Les Misérables Questions and Answers
by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables book cover
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How does Hugo express human misery in Les Miserables?

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Eleanore Trupkiewicz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo neither ignores human misery nor enters into it in what might be considered a more contemporary approach or spirit (as in the device of deep point of view, or writing so that the reader feels very like the character him- or herself throughout the story). Rather, Hugo simply reports the situations of his various characters almost distantly, with detachment, and that approach above all others is perhaps the most stylistically effective at conveying the truly awful depths of suffering and loss and the effects of unfathomable poverty and desperation.

Fantine is one such character whose descent into the cesspool of hopelessness is one of the hardest to read. She begins as one of "four ravishing young women, perfumed and radiant" and, indeed, referred to as "a good girl" (in the sense, one presumes, of innocence and honesty).

In the span of not much time, Fantine, having fallen in naive love with a man and borne his child only to have him carelessly abandon them...

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Published in 1862, Les Miserables, one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, takes place in the potent and provocative days of imperial France. The book directly addresses themes of injustice, poverty, classism and monarchism. In the preface, Hugo in a compelling, yet vehement manner, announces his purpose in Miserables: "So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth...so long as the three problems...of the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved, and so long as...social asphyxia shall be possible, and so long as ignorance and misery remain on Earth, books like this cannot be useless."

In a nutshell, Hugo conveyed that you can save your soul, you're not dammed forever and salvation awaits.