Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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Les Miserables Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo was the son of a French major and general in Napoleon’s army, so he traveled around often as a child. His mother was a royalist (committed to the French monarchy), and Hugo initially adopted her views. He studied law in Paris, but from 1816 on he began to write poetry and drama, and his first book of poetry won accolades from Louis XVIII. Slowly Hugo was drawn into a crowd of literary people who were devoted to Romanticism, and over time he exchanged his royalist views for more liberal opinions, especially after Charles X imposed restrictions on freedom of the press. His first work of mainstream success was Notre-Dame de Paris, (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) a historical novel that provides a harsh condemnation of social ills. During the Revolution of 1848, Hugo was elected to the Constituent Assembly, but after Napoleon III took power in the Second Empire of 1851, he was forced to flee to Brussels. He eventually settled on the island of Guernsey, where he wrote Les Misérables—a book that almost immediately attained worldwide success. Hugo married his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher, and had five children. He died in 1885 and was given a state funeral, having become a national hero once a republic was again established in France in 1870. Today, while he is best known abroad for his novels like Notre-Dame and Les Misérables (as well as the musical that the latter prompted), the French tend to think of Hugo as one of their great national poets.
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Historical Context of Les Miserables
Contrary to common belief, Les Misérables does not take place during the French Revolution, but rather in the years between 1815 and 1832, culminating in a relatively minor insurrection that year. However, knowledge of earlier French history is definitely helpful in understanding much of the plot. 1789 saw the famous capture of the Bastille fortress by French revolutionaries, but only in 1792 was France declared a republic, after a violent uprising leading to the imprisonment of the king and his wife, Marie-Antoinette. The National Convention—the ruling body— executed the king after trying him for treason against the nation. In the coming years the new rulers began to turn against each other and a period of great violence known as “the Terror” ensued. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup and, in 1804, was elected Emperor. He embarked on multiple military campaigns with the ultimate goal of conquering all of Europe. Only in 1815 did his enemies, now in alliance, invade France and send him into exile—but he returned for a “Hundred Days” of renewed battle in 1815 before being definitively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. Thereafter, France reverted to a monarchy, in what’s known as the Restoration. In 1830, several days of riots in Paris, which is referred to as the “July Revolution,” led to the replacement of the king, Charles X, with his distant relative from another line of the family, Louis-Philippe. Two years later, people in Paris were disgruntled with how little this minor change had impacted anything. The direct trigger for the 1832 riots, which were quickly quashed (as the book portrays), was the death of a well-liked and socially liberal politician, Lamarque.
Other Books Related to Les Miserables
As a young man and budding literary figure, Victor Hugo worked on translations of Virgil, a ancient Roman poet best known for the Aeneid, an epic poem that deals with the founding of the Roman people after their defeat by the Greeks in the Trojan War. The journey of the protagonist, Aeneas, from defeat to triumph—overcoming obstacles such as a trip down into the underworld—has various points of resonance with Jean Valjean’s own path. But Hugo was also working within a more confined literary period, one of French Romanticism. This movement was characterized by an emphasis on individual subjectivity, an idealization of nature, and freedom of the artist. Romantic poets like Chateaubriand had an enormous influence on Hugo, especially as a younger man, when he held more conservative political opinions. Later, Hugo would attempt to use Romantic methods for a different social and political goal, seeking to expose the small tragedies of the common man. In this, his work can be related to other 19th-century novels that sought to portray social ills, including Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. Hugo’s work prefigured Balzac and Tolstoy’s sweeping novels of realism in its attempt to create a total portrayal of society.
Key Facts about Les Miserables
  • Full Title: Les Misérables
  • When Written: 1845-1862
  • Where Written: Paris and in exile, in Brussels and the island of Guernsey
  • When Published: 1862
  • Literary Period: French Romanticism
  • Genre: Epic Novel, Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Paris and other provincial towns in France
  • Climax: Jean Valjean leads a wounded Marius on his back through the sewers of Paris
  • Antagonist: Police inspector Javert is constantly on the trail of Valjean; he is, however, a more complex antagonist than the purely evil Thenardier.
  • Point of View: The novel is in third-person, cleaving closely to the minds of several characters, but at times withdrawing as the narrator professes ignorance for certain actions or thoughts. The narrator inserts himself explicitly into the novel at several points, and often makes his own social and analytic commentary on the events he’s describing.
Extra Credit for Les Miserables

Mass Mobilization. For Victor Hugo’s funeral, nearly two million people were drawn to the streets of Paris—more than the city’s entire population at that time.

Let’s Talk Politics. Hugo originally envisioned Les Misérables as a love story and indictment of the prison system in France. Only after he witnessed the 1848 revolution did he begin to focus more on revolution as a theme and emphasis.