Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread in late eighteenth century France, escapes years later and, after accepting the hospitality of a charitable bishop, absconds with the latter’s silver. Under another identity, Valjean emerges as a village mayor who saves from the police a prostitute struggling to support her daughter Cosette. Pursued by the indefatigable Inspector Javert, Valjean confesses his true identity only when it appears that another man will go to prison in his place.
Valjean escapes again and assumes the care of the now-orphaned Cosette. When Cosette grows up to fall in love with Marius de Pontmercy, a young political activist who has drawn the pursuit of the same Javert, Valjean saves Marius’ life by carrying the wounded dissident through the sewers of Paris to safety. Valjean must endure yet more rigors, however, before his goodness is acknowledged.
This long novel teems with minor characters and digressions, some of them captivating. No reader of the book will forget Gavroche, the Parisian street boy who lives by his wits, or Hugo’s recapitulation of the Battle of Waterloo, though it is mere background to one relationship in the story.
While abounding in the farfetched coincidences and melodramatic scenes that nineteenth century readers relished more than their modern counterparts do, this 1862 novel avoids the sentimentality of its age. Furthermore, Hugo’s firm authorial presence, his talent for making history live, his sympathy for the downtrodden, and, above all, his conviction of the capacity of human goodness to triumph against great obstacles will continue to endear him to new generations of readers. The relentless Javert, the noble Marius, the sweetly devoted Cosette, and the impregnable Valjean remain as fascinating as ever.
Norman Denny’s translation for Penguin Books is an eminently readable modern English version of the novel.
Brombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Points out that in Les Misérables the most important reference to hell is its embodiment in the sewers of Paris, through which Jean Valjean carries Marius as the final part of his quest—through death to resurrection.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. The most sophisticated study of Hugo’s fiction to date. Notes Hugo’s use of digressive patterns and impersonal, realistic narration. Draws on a wealth of French criticism.
Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. An exhaustive study of Hugo’s use of image, myth, and prophecy. Notes—among other images and uses of myth—the Christological references to Jean Valjean, who finds redemption in saving others.
Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Indispensable starting guide to the works—drama, poetry, and novels—and life of Victor Hugo.
Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. Vol. 2. The Romantic Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Analysis of Hugo’s literary theory and its relation to other writers of European romantic works. Discusses Hugo’s careful placement of discursive essays throughout the novel.
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Les Miserables Published 1862 I| | INTRODUCTION| When Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables first came out in 1862, people in Paris and elsewhere lined up to buy it. Although critics were less receptive, the novel was an instant popular success. The French word “miserables” means both poor wretches and scoundrels or villains. The novel offers a huge cast that includes both kinds of “miserables. ” A product of France’s most prominent Romantic writer, Les Miserables ranges far and wide.
It paints a vivid picture of Paris’s seamier side, discusses the causes and results of revolution, and includes discourses on topics ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to Parisian street slang. But the two central themes that dominate the novel are the moral redemption of its main character, Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, and the moral redemption of a nation through revolution. The novel is a critical statement against human suffering, poverty, and ignorance. Its purpose is as much political as it is artistic. II| | VICTOR HUGO|
As a novelist, poet, political activist, and painter, Victor Hugo was a central figure in the Romantic movement of 19th-century France. Both his family and his times influenced Hugo’s social views and politics, which included a deep concern with human rights, social injustice, and poverty as the root of evil. Born in Besancon, France, in 1802, Hugo grew up in the years of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. In 1815 the empire collapsed at the battle of Waterloo, which Hugo describes in detail in Les Miserables, and a constitutional monarchy was established.
Hugo’s father was a general in the Napoleonic army with republican sympathies while his middle-class mother had royalist leanings. The young Hugo spent a large part of his childhood in Paris with his mother. He also traveled through Europe in his father’s wake and glimpsed the Napoleonic campaigns. After attending school in Paris, he married his childhood love, Adele Foucher, in 1822. In that same year, Hugo published his first volume of poetry, the beginning of a long and diverse literary career that also included drama and novels. He was acquainted with many major figures on the intellectual and artistic scene.
His political convictions changed over time as various French governments rose and fell, however his belief in human rights was consistent. In a letter to a friend describing why he wrote Les Miserables, Hugo said: If the radical is the ideal, yes, I am a radical…. A society which admits poverty, a religion which admits hell, a humanity which sanctions war, seem to me an inferior society, an inferior religion and humanity, and it is towards the higher society, the higher humanity and religion that I turn: society without a king, humanity without frontiers, religion without a book….
I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables. The 1840s to the 1860s were an active time for the writer. He was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1841 and to the peerage in 1845 in recognition of his literary achievements. The late 1840s marked a period of serious political involvement for Hugo. He spoke up in the Chamber of Peers, criticizing the legal system and the treatment of the poor, themes to which he returned in Les Miserables.
Disillusioned with monarchism, he publicly espoused republicanism and participated in the revolution of 1848. These experiences gave him firsthand knowledge of what barricade fighting was like, which he used in the novel. Louis Napoleon, the elected president of the newly established republic, seized power in a coup d’etat in 1851. Hugo criticized the new ruler and ended up in exile, first in Belgium, then later on the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel, where he remained until 1870. Here he wrote most of Les Miserables.
Les Miserables was first published in 1862, appearing simultaneously in cities across Europe. In spite of a mixed critical reaction, the novel, with its championing of the poor and disenfranchised, was an immediate popular success in France and abroad. It sealed Hugo’s reputation as a legend. Upon his return to France in 1870, Hugo received a hero’s welcome. He continued to write for the rest of his life, but abstained from politics. After his death in 1885, Victor Hugo lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Pantheon, in the heart of his beloved city, Paris.
III| | PLOT SUMMARY| Les Miserables is the story of four people—Bishop Myriel, Valjean, Fantine, and Marius—who meet, part, then meet again during the most agitated decades of 19th-century France. It also tells the story of the 1832 revolution and describes the unpleasant side of Paris. The novel is in essence a plea for humane treatment of the poor and for equality among all citizens. A Part I—Fantine| | | The year is 1815 and Napoleon has just been defeated at Waterloo. Bishop Myriel lives a quiet life as a just man, who is especially sympathetic toward the poor, bandits, and convicts.
One day a strange man asks for shelter at his home and, with his usual compassion, the bishop gives him room and board. This man is Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison after serving a lengthy, unjust sentence, during which he tried to escape numerous times. Valjean is angry, hurt, and revengeful. His soul has “withered” and all but died. The bishop urges him to replace anger with goodwill in order to be worthy of respect: “You have left a place of suffering. But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner, than over the white robes of a hundred good men.
If you are leaving that sorrowful place with hate and anger against men, you are worthy of compassion; if you leave it with goodwill, gentleness, and peace, you are better than any of us. ” Valjean listens. Nevertheless, he decides to rob the good bishop. During the night, he runs away with the bishop’s silver. He is caught and brought back to the bishop who tells the police that he himself gave Valjean these precious objects. Later Bishop Myriel tells Valjean, “you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you.
I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and I give it to God! ” Valjean is stunned. After he steals a coin from a little boy, he has an epiphany: “he could see his life, and it seemed horrible; his soul, and it seemed frightful. There was, however, a gentler light shining on that life and soul. ” Fantine is a seamstress unjustly fired once her employer learns about her scandalous past. Abandoned by her lover, she is hungry, destitute, and unable to care for her daughter, Cosette. First she sells her hair, then her teeth before finally prostituting herself.
At this stage of the story, Fantine has “endured all, borne all, experienced all, suffered all, lost all, wept for all. She is resigned, with that resignation that resembles indifference as death resembles sleep. ” She leaves Cosette when her daughter is two years old to the care of the Thenardiers, who run a tavern in the outskirts of Paris. Cosette is poorly treated by the couple and their two daughters. The Thenardiers view Cosette as if she is their domestic slave all the while demanding more and more money for Cosette’s care.
Fantine must continue selling her body to pay for Cosette’s keep. Valjean assumes a new identity, Mr. Madeleine, becomes a good citizen, a rich industrialist, and ultimately mayor. Valjean saves Fantine from the police headed by Javert once he discovers she was fired from the very factory under his care. He wants to redeem her, but it is too late. Fantine is sick and dies very soon. At the same time, Champmathieu is falsely accused of being Valjean by the police officer Javert, whose lifelong goal is to find the escaped convict Valjean.
Javert was a “formidable man” whose mother was a fortune-teller and whose father was in the galleys. “His stare was cold and as piercing as a gimlet. His whole life was contained in these two words: waking and watching. ” After a long night of hesitation—to accuse Champmathieu would save him from Javert, to keep silent would send an innocent man to death—Valjean decides to confess his true identity to save the wrongly accused man: He declared that his life, in truth, did have an object. But what object? to conceal his name? to deceive the police? as it for so petty a thing that he had done all that he had done? had he no other object, which was the great one, which was the true one? To save, not his body, but his soul. To become honest and good again. To be an upright man! was it not that, above all, that alone, which he had always wished, and which the bishop had enjoined upon him!… To deliver himself up, to save this man stricken by so ghastly a mistake, to reassume his name, to become again from duty the convict Jean Valjean; that was really to achieve his resurrection, and to close for ever the hell from whence he had emerged! o fall into it in appearance, was to emerge in reality! he must do that! all he had done was nothing, if he did not do that! all his life was useless, all his suffering was lost. He had only to ask the question: “What is the use? ” When the unyielding Javert arrests him, Valjean escapes, beginning a long hunt. B| | Part II—Cosette| He does not go too far. Fantine has told him about Cosette. He goes to the Thenardiers’ and saves the little girl from her terrible life. They settle in Paris, where they constantly have to hide from Javert’s eye.
They finally find shelter in a convent, the Petit-Picpus, where they spend five happy years of redemption: Everything around him, this quiet garden, these balmy flowers, these children, shouting with joy, these meek and simple women, this silent cloister, gradually entered into all his being, and his soul subsided into silence…. His whole heart melted in gratitude and he loved more and more. C| | Part III—Marius| Marius is a young student, and like many other young men of his generation, he is passionately interested with Napoleon: “Napoleon had become to him the people-man as Jesus was the God-man. In Paris he meets a group of young radical students, the Friends of the ABC, who are very much like him and who convert him to republicanism: “my mother is the republic. ” One day, he spots in a park a young girl, walking with her father. “She was a marvelous beauty. The only remark which could be made … is that the contradiction between her look, which was sad, and her smile, which was joyous, gave to her countenance something a little wild. ” He sees her again the next day, and the following until, six months later, he falls in love with her.
It is the fifteen-year-old Cosette. D| | Part IV—Saint Denis| Cosette has noticed Marius and falls in love with him, but she does not want Valjean to know about it. One day Marius writes to her and they secretly meet: “these two hearts poured themselves into each other, so that at the end of an hour, it was the young man who had the young girl’s soul and the young girl who had the soul of the young man. ” Valjean suspects nothing until he accidentally intercepts one of Marius’s letters. E| | Part V—Jean Valjean| Insurrections and barricades.
Marius is an active participant. Workers and republican students are on the barricades, opposing the police and the army of the monarchy. Many of the revolutionaries are killed in the struggle. Valjean discovers Marius and Cosette’s love, but still saves Marius’s life on the barricades. He carries the wounded and unconscious young man through the Paris sewers. He has one last confrontation with Javert, his old nemesis, who is at his mercy. He decides to let him go. Moved by this gesture and appalled at himself, Javert kills himself: “Terrible situation! o be moved! To be granite, and to doubt! to be ice and to melt! to feel your fingers suddenly open! to lose your hold, appalling thing!… The projectile man no longer knowing his road, and recoiling! ” Still, many died, including Gavroche, a little Parisian boy whose courage inspired the fighters of the barricades. Cosette restores Marius to health, and they decide to get married. On the wedding day, Marius meets Valjean who tells him who he really is, a convict still hunted by the police and that Cosette does not know anything about his unsavory past.
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However, Valjean does not tell Marius that he saved his life during the insurrections. Marius wants to help him win his pardon, he refuses: “I need pardon of none but one, that is my conscience. ” Marius decides to stay silent, but he is horrified by the revelations. Valjean stops visiting the young couple. Soon, Marius learns that he was saved by him and, accompanied by Cosette, rushes to Valjean’s home. It is too late, Valjean is dying. He is buried under a blank stone. oshan
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Essay on Les Miserables
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