In what ways is Les Miserables a "social novel" that analyzes the problems of its day?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Much like his British contemporary, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo was very concerned about France's social conditions,  in Paris--much like the London of Dickens--these conditions were apparent in the microcosm of a city. The squalor and filth and desease of the poor is apparent in the gamins such as Gavrocheand in the plight of the wretched prostittue Fantine and her daughter Cosette.  And, just as in Dickens's novel, "Great Expectations," which has Magwitch the good man, condemned by society, there is a character who is poor and a social outcast, a criminal, who is perhaps the most moral character of all.  With Jean Valjean's character, Hugo shows the reader that one can be socially bad, but morally good. Since the policeman Javert is only socially just, he fails spiritually and commits suicide.

Hugo's title, "Les Miserables" does not only mean the poor and wretched, but also those excluded from society, the under-class and those in rebellion against the ruling class. Thus, Hugo includes the long examination of the Battle of Waterloo and the Paris rebellion of 1830 involving his character Marius, who rebels against the decadency of the aristocracy represented in his father.  

Even the titles of chapters contain Hugo's sometimes satiric social commentary.  For example, Chapter 21 of Volume Two is entitled, "The Victims Should Always Be Arrested First." Book VIII of this volume is entitled, "The Noxious Poor."  Despite these titles, or perhaps because of them, Hugo--again like Dickens--arouses the sympathy of his readers.

Novels such as "Great Expectations" and "Les Miserables" are powerful weapons against the status quo. Hugo writes of moral redemption of characters and moral redemption of a nation through revolution. Many who have read these social commentaries have been aroused to act and effect changes. About his novel, Victor Hugo wrote, "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred.  This is what I am and that is why I have written Les Miserables."

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