On Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Miserables essay
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Les Misérables book cover. English – NPS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Victor Hugo was a renowned French writer, poet, playwright, novelist, and political activist. He was born on February 26, 1802, in Besançon, France, and died on May 22, 1885, in Paris, France. Hugo is considered one of the greatest figures in French literature and one of the most important writers of the 19th century.

Hugo’s literary legacy endures through his works, which continue to be read, studied, and celebrated worldwide. His contributions to literature and his advocacy for social justice have left an indelible mark on both the literary and political history of France.

In this article, we shall discuss his most famous work, his magnum opus, Les Misérables, with the help of a few questions.

What is Les Misérables?

“Les Misérables” is a novel written by French author Victor Hugo, first published in 1862. It is one of the most famous and enduring works of 19th-century literature. The novel is set in France during the early 19th century and spans several decades, from the years leading up to the French Revolution to the June Rebellion of 1832.

The story revolves around the lives of several characters, most notably Jean Valjean, a former convict who seeks redemption after serving a lengthy prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. Valjean’s journey towards redemption and his ongoing conflict with the relentless Inspector Javert form a central theme of the novel.

“Les Misérables” is known for its complex characters, social commentary, and exploration of themes such as justice, love, and the human condition. It also delves into the experiences of various other characters, including Fantine, a struggling single mother; Cosette, her daughter; Marius, a revolutionary; and Eponine, a young woman in love with Marius. The novel weaves their stories together against the backdrop of a turbulent and politically charged era in French history.

The story’s themes of love, sacrifice, and social justice continue to resonate with audiences worldwide.

What inspired Hugo to write the novel?

Victor Hugo was inspired to write “Les Misérables” by a combination of personal experiences, his social and political beliefs, and the historical context of 19th-century France.

Several key factors contributed to his motivation:

  1. Social Injustice: Hugo was deeply concerned about the social inequalities and injustices of his time. He was a prominent advocate for the poor and marginalized in French society. His own experiences witnessing the plight of the less fortunate, as well as his political beliefs, fueled his passion for addressing these issues through his writing.
  2. Personal Experiences: Hugo had personal experiences that influenced his writing. He witnessed the harsh treatment of prisoners during his visits to prisons and became particularly affected by the story of a man named Jean-François, who had been imprisoned for stealing bread. This story served as the basis for the character Jean Valjean in the novel.
  3. Political Activism: Hugo was politically active and engaged in the political debates and events of his time. He was a staunch supporter of republican and liberal ideals and was critical of the monarchy and its authoritarian regime. “Les Misérables” reflects his political views and his desire for social change.
  4. Historical Context: The novel is set against the backdrop of significant historical events in France, including the French Revolution and the June Rebellion of 1832. These events provided a rich historical context for the narrative and allowed Hugo to explore the themes of revolution and social upheaval.
  5. Romanticism: Victor Hugo was a leading figure of the Romantic literary movement, which emphasized emotion, individualism, and a fascination with the past. “Les Misérables” embodies many Romantic ideals, including its focus on the inner lives and struggles of its characters.

The novel became a powerful vehicle for Hugo to address the social issues and concerns that were close to his heart, making it a timeless work that continues to resonate with readers today.

Who are the primary characters in the novel?

“Les Misérables” features a wide array of characters, each with their own storylines and contributions to the novel’s overarching narrative.

Some of the primary characters include:

  1. Jean Valjean: The central character of the novel, Valjean starts as a hardened ex-convict but undergoes a transformation into a compassionate and virtuous man. His journey towards redemption and his pursuit by Inspector Javert form a central storyline.
  2. Inspector Javert: Javert is an unwavering police inspector who is relentless in his pursuit of Valjean, believing that a convict can never change. His moral code is challenged throughout the novel as he grapples with the complexities of justice and mercy.
  3. Fantine: Fantine is a young woman who faces a tragic life of poverty and degradation. She is forced into prostitution to provide for her daughter, Cosette. Her story highlights the hardships faced by vulnerable women in 19th-century France.
  4. Cosette: Cosette is Fantine’s daughter, who is initially mistreated by the cruel innkeepers, the Thénardiers. She is eventually rescued by Valjean and raised as his own daughter.
  5. Marius Pontmercy: Marius is a young revolutionary and student who falls in love with Cosette. His character represents the idealism and passion of the youth involved in the June Rebellion.
  6. Eponine Thénardier: Eponine is the Thénardiers’ daughter and has unrequited love for Marius. Her character is complex and tragic, and she plays a significant role in Marius and Cosette’s story.
  7. Thénardier and Madame Thénardier: The Thénardiers are unscrupulous innkeepers who mistreat Cosette and engage in various criminal activities. They are recurring antagonists in the novel.
  8. Gavroche: Gavroche is a street urchin who becomes involved in the revolution. He is a symbol of the resilience and bravery of the Parisian poor.
  9. Bishop Myriel: Bishop Myriel is a kind and generous clergyman who shows Valjean an act of mercy, setting him on the path to redemption.
  10. Enjolras: Enjolras is a charismatic leader of the student revolutionaries, including Marius. He is passionate about the cause of social justice and leads the group in the June Rebellion.

These are some of the key characters in the novel. The novel also includes a host of other supporting characters who contribute to the rich tapestry of the story, reflecting various aspects of 19th-century French society and the themes explored in the book.

What is the style in which Les Misérables is written?

“Les Misérables” is written in a style that combines elements of romanticism and realism. Hugo was a prominent figure of the Romantic literary movement, and his writing in the novel reflects many characteristics of this style. However, he also incorporates elements of realism to depict the social and historical context of 19th-century France.

Here are some key stylistic elements in “Les Misérables”:

  1. Romanticism:
    • Emotion and Passion: Romanticism emphasizes intense emotion and passion in storytelling. Hugo delves deeply into the inner thoughts and feelings of his characters, allowing readers to connect with their emotional journeys.
    • Individualism: The novel focuses on the individual experiences and struggles of its characters, particularly their moral and emotional dilemmas.
    • Nature and Symbolism: Romantic literature often includes descriptions of nature and symbolism. Hugo uses vivid descriptions of the French landscape and incorporates symbolism throughout the novel.
  2. Realism:
    • Social Commentary: Hugo provides a detailed and often critical portrayal of 19th-century French society. He highlights the harsh realities of poverty, injustice, and social inequality, making “Les Misérables” a social commentary on the era.
    • Historical Accuracy: The novel is set against the backdrop of significant historical events, including the French Revolution and the June Rebellion of 1832. Hugo’s meticulous research and attention to historical detail contribute to the realism of the story.
    • Characters from Various Walks of Life: The novel features characters from different social classes, allowing readers to see the diverse facets of society and how individuals from various backgrounds are interconnected.
  3. Length and Detail:
    • “Les Misérables” is known for its length and detailed descriptions. Hugo includes extensive digressions, historical essays, and character backgrounds, providing a comprehensive view of the world he creates.

Overall, the style of “Les Misérables” combines the emotional depth and passion of Romanticism with the social awareness and historical realism of the 19th century. This unique blend of styles allows Hugo to explore profound themes of justice, redemption, love, and the human condition while offering a panoramic view of French society during a transformative period in its history.

What is the significance and legacy of Les Misérables?

“Les Misérables” holds immense significance and has left a lasting legacy in literature, theater, and popular culture. Its impact can be seen in various ways:

  1. Social Commentary: The novel is a powerful critique of social injustice, poverty, and the suffering of marginalized individuals in 19th-century France. Hugo’s portrayal of these issues resonated with readers and sparked important discussions about societal inequality. It played a role in raising awareness about these issues and contributed to the broader social and political conversations of the time.
  2. Humanitarianism: “Les Misérables” promotes the ideals of compassion, redemption, and the capacity for change in individuals. Jean Valjean’s transformation from a hardened convict to a compassionate and virtuous man is a central theme that continues to inspire discussions about the potential for redemption and the power of forgiveness.
  3. Romanticism and Realism: The novel’s unique combination of Romanticism and Realism in its writing style and narrative approach has influenced subsequent literature and artistic works, including War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It serves as an example of how literature can explore complex human emotions and societal issues.
  4. Theater and Musical Adaptations: The musical adaptation of “Les Misérables,” composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, premiered in 1980 and has become one of the most successful and beloved musicals in the world. Its powerful music, memorable characters, and themes of love, justice, and revolution continue to captivate audiences.
  5. Film Adaptations: The novel has been adapted into numerous film versions, introducing its story and themes to even wider audiences. Notable film adaptations include the 1998 version directed by Bille August and the 2012 musical film directed by Tom Hooper.
  6. Cultural References: Phrases and characters from “Les Misérables” have become ingrained in popular culture. Lines such as “Do you hear the people sing?” and characters like Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert are instantly recognizable to many, even to those who have not read the novel or seen the musical.
  7. Educational and Academic Impact: “Les Misérables” is often studied in literature and history classes for its rich themes, historical context, and literary techniques. It has also inspired scholarly research and critical analysis.
  8. Advocacy for Social Change: The novel’s enduring themes of social justice, compassion, and the fight against inequality have continued to inspire activists and advocates for social change.

The novel’s timeless appeal and its ability to provoke thought and emotion continue to make it a work of enduring importance.