When Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables first came out in 1862, people in Paris and elsewhere lined up to buy it. Although critics were less receptive, the novel was an instant popular success. The French word “miserables” means both poor wretches and scoundrels or villains. The novel offers a huge cast that includes both kinds of “miserables.” A product of France’s most prominent Romantic writer, Les Miserables ranges far and wide. It paints a vivid picture of Paris’s seamier side, discusses the causes and results of revolution, and includes discourses on topics ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to Parisian street slang. But the two central themes that dominate the novel are the moral redemption of its main character, Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, and the moral redemption of a nation through revolution. The novel is a critical statement against human suffering, poverty, and ignorance. Its purpose is as much political as it is artistic.
As a novelist, poet, political activist, and painter, Victor Hugo was a central figure in the Romantic movement of 19th-century France. Both his family and his times influenced Hugo’s social views and politics, which included a deep concern with human rights, social injustice, and poverty as the root of evil. Born in Besancon, France, in 1802, Hugo grew up in the years of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. In 1815 the empire collapsed at the battle of Waterloo, which Hugo describes in detail in Les Miserables, and a constitutional monarchy was established. Hugo’s father was a general in the Napoleonic army with republican sympathies while his middle-class mother had royalist leanings. The young Hugo spent a large part of his childhood in Paris with his mother. He also traveled through Europe in his father’s wake and glimpsed the Napoleonic campaigns. After attending school in Paris, he married his childhood love, Adele Foucher, in 1822.
Les Miserables is the story of four people-Bishop Myriel, Valjean, Fantine, and Marius-who meet, part, then meet again during the most agitated decades of 19th-century France. It also tells the story of the 1832 revolution and describes the unpleasant side of Paris. The novel is in essence a plea for humane treatment of the poor and for equality among all citizens.
A Monsieur Mabeuf
An elderly churchwarden, he befriends Marius’s father Pontmercy, and Marius becomes friends with Mabeuf after his father dies. He is a gentle man whose main interests in life are his garden and his books, but he becomes very poor and has to sell all of his books. Impoverished and without hope in life, Mabeuf joins the rebels, courageously climbs to the top of the barricade to plant a flag, and is shot by the militia. His age and gentleness make his courage even more remarkable, showing that revolution can come in any form.
A Change and Transformation
The most important theme the novel examines is that of transformation, in the individual and in society. Jean Valjean, the chief protagonist, is transformed from a misanthropic and potentially violent ex-convict to a man capable of heroic love and self-sacrifice. The force that transforms him is love. The Bishop of Digne offers Valjean unconditional love, trusting the former criminal with his life and giving him all that he can. Valjean finds inspiration for an entirely new life from this example. He learns to put another person first when he raises Cosette as his own daughter, and he endures moral trials, such as risking his life to rescue Marius, who loves Cosette and whom Valjean hates. On the broader scale, the workers and students on the barricade fight for social transformation, to create a new France without injustice and poverty.
In some ways the novel is structured traditionally. It has a rising action, that is the part of the narrative that sets up the problems that are to be resolved. This consists of Valjean’s life up to the point when he saves his enemy Marius by carrying him through the sewers of Paris to safety. The climax, or turning point, when the conflict reaches its peak, is the suicide of the police detective Javert. Caught between his rigid belief in the absolute power of law and his conclusion that he has a moral obligation to break the law and free his savior, Valjean, Javert solves his dilemma by killing himself. The denouement, or winding-down of the story, which describes the outcome of the primary plot problem as well as resolving secondary plots, includes Marius’s recovery, the marriage of Cosette and Marius, the revelation of Valjean’s true story, and the young couple’s visit to Valjean’s deathbed.
Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that swept Europe and the United States from the late-18th to mid-19th centuries. This movement was preceded by the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason as the basis of social life. The Enlightenment also promoted universal, formal standards, dating back to Greek and Roman classicism, for greatness in art. The artists, philosophers, writers, and composers of the Romantic movement rejected these standards and instead valued the individual imagination and experience as the basis of art and source of truth. Nature, the state of childhood, and emotion, rather than logic or scientific investigation, were considered the primary sources of eternal truth.
Investigate current prison conditions in the United States and compare today’s prison experience to Valjean’s as described in the novel.
1830s: Under public pressure, French legislators reformed prisons to some extent. They abolished some of the more barbaric forms of punishment that were practiced under the Ancien Regime, such as torture and hanging, and offered education for petty offenders. 1850s: As a result of unemployment caused by industrialization, crime rates rose in France and the prison population increased. Inmates were not allowed to speak to each other. Riots and suicides took place in prisons. Today: Due in part to poor economic conditions in France, prison populations are on the rise again, with an increase in the number of convicts serving time for drug related crimes. With a prison population that is steadily increasing, overcrowding is a problem, and many inmates find themselves sharing a cell with as many as five other prisoners.
Victor Hugo’s other major works include the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, and the poetry collection Contemplations, released in 1856, which he wrote at about the same time as Les Miserables. Some critics consider Contemplations, written after the drowning death of his daughter, his best poetry.