In honor of what would be Victor Hugo’s 214th birthday (wow), enjoy a tribute to his most famous and longest-lived work, Les Misérables.
Let’s start by defining what “les misérables” means. The literal translation is “the miserable ones,” but there remains the distinct possibility that the thematic significance of the title may still be a mystery.
It’s likely that there are a lot of people out there without even an inkling of an idea what Les Mis is actually about, so let’s set the scene:
Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict, who has just been released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Influenced by the bishop to begin a new life, Jean assumes a new name and moves to a new location where he becomes a respected citizen and makes a fortune in manufacturing. The police inspector, Javert, is suspicious of him, but it is not until Jean’s conscience prods him to reveal his true identity that he is forced to flee.
But that’s not all! Through a series of events and conflicts, Jean finds himself responsible for a young girl named Cosette after the death of her mother. Then there’s a whole host of drama regarding some fleeing, some fighting, a lot of love, and, oh yeah, a little thing called the French Revolution.
Okay, so now you have a brief summary of what happens in Les Misérables…but what does all that mean? You can have a great story with incredible surface-level storytelling, but the best works have undercurrents peace, justice, violence, love conquering all, etc. So what do we see in Hugo’s novel?
Like his contemporary Charles Dickens, Hugo had a rather pessimistic outlook on society; that is to say, he looked at society like a prison (school, friends, the workplace = Alcatraz). Starting at the novel’s onset and continuing until its conclusion, Hugo’s masterpiece is a plea for social justice. Further, Hugo’s description of the Paris rebellion in 1832 is a metaphor for this class struggle for human rights which Valjean undergoes. In essence, the themes in Les Misérables are social justice, human rights, and class conflicts that result from this struggle, and the existential theme of the meaning of life.
It took Hugo rather a long time to finish writing of Les Misérables; there were likely breaks in his work, but it took the author almost twenty years to write the story to completion. Those twenty years were pretty rough for Hugo—in that time he suffered the death of both his daughter and his son and his wife committed a little infidelity with one of his best friends. So, keeping his heartbreak in mind, it makes sense that a key component of Les Miserables is, well, misery.
In the tradition of the epic novel, Hugo takes the reader through all the extremes of human emotion: squalor, courage, romance, and grief. The novel also takes us through a strife-ridden portion of France’s history, through a period of unrest and failed revolution. The novel is filled to the brim with the struggles of individual people and the challenges of a great nation. It’s a *little* depressing, to be sure, but sometimes misery loves company, and there’s something to the notion of beautiful sadness.
Also along the lines of putting one’s personal life into their work, we can catch a glimpse of Hugo’s own life experiences and values within the pages of his novel. Throughout Les Miserables, there is the father/daughter relationship between Jean and Cosette (though Cosette isn’t technically Jean’s daughter—it would be too complicated to get involved in the politics of 19th century adoption). But with that in mind, Les Mis says a lot about parental love and relationships.
Throughout his life, Hugo took a personal stake in society and social regulation. Initially employed as a lawyer, the author-to-be developed a working knowledge of the law and its failures for the less fortunate members of society (later on, it becomes clear that a lot of people were aware of social injustice and thus the continued revolutions in France, on which this novel happens to be based). But beyond the presence of a revolutionary mindset sweeping through France both before this novel’s publishing and after, Les Misérables has stood the test of time as a “social novel.”
Much like his British contemporary, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo was very concerned about problematic social conditions of the time. He explored how these issues manifested within microcosms of life in Paris—much like Dickens did with London. For example, the squalor, filth, and disease of the poor is apparent in street urchins like Gavroche and in the plight of the wretched prostitute Fantine and her daughter Cosette. Also, just as the character Magwitch in Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, Hugo includes a poor, social outcast who is not only a criminal but also perhaps the most moral character of all.
Les Misérables is a story that has been circulating throughout the world (no exaggeration) for more than a century. It has been reworked time and time again into various adaptations through print, stage, and recently onto the big screen. When powerful stories remain in culture for any great length of time, we can be certain there is something inherently valuable and captivating about it. Without a doubt, Les Misérables has remained one of the most powerful stories in circulation.
Victor Hugo was a fascinating man who spent his life as a poet and a novelist. He lived through some of the most tumultuous times in the history of France and died a national hero. His life was filled with struggle and sacrifice, much of which was reflected within his work; Les Misérables deals in the loss of his beloved daughter, the struggles between classes, and the power of human nature. In honor of Hugo’s birthday, step away from the screen and try to knock out a couple chapters of this historical and literary masterpiece. Or even watch it on TV/Netflix, because no matter how you take it in, Les Mis is a story worth knowing.