Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Les Miserables, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon

Les Misérables is saturated with French history, and a reader not already knowledgeable about the historical figures of Charles X or Louis-Philippe, for example, can easily get lost in all the detail. But this kind of detail plays a larger purpose in the novel. It is telling that Hugo sets his book in the context of a relatively minor revolt, the riots of July 1832, rather than the massive revolutions of 1789 or 1848. Hugo, while socially progressive, was skeptical about revolution—skeptical that a single dramatic event could turn the tide and improve social wellbeing for the downtrodden majority. Instead, the novel suggests that true revolution takes place slowly, incrementally, and that only such careful movement exemplifies real progress.

As in other cases, the novel prefers complexity over one single view in advancing this understanding of history and progress. The conversation between the Bishop and a member of the Convention (the French Revolution assembly that ended up descending into factions and leading to the period of the Terror, characterized by the use of the guillotine to behead people) reveals this ambiguity. The Convention member, now (in the 1810s) hated by society, suggests that none of the Convention’s violence was any worse than what the populace had been subjected to under the king before the Revolution. The Bishop, on the other hand, cannot bring himself to accept that people had to be beheaded for the common good, but neither of them seems to win the argument. Revolution is therefore a mixed bag; because it is so dramatic and sudden, even its benefits are inevitably accompanied by drawbacks.

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History, Revolution, and Progress Quotes in Les Miserables

Below you will find the important quotes in Les Miserables related to the theme of History, Revolution, and Progress.
Volume 2, Book 1 Quotes

If you wish to gain an idea of what revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to acquire an idea of the nature of progress, call it To-morrow. Tomorrow fulfills its work irresistibly, and it is already fulfilling it today.

Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

In the first book of the second volume, the narrator makes a long digression on the battle of Waterloo—although the word "digression" fails to account for how much the book's logic is tied to the historical and revolutionary themes that arise in this section as well as in others. The narrator has expressed doubt on the question of whether or not Waterloo was, all things considered, a positive event: he thinks there was too much destruction and violence for this to be the case. However, he also suggests that smaller political changes, such as a constitutional charter, did come as a result of the battle. 

Nonetheless, these small changes fit into a larger theory about the inevitability of progress in history. Revolutions and battles may fail, but the march towards greater equality will continue to take place "irresistibly." In some ways, this narrative suggests that there is little people need to do in order to enact change, since change will happen with or without them. But alongside this fatalism is a more optimistic outlook in the implication that despite setbacks and failures, things will inevitably keep moving forward and improving.


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Volume 4, Book 1 Quotes

Encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.

Page Number: 726
Explanation and Analysis:

In these "few pages of history," we learn some of the historical context of the years prior to the novel's action, particularly the years after the Revolution of 1830, known as the July Monarchy. This attempted compromise between democracy and royalty could never work, it is argued here, even though the king, Louis-Philippe, was well-intentioned. The narrator judges capitalism, communism, and socialism as means of ensuring progress for all, and considers only socialism to seek to remedy more than a single part of the problem. However, he expresses frustration with the priority of abstract ideals throughout this time period, as opposed to a focus on the real, material needs of the French people.

Here the narrator proposes some potential solutions of his own to the unjust, unequal state of society, solutions that in fact range from the abstract to the specific and from the radical to the widely accepted. His views on education, for instance, were shared by many around the time; his views on property, however, show an interesting if unusual compromise between communism, which wanted to abolish all property, and capitalism, which is built on the basis of private property. To "learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it" is shown to be not just the basis of material wealth: it is the source of the moral well-being of France, which is why so much time is spent on these material questions.

Volume 4, Book 13 Quotes

War does not become a disgrace, the sword does not become a disgrace, except when it is used for assassinating the right, progress, reason, civilization, truth. Then war, whether foreign or civil, is iniquitous; it is called crime. Outside the pale of that holy thing, justice, by what right does one form of man despise another?

Page Number: 965
Explanation and Analysis:

During the barricade, Marius fights valiantly, even as he is worried about Cosette and anxious that he will never be able to see her again. He also is ashamed when he thinks back to his father's heroic actions at war: when he compares those actions to his own fighting, he feels that this civil war is paltry compared to the significant battles of the past. But the narrator claims that instead of drawing a line between foreign and civil wars, one should create a distinction between just and unjust wars. A just war is one that fights for progress and for truth: an unjust one tries to take those things away, and is not only wrong, but a "crime." The narrator reiterates the book's argument that hate among people is not justifiable, and fighting among them is only necessary in the interest of movement towards justice, progress, and equality. 

Volume 5, Book 1 Quotes

There is something of the apocalypse in civil war, all the mists of the unknown are commingled with fierce flashes, revolutions are sphinxes, and any one who has passed through a barricade thinks he has traversed a dream.

Page Number: 1050
Explanation and Analysis:

Much of this volume is taken up with detailed, carefully depicted descriptions of the barricade and the fighting within it. At the most recent moment of fighting, Gavroche has been killed, and Enjolras has remarked that Valjean (though no one knows who he is) is managing to fight well without killing anyone. Now the narrator pauses for a more abstract description of these barricades. He depicts them here almost as another feature of Parisian life, among the many sociological categories, neighborhoods, and historical and architectural features that he has pointed our attention to before. He implies here that barricades, long a tool used by the weaker and more vulnerable side in French and European battles, recall these historical fights for those who pass through them. In a way, then, there is little that is more real or more historically rich than a barricade—but at the same time, this vivid, rich fullness of the past makes the barricade seem paradoxically unreal or dreamlike for those who pass through it. 

He who despairs is in the wrong. Progress infallibly awakes, and, in short, we may say that it marches on, even when it is asleep, for it has increased in size. When we behold it erect once more, we find it taller. To be always peaceful does not depend on progress any more than it does on the stream; erect no barriers, cast in no boulders; obstacles make water froth and humanity boil. Hence arise troubles; but after these troubles, we recognize the fact that ground has been gained. Until order, which is nothing else than universal peace, has been established, until harmony and unity reign, progress will have its revolutions as its halting-places.

Related Characters: Marius
Page Number: 1057
Explanation and Analysis:

The fighting at the barricades has been going on for a long time, and it is slowly becoming clear that the revolutionaries are on the losing side, and that soon they will be definitively defeated. Marius begins to despair, but here the book suggests that despair is not the correct attitude to take when loss seems inevitable. This is true if one takes one of the book's central themes to be correct: that is, that progress is inevitable, despite periodic setbacks and even what seem like damning failures.

Indeed, the narrator notes here that troubles are necessary to ensure that progress happens, for without turmoil and obstacles no change happens—and in addition, such change will happen for the better. Before this, the book has been somewhat ambivalent on the nature of revolution: the belief in the importance of respecting the humanity of others, of preventing violence, coexists uneasily with a desire for revolutions that require violence to even occur. Here, though, the narrator expresses the greatest good of revolutions, which is their status as stepping-stones towards progress and greater justice.