Not being heard is no reason for silence • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Depicting real life • 1855–1900
Social protest novel
1794 English radical writer William Godwin deplores an unjust social system in The Adventures of Caleb Williams.
1845 English politician Benjamin Disraeli writes Sybil, or The Two Nations, which shows that England has two worlds: the rich and the poor.
1852—65 English novelist Charles Dickens criticizes the poverty and greed of Victorian society in Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend.
1870s—80s French writer Émile Zola attacks urban poverty and the social system in novels such as L’Assommoir (1877) and Germinal (1885).
1906 The Jungle, a novel by US journalist Upton Sinclair about Chicago’s meatpacking industry, shocks readers.
An immense novel, Les Misérables is comprised of five volumes, each of which is subdivided into books of several chapters. Victor Hugo’s motivation was also vast — namely, to write a novel that protested the social conditions existing in France at that time. For him, as long as there was “social condemnation, which … creates hells on earth, … books like this cannot be useless”.
Hugo was not the only writer to highlight injustice in an attempt to bring about social change. In England, his contemporary Charles Dickens was doing the same, while Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrait of the poor in the industrialized north of the country, Mary Barton (1848), contributed to England’s mood of social reform. Meanwhile, in the USA, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) helped mobilize public opinion against slavery.
Hugo’s book features a huge cast of characters and a vast historical sweep, spanning as it does the era from 1815 to the June 1832 uprising in Paris. It is a panoramic novel that embraces themes of hardship, poverty, greed, bitterness, politics, compassion, love, and redemption.
"Social prosperity means man happy, the citizen free, the nation great."
Hell in need of humanity
The main story in Les Misérables focuses on Jean Valjean, released after spending 19 years in prison for the theft of some bread. Now a social outcast, he steals from a bishop, who covers for him and whose kindness sets him on a path towards redemption. Under a false name, Valjean starts a business, becomes wealthy, and adopts a young girl, Cosette, whose mother, Fantine — forced into prostitution by poverty — has died. Despite his efforts, Valjean is haunted by his criminal past, and he is relentlessly pursued by an implacable police inspector, Javert.
Many other characters weave in and out of his story: Marius, an idealistic law student, who falls in love with Cosette; the Thénardiers, unscrupulous innkeepers, who mistreat Cosette; their neglected children, Gavroche and Éponine, who live on the streets; and many revolutionary students. All are caught up in a hellish society that Hugo vividly describes.
From time to time Hugo digresses to write about related topics, or to present his opinions. He writes in detail about such subjects as the Battle of Waterloo (1815), street urchins, Parisian architecture, the construction of the Paris sewers, and religious orders. Towards the end of the novel, Hugo moves away from the action at the barricades to reflect on the role of revolution in creating a better society, before returning to the story and its conclusion.
Les Misérables was widely advertised before publication and caused a considerable stir: several reviewers were critical, accusing Hugo of being either dangerously revolutionary or overly sentimental. However, the book was an instant success, not just in France but also in Britain and beyond. Although it did not directly bring about change, its historical sweep and powerful description of social injustice meant that, like all great protest novels, it provoked thought and helped to raise social consciousness.
Les Misérables has a large cast of intertwining characters. Although a mix of social classes is depicted, those whose wretched lives are swallowed up in the labyrinth of Paris’s underworld are the focus. At the heart of the book is the fate of Cosette, the orphaned child of a prostitute.
Victor Hugo, one of France’s leading writers, was born in 1802 in Besançon, eastern France, the son of an officer in Napoleon’s army. Raised in Paris and well educated, by the age of 20 he had published his first volume of verse.
Hugo was a prodigious writer, producing some 20 volumes of poetry, 10 plays, nine novels, as well as many essays. A liberal republican and supporter of universal suffrage, he was also active politically. Following the revolutions of 1848 that shook Europe, he was elected to the National Assembly. He was, however, highly critical of the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon and went into exile in 1851 with his wife, Adèle, and his long-standing mistress, Juliette Drouet.
Returning to Paris as a national hero in 1870, Hugo became a senator in the Third Republic. He died in 1885 and was buried in the Pantheon.
Other key works
1831 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
1859—83 The Legend of the Ages
See also: Bleak House • Oliver Twist • Uncle Tom’s Cabin • War and Peace • Germinal