Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

Publishers bid against each other for the right to publish Les Miserables, no doubt sensing that the novel would be a great success. It had been awaited for years. The author's exile to Guernsey only increased his international reputation and the suspense of waiting for his next major work. Hugo received an unheard-of 300,000 francs as advance payment for the novel. But the publishers regained their investment and more when the book came out.

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Les Miserables appeared in 1862, published by LaCroix of Brussels and Paris. It appeared simultaneously in Paris, London, Brussels, New York, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and other European capitals. Published initially in five parts, divided into ten volumes, the novel was released in three separate installments in April, May, and June. Hugo's family and friends gave it a huge buildup in the press, advertising its release for a month in advance in all the major papers of Europe. Rumors that it might be banned in France built up the suspense even more. The book-buying public gave it an enthusiastic reception. Booksellers in Paris lined up to buy the second installment in such great numbers that police were needed to manage the crowd. It was an enormous success for its publishers and its author. Adele Hugo, the author's wife, wrote that groups of workers shared the cost of the ten volumes in order to pass it from hand to hand and read it. The critic Saint-Beuve commented that Hugo "had snatched the greatest popularity of our time under the nose of the very government that exiled him. His books go everywhere: the women, the common people, all read him. Editions go out of print between eight in the morning and noon."

The book's critical reception, on the other hand, was mixed. Some of his contemporaries perceived Hugo's style as long-winded, digressive, melodramatic, and full of unlikely coincidences. Others found his sweeping, passionate prose, championing of social issues, and ideals of justice and morality inspirational.

On the negative side, many critics disliked the novel's digressions from the main plot, especially the long account of Waterloo. Adolphe Thiers, a historian, expressed the strong opinion that the novel was "detestable. The spirit is bad, the plan is bad, and the execution is bad." The writer Barbey D'Aurevilly found the novel vulgar and full of improbabilities, and criticized it for its socialist views. Hippolyte Taine, a critic and historian, thought the novel was insincere and its success was a flash in the pan.

On the positive side, the poet Charles Baudelaire offered praise for the work's poetic and symbolic qualities. The English novelist George Meredith, though he thought it was drawn in oversimplified terms, called it "the masterwork of fiction of this century—as yet. There are things in it quite wonderful." The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky considered Les Miserables superior to his own Crime and Punishment, and saw Hugo as a champion of the idea of spiritual rebirth. Walter Pater was of the opinion that Hugo's works were among the finest products of the Romantic movement.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Hugo's reputation as a novelist waned. This was in part because of changes in the tastes of writers and readers. First the Realist, then the Modernist writers swept through the literary scene, and it is characteristic of such movements that they debunk what has come before in an effort to break new ground. Les Miserables in particular achieved its blinding success partly because of the moment in time when it was released. It was the long-awaited work of a national hero returning from exile, but that historical moment passed, along with Hugo's great influence over national opinion.

But many writers, including Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre, acknowledged his lasting influence. Hugo's works are still widely read today, and he has modern defenders. The literary critic Victor Brombert, for example, comments: "The dramatic and psychological power of Hugo's novels depends in large part on the creation of archetypal figures.... The sweep of his texts and the moving, even haunting images they project are a function of the widest range of rhetorical virtuosity." Les Miserables has passed into modern legend in its well-known and popular adaptations for film and the stage, and it is arguably the most important Romantic novel of the nineteenth century.

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