Les Misérables Essays and Criticism
by Victor Hugo

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Hugo's movtivations and background

(Epics for Students)

Victor Hugo took seventeen years to write Les Miserables, his vast fresco of individual and collective destinies, which was published in 1862 when he was sixty years old. The novel is the parallel story of the redemption of Jean Valjean and France—and to a larger extent, the story of humanity's political and social progress. Above all, Hugo intended Les Miserables to be a novel about the people, and for the people, and he largely succeeded.

When Les Miserables was published, it appeared simultaneously in Paris, London, Budapest, Brussels, Leipzig, Madrid, Milan, and Naples, and was translated into many other languages. The novel's phenomenal success has continued ever since, and understandably so: it is a gripping story well told. As the critic Kathryn Grossman put it, "a plot as full of twists and turns as the treacherous labyrinths—sewers, conscience, streets—Hugo describes." Grossman also reminds us, "in France, Hugo's supporters had prepared the event with a massive publicity campaign. [The book] appeared first in serial form on April 3, 1862. Yet the magnitude of the public's response surprised even the most committed Hugo partisans. According to reports at the time, no one had ever seen a book devoured with such fury: public reading rooms rented it by the hour. By April 6, the book was sold out in Paris."

The novel's power derived from its simple message. Man was not inherently evil, he was made so by an unjust society. In the preface to the novel, Hugo wrote emphatically: "So long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not yet solved ... books like this cannot be useless." Jean Valjean was the perfect illustration of this principle. Valjean was not by nature a criminal. The motive which led him to steal bread, the origin of his fall, was not evil. He was seeking to provide food for hungry children, his sister's offspring, only out of desperation. But his years of prison hardened him. "He had for his motives," says Hugo, "habitual indignation, bitterness of soul, the profound feeling of iniquities endured, and reaction even against the good, the innocent, and the just, if such exist" The story of his conversion is exemplary. As Monsieur Madeleine of Montreuil-sur-mer, he is the good industrialist, the admirably just and efficient mayor, the caring philanthropist. Forced back into his true identity by the revelation of the imminent exile to the galleys of the innocent Champmathieu, who has been identified as Jean Valjean, he reluctantly fights again with his demons. From this ordeal, minutely analyzed in the chapter "A Tempest in a Brain," he emerges triumphant, saves Champmathieu in time and goes again to the galleys. After his escape, his life is a long record of care and self-sacrifice to Cosette, his adopted daughter. He triumphs even when faced with Marius's love for Cosette, and is able not only to dominate his jealousy but to save the life of Marius (the famous episode of the sewers) and make possible Marius's marriage with Cosette.

Moreover, Hugo draws constant analogies between Valjean's spiritual progress and humanity's striving toward freedom and social justice. The fight for justice and freedom is led by Marius's group of radical friends, the "Friends of the Underdog," and in particular Enjolras, whose speech on the barricades echoed most of Hugo's ideas:

"the nineteenth century is grand, but the twentieth century will be happy. Men will no longer have to fear, as now, a conquest, an invasion, a usurpation, a rivalry of nations with the armed hand... They will no longer have to fear famine, speculation, prostitution from distress, misery from lack of work, and the scaffold, and the sword, and the battle, and all the brigandages of chance in the forest of events... Men will be happy... Oh! 'the human race shall be delivered, uplifted, and consoled.' We affirm it on this barricade."

(The entire section is 6,130 words.)