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.
History, Revolution, and Progress ThemeTracker
History, Revolution, and Progress Quotes in Les Miserables
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.