, the years of Hugo's youth. The descriptions of Paris, the characterizations of Gavroche and other Parisian stock characters, and such statements as, "To err is human, to stroll is Parisian" all attest to Hugo's unswerving adoration of his home city. Exile no doubt encouraged the romantic meanderings of Hugo's prose. The protagonist of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, is also in exile from the world of men because of the desperate crime he committed in his youth. Liberated from prison, Valjean hides his identity and becomes a successful man, as charitable as he is rich and powerful. His altruism leads him to promise Fantine, a dying prostitute, that he will seek out her exploited young daughter Cosette after her death. The ensuing love between "father" and "daughter" (Cosette) is miraculous, redeeming Valjean and bestowing happiness on his otherwise grim life. To some extent, Hugo also was seeking redemption, having, for much of his youth, ignored the populist concerns of Republican France. He sacrificed his lifestyle in Paris for justice, and Les Misérables, "the Magna Carta of the human race," is a testament of this humanitarian awakening.

The Revolution and Republic of France had failed to redress the unconscionable social conditions in which many French citizens languished. Les Misérables became an expression of and an inspiration for that attempt. Hugo initially entitled his work, Les Misère ("the poverty"), but changed it to Les Misérables, which, in Hugo's time, denoted everyone from the poor to the outcasts and insurrectionists. In Hugo's lifetime, the schism between "haves" and "have-nots" was vast; an unbalanced economy made jobs scarce for those who earned their living by work. This was an era without a welfare system, unemployment benefits, or worker's compensation. The closest thing to a homeless shelter was prison, a macabre dungeon where inmates slept on bare planks and ate rancid food. To this place the disabled, insane, hungry, or desperate citizens of France eventually found their way. The one hope of the poor for relief was charity from those who were, if not indifferent to their plight, outright hostile to it.

Les Misérables vindicates those members of society forced by unemployment and starvation to commit crimes—in Jean Valjean's case, the theft of a loaf of bread—who are thereafter outcast from society. It is fairly common parlance today to suggest that prison creates more hardened criminals than it reforms, but the idea was radical to Hugo's contemporaries. "Perrot de Chezelles, in an 'Examination of Les Misérables,' defended the excellence of a State which persecuted convicts even after their release, and derided the notion that poverty and ignorance had anything to do with crime. Criminals were evil." Jean Valjean morally surpasses characters working on behalf of this excellent State. The poor and the disenfranchised understood Hugo's message, accepted the affirmation he gave them, and worshipped him as their spokesman. Workers pooled their money to buy the book not one of them could afford on their own. The struggling people of France had found an articulate illustration of the unjust forces arrayed against them.

Hugo's gift to the people simultaneously affirms that every citizen is important to the health of the nation and emphasizes how that fact gives each individual responsibility for the conditions we all share. Hugo sees the world as a convoluted pattern: "Nothing is truly small...within that inexhaustible compass, from the sun to the grub, there is no room for disdain; each thing needs every other thing." He illustrates a system full of injustice, but in that same sphere, a single gesture of kindness redeems the world; he shows us a civilization based on self-interest and profit, but in one generous act the possibilities of a better world become manifest; he portrays people who regard their neighbors with suspicion and contempt, but with one vow of love, humanity's faith is born anew. Les Misérables is one of history's greatest manifestos of hope for humankind.

The immense popularity of this story has not diminished over time. Since the original 1935 film version, there have been several other international films entitled Les Misérables including a Spring 1998 release starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman. The "most popular musical in the world" has toured the globe several times and has been running on Broadway since March 1987. Why does this story continue to charm and inspire audiences and readers? In our time, as there was in Hugo's, there is cause for despair: greed and violence undermine true progress; human life is rendered meaningless through materialism and nihilism; children the world over suffer neglect, poverty, and ignorance. Who does not identify with Jean Valjean's arduous journey through the sewers, and who does not long for an escape like his emergence into the pristine Parisian dusk? Hugo illustrates how the most profound revolution takes place in our individual consciences, how every moment we are faced with decisions to do right or wrong, and how to make in our hearts pitched battles against our own worst impulses. Les Misérables incites us to make the best fight of our lives the fight to become authentically good people and gives us hope that our efforts will not be in vain. Time cannot change the necessity or urgency of that message—only people can.

About Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo died in 1885 as one of the most famous Europeans in history. The number of people who attended Hugo's funeral ceremony was larger than the normal population of Paris. On the first of April, Hugo's pauper's coffin, which he had requested in his will, was carried from the Arc de Triomphe to his final resting place at the Panthéon. At eighty-three years old, Hugo had outlived two siblings, his wife, three out of four of his children, and thousands of admirers and critics who had watched his career transform and flourish. Prolific and protean as an artist, a politician, and a man, Hugo was capable of testing the limits of extremes, having learned the tension of polar opposites from his parents early in life. Victor-Marie Hugo was born on 26 February 1802 to Sophie Trébuchet and Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo. His father was a decorated General in Napoléon's army, stationed in Italy and Spain during much of young Victor's youth. His mother was not only a Monarchist, but was involved in a plot to overthrow Napoléon. Under the care of his stoic mother, Hugo grew into a traditionalist, sworn to preserving the neo-Classical tradition of French literature and the rights of the French monarchy.

Hugo's literary talent was first publicized when he was seventeen years old. In 1819, he submitted two poems to the Académie Française, winning the Golden Amaranth for one poem and the Golden Lily, the Académie's highest honor, for another. (Hugo was elected to the Académie in 1841.) He published 112 articles and twenty-two poems in Le Conservateur Littéraire, the magazine founded by his brother Abel. These writings all supported traditional French literature and castigated early Romanticism, an ideology that soon thereafter lured Hugo to its camp with its irresistible ideals of freedom, honesty, and originality.

In 1830, Hugo's play Hernani put all Paris on its feet. The play opened at the Comédie Française and was attended by the new and the old aesthetic regimes. Ignoring the classical unities and their stale dignity of speech, Hernani was cheered by the Romantics and insulted, booed, and declaimed by the older, more conservative "kneeheads." Aesthetic disagreements escalated into riots, and duels were even fought over Hugo's play. Thus began a volatile and prolific career, each work fresh, surprising, and loaded with that Hugolian tendency to incite controversy. Hugo's literary output was staggering and the following is but a brief list of his major works: (poetry) Les Châtiments, Les Feuilles d'automne, La Légende des siécles, Les Orientales, Odes et Ballades, Les Rayons et les ombres, L'Art d'^etre grand-pére, (novels) Bug-Jargal, Notre Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, Les Travailleurs de la mer, L'Homme qui rit, Ruy Blas. Add to this his political and cultural commentary, his travelogues, letters, speeches, and plays, and you have a corpus of work that scholars are still compiling, publishing, and analyzing.

Hugo made no attempt to separate his life as a writer from his life as a citizen. In 1845, Hugo was made a pair de France (life peer and member of the Upper House), a position which should have endeared him to powerful circles and alienated him from the people. Yet a comfortable existence acquiescing to unjust powers was not to be Hugo's destiny, as he often proclaimed, "Not to believe in the people is to be a political atheist." During the revolutions, riots, and massacres of 1848 and 1849, Hugo abandoned the regime of Louis-Napoléon, nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, because of its increasing authoritarianism; and when Louis-Napoléon was confirmed the leader of the Republic, Hugo and thousands of other thinkers, dissenters, and literati went into exile. For the next twenty years, Hugo disseminated his works from Belgium and the small islands in the English Channel, smuggling political satires and polemical verse in sardine tins, walking sticks, and baggy trousers. It was at this period Hugo produced his magnificent excoriation of Louis-Napoléon, Napoléon-le-Petit, as well as Les Châtiments (The Punishments), an explosion of poetic wrath directed at the emperor. Throughout his life, Hugo worked to further Republican virtues, affirming education and a democratic distribution of property, denouncing the unbalance of power and capital punishment.

Hugo's home, however, did not quite match the utilitarian simplicity of his ascetic ideal Jean Valjean. He had proven that one could get rich writing books; it was partially Hugo's love of humanity that had made him a millionaire. The two women he loved—his wife Adèle and his mistress Juliette— shared in a large part of the work—answering letters, copying manuscripts, etc.—and a small part of the glory. Hugo had married his childhood sweetheart against his parents' wishes in 1822, and they had four children. This family avoided the actress and ex-prostitute who resided down the street from them, Juliette. Her affair with Hugo lasted for fifty years, perhaps the longest extra-marital affair in history. Neither a model of virtue or simplicity, Hugo nonetheless inspired the people of many nations and many generations to act with greater regard for others.

Today it is hard to imagine a playwright whose works young men die defending, a poet whose followers cry for revolution, a thinker whose thoughts change world history. Hugo was all of these and his legacy survives through his tremendous literary bequest. He lived in a time when children were shot in the streets of Paris and governments were violently overthrown every twenty years. His presence was a beacon and a pillar, a palpable force to struggle against or with, a mad blend of courage, genius, and kindness. It is not his godliness which assures Hugo's place in eternity, but his humanity.

Related Titles

Notre-Dame of Paris
Translated with an Introduction by John Sturrock

This powerful evocation of Paris in 1482 and the tragic tale of Quasimodo has become the classic example of French romanticism.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Bishop Bienvenu's visit to the dying revolutionary G—change him? What about this man surprised the Bishop and why? How are the Revolutionary ideals espoused by G— similar to or different from the pure Christian ideals of the Bishop?
  2. Why did Jean Valjean steal the Bishop's silver? How was this act influenced by his experience in prison? Discuss the process of change that occurred in Valjean after the Bishop "bought back his soul from Satan" with the silver. Would this bargain have been successful with every person? Why was Valjean subject to such transformation?
  3. Discuss what you know about the French Revolution and its cultural echoes in France. Could this story of Valjean's redemption be told in another historical context? In what ways is this story dependent on and independent of its setting?
  4. How would you characterize Hugo's political and nationalist stance based on his description of the Battle of Waterloo and his account of other political events? Can his loyalties—Monarchist, Bonapartist, nationalist, humanist, etc.—be discerned and defined?
  5. Marius's friends die in the July Revolution. What values were they defending? What do you think Hugo values in these heroic characters and how does his description of them show this?
  6. Hugo inserts a rather scathing aside about the nature of Fame in Part I, chapter one: "Prosperity presupposes ability." Jean Valjean is an example of a man who is exceptional in many significant ways, who positively and profoundly affects the lives of people around him, and who lives and dies in absolute obscurity. This portrait is drawn by a man who was inarguably the most famous man in France, literally "a legend in his own time." How can fame adversely influence one's ability to do good in the world? How does Valjean safely covet his obscurity, and how does this obscurity contribute to the good deeds Valjean habitually performs?
  7. Cosette was never more fortunate than when she left the home of the socially "respectable" Thénardiers to be raised by a feared ex-convict. How is this an indictment of Hugo's society's criteria for respectability? What are the Thénardiers symbolic or symptomatic of?
  8. One of the most psychologically complex characters is Javert, who— though he plays the role of a villain—acts not out of malice but out of a sense of duty to what he truly believes is ethically correct. How would you define Javert's value system? There is a weak link in Javert's chain of rationalizations for his behavior and his life. Identify it and explain how it leads to Javert's suicide. At which points in the book does Hugo show Javert to advantage? At which points does Javert appear to be more a classic villain?
  9. Hugo clearly adores Paris. How is the street urchin Gavroche symbolic of the city in which he runs rampant? If he is truly a "son of Paris," which attributes did he inherit from his "mother"? Compare Hugo's descriptions of Paris to his descriptions of the French countryside and smaller cities. How do Parisians differ from denizens of the rest of France? Are these differences slight or serious?
  10. Compare the musical Les Misérables to the book. What is left out, emphasized, or added? How does the change of medium effect the pace and tone of the story? To what do you attribute the long-running success of the musical?


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