Why “Les Misérables”, Victor Hugo’s Epic Novel, Is Important Now

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables to make sense of life lived during a difficult time.

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Photo credit: VillageTheatre, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Victor Hugo was part of a generation in 19th France whose lives were battered by divisive politics, disruptive technology, and a deadly pandemic. Hugo’s views on protest and the human face of progress are as relevant to us today as they were then.

Victor Hugo came of age during a period when France was ruled by an arch-conservative monarchy that was intent on turning back the clock by 30 years. The monarchy wanted to restore France to a golden age that existed before the French Revolution of 1789. That revolution and the decades of civil unrest and war that followed it deeply scarred French society. The social strains of that time divided Hugo’s family, and he grew up in a broken home.

In 1830, a second revolution disrupted France once again. Hugo, now a father of young children, was thrown into a new world. Fortunately, he landed on his feet, but two years later a deadly new disease, cholera, shut down Paris. The epidemic threw a harsh light on the inequities of French society, and it convinced many that things could never be the same.

The following decades were a period of social unrest driven in large part by technological changes brought on by the industrial revolution. Hugo flourished in his work. He rose to become France’s preeminent writer, and he entered politics.

Then, in 1848, another revolution upended the government and paved the way for Louis Napoleon, an autocratic leader, to be elected president. Louis Napoleon seized power in a coup d’etat in 1852 and declared himself emperor of France.

Hugo vehemently opposed Louis Napoleon’s rise to power. This resulted in Hugo’s exile to the island of Guernsey, where he brooded for 15 years and wrote Les Misérables.

The publication of Les Misérables, in 1862, was widely anticipated based on Hugo’s popularity. The book was an immediate success. It appealed to a broad audience across Europe and other areas of the world. In the United States, Les Misérables found avid readers among soldiers fighting on both sides of the American Civil War.

The main story follows the life of an ex-convict and social outcast, Jean Valjean, as he seeks redemption and fulfillment in a society undergoing disruption and change. The novel is autobiographical in many respects. The character of Marius is based on Hugo’s life as a young adult. And, the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert, the story’s antagonist, mirrors conflicting sides of Hugo’s own personality.

Hugo used Les Misérables to criticize the injustices of 19th century France. However, issues dealt with in the novel are universal and still resonate — the rights of women, intergenerational conflict, cruelty of the justice system, and the failure of society’s institutions.

Revolution plays a large role in Les Misérables, just as it did in Hugo’s life. Hugo traced the source of civil unrest and revolution to the enduring conflict between the desire for stability and the search for something better. People who are well served by society seek stability, and those pushed to the margins agitate for change.

Hugo argued that people have a right to challenge the laws and conventions of society when these do not align with what is morally right. Revolution, he said, is an agent of progress.

Progress is man’s mode of existence. — Victor Hugo

Many things are done in the name of progress. Louis Napoleon ruled France under the banner of progress. His government built a national system of railroads and rebuilt Paris to be the showcase of modernity. However, the broad avenues he constructed through the city were designed to make it easier for the government to put down future civil revolts.

Hugo takes a more expansive view — progress has a spiritual dimension in addition to its material manifestations. Hugo said that progress is the human journey toward the divine. “The collective stride of the human race is called Progress.”

In life, Victor Hugo found success by looking to the margins and turning his back on the center. Early in his career, Hugo risked persecution at the hands of government censors to write plays designed to provoke the establishment. Later, both as a writer and as a politician Hugo championed the causes of the disadvantaged and the working class.

In the novel, Jean Valjean finds his purpose in supporting other people in their struggles. He triumphs through generosity and mercy. These are the weapons by which he ultimately defeats his adversary Javert, a fanatical agent for law and order.

If you wish to know what Revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to know what Progress is, call it the Future. — Victor Hugo

Les Misérables delivers a call to arms — pursue progress, not stability. The laws and institutions of society are fragile, and they are prone to failure. Recognize the cruelty in efforts to preserve the status quo at all costs. Embrace humanity and the struggle that binds us together.

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