What is the historical setting in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, and why is it essential to the overall themes?
The years following the French Revolution were hardly peaceful. The poor still felt oppressed and many government factions were still fighting for power. Les Misérables is set during the 1800s, which were full of moments of political unrest. The novel primarily focuses on what is called the June Rebellion, or the Paris Uprising of 1832.
The uprising, just as the novel depicts, was led by Republican student societies, just like the ABC. Many problems led up to the revolt, particularly the treatment of the poor. The years 1827 to 1832 were years of famine with crop failures. Plus, the economy failed, driving prices up, increasing the cost of living. Not only that, all of Europe suffered a cholera outbreak, and in France, the poorest neighborhoods were hit the hardest by the epidemic. This served as enough proof for the citizens that the poor were still being treated unfairly. The June revolt was first inspired by workers' revolts, such as the 1831 Canut revolt of silk factory workers in Lyon. The most significant catalyst for the rebellion, however, was the death of political hero Jean Maximilien Lamarque who died on June 1st of cholera. Lamarque was a member of Parliament and became leading critic of the new constitutional monarchy under Louis Phillippe; he was therefore supported by republicans. Citizens began to see his death by cholera as a sign of upper class mistreatment, leading to the revolt. Students intercepted Lamarque's funeral procession and took it to the Place de la Bastille where the 1832 rebellion broke out.
General Lamarque's funeral is mentioned in Les Misérables, just after Marius has lost Cosette due to her removal from the Rue Plumet and just before the uprising at the barricades is described. When Marius learns Cosette will soon be leaving for England, he throws himself down on his bed after wandering the streets until midnight and is awakened by Courfeyrac asking, "Are you coming to General Lamarque's funeral?" (Vol. 4, Bk. 9, Ch. 2).
Also part of the real historic event is that the students set up barricades in the streets surrounding Paris's historic center, Faubourg Saint-Martin. The ABC set up a barricade in the Rue de la Chanvreri, which was indeed historically accurate.
The novels historic setting helps portray the themes of injustice and the need for mercy and redemption so prevalent in the book.