Les Misérables Study Guide
Introduction to Les Misérables
Les Misérables is a sprawling, five-volume novel by Victor Hugo. First published in 1862, it soon became one of the most popular and influential novels of its time. The novel contains numerous plots, characters, and digressive essays, but it centers around Jean Valjean, a man who has spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister. After engaging in petty thefts, Valjean adopts an alter ego and becomes a well-to-do businessman. However, his past catches up with him, and he is pursued by the dogged police inspector Javert. The novel’s plot unfolds over the course of nearly two decades, mostly taking place in Paris.
Les Misérables is popular and acclaimed for a number of reasons, reflecting its capacious, multifaceted nature. For many, the novel is a stirring story with life-like characters. For others, it is a brilliant social novel that conveys the tensions of nineteenth-century French society. For still others, it is an innovative text whose immense scope and rich digressions represent a fresh approach to the novel form.
A Brief Biography of Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo (1802–1885) was a prolific writer of plays, poetry, essays, and novels. Today, he is most famous for his novels Les Miserables and Notre-Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo was declared a traitor to France and exiled by Napoleon III in 1851; although he was granted amnesty in 1859, he declined and chose instead to continue living in exile until 1870, when Napoleon III was replaced by the Third Republic. Hugo was somewhat of a chameleon and often changed his political views and religion over the years. He was also a strong political figure in France and was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate upon his return to his homeland.