Book Name: Les Miserables
Author: Victor Hugo
First Published: 1862
Victor Hugo was a genius who would have excelled at any medium he undertook. He was a poet first and then a novelist and dramatist. His hobby of sketching was such that it is said that had he chosen to become a painter instead of a writer, he would have out done the masters. He is remembered as one of the more well-known French Romantic Writers of his time. In France, Hugo’s fame comes more from his poetry, but to the world he is best regarded as the author of two novels, Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Hugo was born two years after Napoleon Bonaparte came to power as Emperor of France. His father was an officer under Napoleon and later became the administrator of several provinces under the Emperor. Due to his career, the Hugo family was forced to move often during Victor’s childhood. His mother, a devout Catholic and royalist, grew tired of the travel and settled with the children in Paris. She then had much influence over Hugo’s early beliefs and interests during his early years because of this, but during the events that led up to France’s 1848 Revolution, Hugo rebelled against his Catholic Royalist education and upbringing and instead embraced the ideals of republicanism and free thought.
Victor fell in love as a young man with his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher. They had five children together. His first child died as an infant. His eldest daughter, Leopoline drowned at the age of nineteen along with her husband who perished trying to rescue her. Hugo learned of her death while in traveling in the south of France with his mistress, learning about her death impersonally while reading a newspaper at a café. Hugo wrote many poems in honor of his daughter, but never quite recovered from her loss. Later in life, Hugo would also lose his two other sons and his wife.
When Napoleon III took power in 1851, Hugo left Paris and went into exile. He lived in Brussels, the Channel Islands and then to the smaller island of Guernsey in 1855. Although Napoleon III proclaimed a general amnesty in 1859 when Hugo could have returned to France had he wished, the author stayed in exile and refused to return until Napoleon III was forced from power as a result of the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Siege of Paris, Hugo returned to France where he remained for the rest of his life.
Hugo’s early work brought him fame at an early age. His first collection of poetry published when he was twenty years of age earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII. His work was a reflection of the romanticism that was popular in France and combined with his new passion for Republicanism. Unfortunately, it was his political leanings that lean to his exile from his home country. However, as he continued to publish, he revealed himself to be a natural master of lyric and creative song. Much of Hugo’s poetry has been adapted to music and become the inspiration of many musicals and operas.
After the success of his poetry, Hugo began to work on longer works. His first full-length novel was The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It shamed the city of Paris into restoring the Cathedral and it inspired a renewed appreciation for pre-Renaissance buildings which fueled the tourist trade for France.
The author began the planning for his next major novel which would feature social misery and injustice as early as the 1830s, but he would take seventeen years to complete the manuscript for Les Miserables and publish it in 1862. It was an instant success with the first installment of the novel, labeled: Fantine, to sell out within hours. The book would have an large impact on French society and the novel remains his most remembered work. It is celebrated around the globe and has been adapted for film, television and the stage. Les Miserables the Musical is one of the most long running musical productions in history. I’m sure the new Les Miserables motion picture will also be a huge success.
Les Miserables can be translated from the French as The Miserable, The Wretched, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims, but in English the publishers have chosen to keep it in its original French title. Even the musical is usually referred to as “Les Mis”. Perhaps the translation is too dour for popular tastes to describe what is considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. The story begins in 1815 and finishes in 1832 during the June Rebellion, the novel details the lives and interactions of several common people, focusing on the struggles of an ex-convict named Jean Valjean and the steps he takes to gain redemption. The story of Les Miserables is incredibly complex and details the misery that the common people of France lived in. From the corrupt innkeeper’s family, to Fantine who dies while trying to support her illegitimate child Cosette, to the struggles of Jean ValJean and his nemesis Javert, and finally the students who fight against the royalist army and lose their lives. The misery transforms into poetry and through their suffering you gain a sense of hope for the human race.
Perhaps the best description of this masterwork comes from Victor Hugo himself:
“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century – the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light – are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world; – in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”
Like many people, I saw the musical first before I read the book. The musical Les Miserables is a masterpiece in unto itself and it transformed me into a lover of live musical theater. I realize that many people do not go on to read the original novel by Hugo. I feel that this is a mistake. This is one of the greatest novels ever written and it is one that should be on your must read list. Do let those that say that this novel is another “book by some dead white guy” mislead you. The human condition is not dependent on race, century, or country, but it is a universal constant. Let the ideas of this long ago genius transport and change you as he has done for me.
You can find the complete unabridged version of Les Miserables free of charge at Project Gutenberg. Be warned, the full version is full of tangents and long passages about subjects that do not have direct bearing on the plot itself, however many of the subjects are quite fascinating. I feel it is worth the time and effort to read the full complete version of this work instead of the abridged version.