Hugo's movtivations and background

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1621

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Les Misérables Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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."

However, the young radicals die on the barricades and, as one critic noted, Hugo sometimes seems pessimistic about the outcome of the fight: "The dismal, lurid, grotesque imagery with which Hugo consistently depicts Les Miserables drives home a powerful point. Despite all the talk about progress, nothing has changed for a large swath of humanity. Conditions may have improved for some individuals and their offspring. But each new generation of the poor and uneducated faced the same physical, psychic, and moral disintegration."

Because he wrote Les Miserables late in his life, Hugo also wanted to leave a personal testimony on his own political fights. One of the central characters in the novel, Marius, passes through an intellectual evolution closely similar to the author's: at first strongly royalist, then Bonapartist, later Republican He fights for his convictions on the barricades. Hugo was born in 1802 to a royalist mother and a republican father who was one of Napoleon's generals. By the time he was a year old his parents were not living together anymore. Hugo sought fulfillment in and through art, as he was often left by himself. As one of his biographers noted, "Hugo was terribly precocious. He began writing complete plays, echoing his fondness for popular drama, at the age of fourteen; he devoured Walter Scott's historical novels as soon as each translation rolled off the press; and he penned his first work of fiction—whose black rebel hero foreshadowed Jean Valjean—when he was sixteen; finally, he composed poetry that gave him national recognition, including a royal pension, before he had turned eighteen "

At first aesthetically and politically conservative, within years he backed the new school of innovators—Lamartine, Musset, Nodier, Vigny— who were labeled romantics. In 1830 his first play, Hernani, broke completely with dramatic conventions. Hugo became the leader of this group of writers, most of them democrats in a regime that killed civil liberties. However, only the 1848 Revolution—the model for the insurrection described in the novel—spawned a republic, which Hugo supported vigorously. He was even elected to the Parliament, on the left. The Republic did not last long. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Hugo had first supported, overthrew the young republic three years later in 1852 and became emperor. Hugo, who never hid his own republicanism, had to flee abroad to avoid arrest. It was from exile that he wrote Les Miserables.

Since his earlier work, Hugo believed in the importance of the illusion of reality, what he called verisimilitude. Very often in the novel, Hugo pretends that he is copying from notes left by Myriel or Valjean. He quotes pseudo-newspaper articles and letters that came into his possession, everything suggesting authenticity. Indeed, he always worked a great deal on sources, and at least two characters of the novel, Bishop Myriel and Valjean, were inspired by real people whose stories Hugo had read. Finally, Hugo was careful to have each character speak according to the language of his or her social class; so much so that when the novel came out he was accused by some critics of being "low." For example, Gavroche, the street urchin, always speaks slang, including his words to the two little orphans he has just met and for whom he buys some bread.

Finally, like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Hugo's earlier historical novel, Les Miserables multiplies the digressions—on Waterloo, on slang, on the sewers—in an effort to give the historical background of the story. According to one critic, "stripped of all its digression, Les Miserables would still be an interesting book, containing an essentially great lesson, but it would be much less a book extraordinarily representative of the nineteenth century. In its final form it gives us not only the lesson of Valjean, but it gives us some of the great deeds and ideas of the century." Hugo justified his all-encompassing approach by saying he wanted to create a contemporary work of fiction that would rival such great national verse epics as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and John Milton's Paradise Lost.

The strong political content of the novel divided the critics of the time. While popular opinion was virtually unanimous, the many critical assessments—by about one hundred and fifty reviewers in 1862 alone—fell into two camps. Political, social, and religious conservatives assailed the author's intellectual integrity, his motives, his intentions: to blame society for human suffering was, according to them, to deny individual responsibility and to undermine existing institutions. The more progressive, republican critics, on the other hand, defended the novel as profoundly moral. Imbued with the New Testament notions of grace, charity, and self-sacrifice, the novel depicted the struggles of human conscience with temptation and the eventual triumph of duty over passion, of freedom over nature.

Critics were also uncertain about the genre and the composition of the book. Indeed, Hugo's ambitious goal complicated the structure of the book. There is very little linearity and numerous echoes and parallels, while the narration goes back and forth in time. The effect is a little disorienting for the reader who has problems following the narration, as if Hugo were playing with his reader's patience. In addition to this unconventional composition, it defies any attempt at classification. The mingling of literary styles—le melange des genres—was a hallmark of French romanticism since the 1820s. As a consequence, Les Miserables is a blend of epic, myth, dramatic and lyrical components; grotesque and sublime; satire and romance; comedy and tragedy; realism and romanticism which led many critics to describe the novel as a "monster." Maybe it is, and yet, it still makes people dream.

Source: Anne-Sophie Cerisola, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Cerisola, a former teacher at the Lycee Francais de New York and a current instructor at New York University.

Altruism?

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3054

What delineates Jean Valjean in Les Miserables is the essential innocence of the man. If he were innocent only in the sense of having been falsely accused, his would be a different tale, and probably one with far less significance for us. Jean Valjean does indeed commit the act that sends him to the galleys and that is the beginning of his downfall. Hugo's supreme indictment of society—for this is an indictment of society (he was a forerunner of Zola and other novelists who saw themselves as social critics)—lies in the nature of the act which his hero has perpetrated and for which he is imprisoned. Literally, Jean Valjean is guilty of stealing a loaf of bread.

It would appear that such an act would ordinarily evoke only sympathy and hence require no further mitigation in order for an author to exculpate his "criminal" and to paint him as the purest and most saintly of all beings (one is almost compelled to use quotation marks around criminal, so that Hugo's relentless efforts to remind the reader of Valjean's goodness are rendered with integrity). To this end, the taking of the loaf of bread is an almost perfect transgression, and the breaking of the law is justified or at least extenuated by the forces of hunger, poverty, and the execrable social conditions that followed the counterrevolution in France. But Hugo goes even further than this, and in so doing betrays a weakness not only in the literary work but in the social criticism: it is not for himself and his own stomach that Jean Valjean commits a theft. He does not even so much as expect to taste a morsel of the stolen bread. It is for his sister's children, young, fatherless, and hungry, that he becomes a thief. So two factors are here at work, and as they follow the reader throughout the five volumes that make up this novel, they detract from each other rather than act symbiotically to strengthen the motifs: there is the social indictment, and there is the criminal as saint.

Starting with the criminal as victim, Hugo continues with the criminal (or more accurately the ex-convict) as the embodiment of virtue. He is the penitent incarnate, but he has never done wrong and has nothing for which to repent. Over and over he redeems himself. Without a blemish on his past, however, the redemption is ill-placed. What emerges, from the viewpoint of the social critic, and in contrast with other great literary images of the transgressor, is a series of unintended ambiguities, with messages not as clearly drawn as are even the one-dimensional characters who inhabit the novel.

If Jean Valjean is going to be painted as pure and saintly, and he is, the theft from the bishop and a subsequent incident with a little boy from whom he takes a coin are the blemishes—these, and not the stealing of the loaf of bread. Through the many years to follow until the last moments of his life, and through the countless pages and the episodes, coincidences, acts of strength, heroism, and sacrifice, there will be nothing but these two acts that are short of Christlike purity. What is Hugo telling us, then, when so good a person as his hero steals first from the bishop and then from the boy Gervais? That it is prison that brings out all that is worst in man, that turns the potentially best into the most wretched, that leaves one bitter and angry, seeing all humanity, even a man of God and a child, as enemy....

In the message of Hugo, it is kindness, in its most extreme and unexpected form, that alone can bring reform or even instant rehabilitation, not through guilt or expiation but through rebirth and resurrection. Love, Victor Hugo is telling us: love, and the wretched mass of humanity will be redeemed. Man is essentially good, more than good, he is pure and heavenly, he needs only to be shown the other cheek and he will embrace and kiss it, not rebuff and repel it. Jean Valjean is the embodiment of this, but how universal, or how convincing even in his own instance, is a matter of dispute....

[After Jean Valjean's encounters with the bishop and Gervais, we] are given a glimpse of a man in the process of conversion, of the forces of good and evil struggling within him, each seeking victory over the other, the classic theological battle for possession of a man's soul between the devil and God's angels....

[Hugo catches] his character in the very act of change, at the moment of duality when he is traveling from evil to good and both are present as adversary forces. He is neither one person nor the other, neither the convict hardened, gloomy, and bitter against the world nor the redeemed man who has had a vision of the beauty that resides in the good and is beckoned to it. He is neither in the pure sense, because he remains both, as anyone at a moment of change must be. For Hugo, he is one of the two persons (or personalities) in his impulses, instincts, and habits, and he is the other in the intellect which is freeing him (or seeking to do so) from the nineteen years of the constant formation of an evil serf. When his intellect sees what his habits have brought him to, he recoils, he denies that it is he (the eternal evasion of responsibility, it was not I, it was something in me, something that drove me), he repents and seeks to undo the act. It is Schopenhauer's eternal enmity between the worlds of will and idea, and it is a forerunner of Freud and the struggle between the unconscious and the intellect. In Valjean, the idea and the intellect will triumph.

Now he must run, run endlessly, for as a second offender, he will, if seized, be returned to the galleys for life. Hugo implies some condemnation of the judicial and penal systems, their harshness and cruelty, but essentially they are tangential to his story and even occasionally interfere with it. The galleys are not filled with Jean Valjeans but with men whose delicts are far more serious than the theft of a loaf of bread, and there is not a great deal that Hugo has to say about these men or their conditions of servitude. Here and there a word suggests suffering and cruelty, but Hugo seems to have known little about the actual conditions prevailing for prisoners, and his book falls short as an important indictment. If it is not an example of successful rehabilitation, for there was no evil in the protagonist but only in the society that condemned him, it nevertheless contradicts the strongly believed tenet that prison itself corrupts. All that is necessary for Jean Valjean to make his way in society is to conceal that he is an ex-convict and, as the event with the child makes him, a fugitive as well.

Had Valjean been a different person, or had there been others from the galleys like him, he might have symbolized what Hugo seems haltingly to be suggesting at times: the criminals are the saints, and their jailers are the sinners. But Thenardier and many others are evil criminals, and aside from Valjean himself there are none that epitomize goodness. Only one man has risen, and in the end he is one who had never fallen.

Andre' Maurois has written glowingly of this work. He praises its literary qualities, the excellent prose, the historical frescoes (the description of the Battle of Waterloo, and a more detailed one of the barricades on the streets of Paris in 1832). It is, however, a narrow view, for while Les Miserables has these virtues, Maurois ignores its faults—how ill-drawn the characters are, how absurd the plot, how unsubtle the unweaving of the story, as one compares it with the works of the giants of the French novel who came just before Hugo and during his lifetime: Balzac, Stendhal, Gautier, and particularly Flaubert. But then Maurois finds in it great moral qualities, the painful quest of heroism and sanctity. It is an interesting evaluation, and heroism and sanctity are indeed here present—frequently, selflessly, passionately, unmistakably. No reader can fail to discern the message. There is satisfaction in finding in another these qualities that one cannot attain oneself, but a reader must wish that there really were base passions in Valjean, and that he had actually conquered them and not merely overcome a momentary bitterness that arose because of the inhuman treatment he was accorded following the theft of the single loaf. If only there had been sin, there might have been redemption. Valjean never rises from the basest passions because he had never descended. The thefts of the bishop's silver plates and of the child's two-franc coin, which he sought to return: these and the loaf of bread are all that we have against him; for these he must spend a lifetime of expiation.

Yet there is expiation. I am not sure, as Maurois contends, that this is the sort of book that gives one "greater confidence in life and in himself." Maurois writes of Les Miserables that it speaks more to man of "his liberty than of his slavery." Yes and no, but it depends largely upon the willingness of the reader to suspend confidence in the universality of almost all other characters and utilize the hero as symbol of humanity. For Valjean does have liberty to rise, despite the pursuit by Javert, innumerable social pressures, and the social conditions that caused hunger and virtual thralldom.

Victor Hugo evidently gave great importance to the loaf of bread, and Les Miserables has left a legacy to the language of irony, that in the world of unequals he who steals a million dollars becomes a prime minister or an industrial tycoon while he who steals a loaf of bread ends up in prison. Jean Valjean spent nineteen years as a galley slave for his theft, about which Hugo writes in one of the passages in which he departs from his role of novelist and becomes essayist, social commentator, or historian:

This is the second time that, during his essays on the penal question and condemnation by the law, the author of this book has come across a loaf as the starting-point of the disaster of a destiny. Claude Gueux [in the short story "Claude Gueux?"] stole a loaf, and so did Jean Valjean, and English statistics prove that in London four robberies out of five have hunger as their immediate cause.

Here is Hugo as the critic of society: it is a world populated by prisoners of starvation, and it drives good men to crime. It is a world of cruelty and injustice, and it determines the destiny of men such as Jean Valjean. His, the author's and the hero's, is a cry from the depths of despair. Yet the message of Hugo actually is that all that is good in man cannot be destroyed by the prison air..., not all that is good, and not in all good men. It can only be driven beneath the surface as one hardens in the struggle for survival.

If this is a story, or even the story, of man rising to heights from the lowest depths, it is also a story of man seeking to escape from a past, to conceal it, to find a manner of starting life anew without pursuit from others and without the cloak that must be worn if one's stigma is to remain invisible. In the first instance, one almost wishes that the rise to heights were to places somewhat less lofty. Maurois is understating when he draws attention to the inability of the reader to fulfill a similar quest for heroism and sanctity. The fact is that Jean Valjean is just too good to be true, and this becomes literal for the reader who cannot immerse himself only in the man as symbol and wants to see him as a living person and to be confronted with greater verisimilitude with his fate.

Hugo's artistry, nonetheless, with all its shortcomings, does present us with an individual who captures our interests; very much as in the old-fashioned cinemas that were continued from week to week, as the hero or heroine hung from the cliffs while the enemy was in hot pursuit, so we read breathlessly and applaud inwardly as Jean Valjean narrowly escapes doom.

Jean Valjean is a sympathetic symbol, but more than a symbol. At times he does emerge as a meaningful personality, even if no one else in the novel has the same good fortune. As symbol, however, Valjean is never at the lowest depths, never has been, and here Hugo fails us. Essentially, Valjean was not converted, especially since his first crime had not been anything other than an act of sacrifice, of altruism, of goodness. Raskolnikov [in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment] did murder, he killed the pawnbroker and her sister with a hatchet; he planned the murder, and his was an act of baseness. And ... Lord Jim [in Conrad's Lord Jim] did abandon ship, as no captain or mate ever should, leaving aboard the sinking vessel the men under his command in contravention of his vows and the moral order of the sea. Moll Flanders [in Defoe's Moll Flanders] stole and stole and stole. But what Hugo has given us is more of a condemnation of society (as his aside on the subject of four out of five English crimes would indicate), and for that reason his novel cannot rank as a study in human redemption. There was really no crime, or so little of one. Valjean had never been a Raskolmkov; Raskolmkov could never have been canonized by Dostoevsky.

Like Lord Jim, Jean Valjean is seeking to escape from a past, but there the analogy ends. Lord Jim never wants to be faced by anyone who has learned of his misdeed because it was an act of infamy; it is really from himself that he wishes to find refuge. An impossible task: there are no worlds without mirrors. So while Lord Jim's secret protects him from inner persecution, Valjean's secret must guard him from the outer world, for two reasons: first, because the world will demand a penalty if he is apprehended and his identity disclosed; and second, because the world will never cease condemning an ex-convict.... [In the world of Hugo, man,] once condemned, is forever condemned; he may be released from the bagnes, the galleys, the walls and bars, but he remains always in prison once he has been there. There is no Christian world that forgives anyone, not even this man for whom there is nothing to forgive. One pays forever, and at best can live only by concealment. The biography is there and cannot be rewritten, but it does not have to be told, or it can be falsified (and the two are essentially one). In this sense, if there is a message that Hugo wants us to learn from the life of Jean Valjean, the book is still very much alive. Ask any ex-convict, in France or the United States and probably most other countries of the world, and they will tell you that the world of Jean Valjean remains almost unchanged among us. If these ex-convicts were to be sanctified, it would give them as little solace as it did Hugo's central figure, for where is the audience that would believe the glorifiers, or perform the canonization rites, except perhaps a century and a half after their death?

The departures that the author takes from his novel in order to offer social commentary often have only tangential reference to the plots and subplots of the book, but they are significant in themselves. Hugo is, as it were, reminding himself that he is writing a story of the wretched, not of one individual, and even if the two clash it does not concern him. "All the crimes of the man begin with the vagabondage of the lad," he states..., although it was hardly true of Jean Valjean and there is little evidence of it in the criminal underworld elements with whom Valjean comes into contact at certain points in his adventures.

A passage that refers to the underworld, the literal criminal underworld though it might be equally applicable to the world of fear of exposure in which Jean Valjean lives, summarizes perhaps as well as any in this novel what Hugo has to say about crime:

The social evil is darkness; humanity is identity, for all men are of the same clay, and in this nether world, at least, there is no difference in predestination, we are the same shadow before, the same flesh during, and the same ashes afterward, but ignorance, mixed with the human paste, blackens it, and this incurable blackness enters man and becomes Evil there....

It is more than Jean Valjean that Hugo is discussing when he writes that the social evil is darkness, it is humanity. If only humanity could accept the brotherhood of man, know that we come from nothing and will return to nothing, that the short time between need not be wretched for the millions of poor, Les Miserables, then we could live in harmony and love on earth. Have no illusions: we are not predestined, Calvinism notwithstanding, to eternal damnation or endless bliss. We all have the same future, the darkness of the grave, and if we could lift ourselves from the ignorance that does not accept this, we could bring light into a world of somber shadows. This is Hugo's hope for salvation, but it is a meager hope, and in the end only Jean Valjean finds this salvation, only one unusual soul among millions of ordinary folk. Our sins are greater than thefts of loaves of bread for the hungry and the young, and we will not be able to fulfill en masse the hopes that Hugo expresses so eloquently in this passage.

Source: Edward Sagarin, "Jean Valjean. For Stealing a Loaf of Bread," in his Raskolmkov and Others. Literary Images of Crime, Punishment, Redemption, and Atonement, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp 60-76.

Review of Part I

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1455

[Les Miserables] is the greatest and most elaborate work of Victor Hugo's fruitful genius.... A novel, in the ordinary acceptation of that term, [Fantine] is not. The ordinary novel, according to Carlyle, is a "tale of adventures which did not occur in God's creation, but only in the Waste Chambers, (to be let unfurnished,) of certain human heads, and which are part and parcel of the Sum of No-things; which, nevertheless, obtain some temporary remembrance, and lodge extensively, at this epoch of the world, in similar still more unfurnished chambers. "These productions have wonderful plots and still more wonderful machinery. Fantine has simply dramatic situations, and therefore Fantine is no novel. They are remarkable for many words and few ideas; every page of Fantine contains some beautiful thought, poetically expressed, or some brilliant passage upon Life, Law, Religion, or Philosophy; hence Fantine is not a novel. People with waste chambers, (to let unfurnished,) need not read it; it was never written for them. But to the thinker it will be a solace and delight, albeit its lessons may excite some saddened reflections in sympathetic minds.

We have stated that Fantine had not the plot of the ordinary novel; but dramatic situations, instead. Let us add, that the work is composed of a series of brilliant pictures, boldly touched off by a master-hand, as in the case of the great works of Niccola Poussin and Claude Lorame.... There is not in the literature of fiction a finer portraiture than that given of [M. Charles Francois Bienvenu Myriel, Bishop of D—]. His every trait of character, objective and psychological, is elaborately depicted. It is, for several pages of the book, a lone sketch, nothing to heighten the interest thereof save two old virtuous ladies of his household; who are about as important to the theme, as the occasional and indifferent tree in some of Raphael's paintings. It is quite as powerful and much more elaborate, yet not quite so fearful or mysterious, but far more genial and beautiful in type than, Byron's grand portrait of Lara; and equally well sustained in power throughout. But the character of Lara is dark and gloomy; that of M. Myriel radiant with spiritual beauty. We are permitted to look, not only upon the objective form and actions of the man, but as if his mind were spread open to view, we have a full revelation of his psychology—we gaze into the divine depths of his immortal soul. Indeed so beautiful is the moral portraiture of that simple but good man, that one of our contemporaries has pronounced such a being an impossibility! We cannot think so—and if mistaken, our historic lessons, standard of ideal virtue, and belief in the true, beautiful and good, must have rested upon shifting sands.... But conceding the supposed fact, that we err—surely it is highly creditable to the genius of M. Hugo, that out of the depths of his contemplation he could create an Ideal Character, so perfect as to be an impossibility in humanity; a concession which, however, must greatly reflect upon, and detract from, the boasted grandeur of the human soul.

But, be this as it may, two personages of opposite opinions are brought in contact with the Bishop—one, a Senator, and the other, a Conventioner, persecuted by the ruling power which succeeded to the French Revolution. The former is a kind of little Atheist—a scoffer at the established forms of religion, after the manner of Voltaire. The latter is a bold intellectualist; a master of the syllogistic forms of logic; a dogmatic denunciator of legitimacy and royalty; and a mystic in Deism. In detailing the particulars of M. Myriel's interviews with these men, Victor Hugo has carried to its highest point of delicacy, that civilization in Art, which pervades modern French authorship. The Atheist's sneers against revealed religion, is treated with respectful silence, or returned only with Christian pity. The bold sallies and loud declamations of the old Conventioner, are met with pastoral humility until he is half subdued. And when death is about to close his eyes, the good Bishop is his only friend—the only witnesser of his spirit's flight. It is as if the Lion had made of the Lamb its confidant and friend. This is the place to remark, however, that Senator and Conventioner, are simply machinery whereby lessons upon life, history, and morality are promulged; as with many of the seemingly nonessential characters in Goethe's Faust...

[We] do not hesitate to pronounce [Les Miserables] the ablest novel—after Goethe's Welhelm Meister—of this century.

Certain supercilious young gentlemen, of most questionable principles, and certain publicists of still more questionable morals, think it fashionable and brilliant to decry Les Miserables as an immoral book; simply because they have not the brains to understand it. To us, it is a Bible in the fictitious literature of the nineteenth century. To them, it is merely a translation of a French novel; and all France is but their second Sodom: we know that France is not morally worse than America. To them, it is a production by Victor Hugo; to us it is a protest of genius against universal crimes—the plea of one who advocates, in the face of obloquy and contumely, the cause of the Life-Wretched. To them, it is a proclamation of war against society; to us, it is a grand sermon in behalf of primitive Christianity—a splendid endeavour to have. Christendom permeated by the rules and regulations of the "Church and House Book of the Early Christians," and of the "Law-Book of the Ante-Nicene Church." To them, it is massive, grand, unusual, and incomprehensible; to us, it is beautiful as the Iliad of Homer—real as a play by Shakespeare. Les Miserables is an event—it is a new jewel in the literary crown of our century...

[Les Miserables] should awaken the conscience of society from its dismal lethargy of evil. For it is profound, straight-forward, and marvelously eloquent. "But then, it is a French novel"—say its critics. So much the better, is our response; because it is greater than all of the English novels, gathered together and massed into one, which have appeared during the past quarter of a century. "But," repeat its critics, "it contains exaggerations." No doubt of it; we admit the fact. But are there not exaggerations in all novels? Was there ever one printed that contained them not? Are there not... more absurdities and vulgar caricatures in [Dickens's] Great Expectations, than there could be found in so many of such books as Les Miserables, as would sink the Great Eastern? A French novel! Is this phrase used as a term of reproach, applicable to the literature of the most civilized and cultivated empire upon the globe? If so, is the novel, or its ignorant assailant, to be blamed—and which? Why the latter. Who is the French Novelist, and what is the French Novel? The one, is a scholar of genius and refinement; the other, a reflex of life and society. What English writers— what American writers—can be compared with such authors, in points of power and art, as Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Alphonse Karr, Edmund About, Emile Souvestre, Octave Feuillet, Alexandre Dumas, Michelet and Sue? Here are no contortionists—no forced humorists—no retailers of vulgar and far-fetched wit—no writers of dreary, idealess wilderness-pages; but gentlemen of power, large and well digested observation, polished wit, noble satire, keen irony, and great Philosophy.... [To] such as find fault with Hugo's humble characters, we would say: first remove Reynold's Dunghill, or clean out Dickens's Augean stables. If they think that the Frenchman crushes society, why, let them the more enjoy Thackeray's crunching and mastication of it. Or if they dislike Jean Valjean, because he was a reformed criminal, then let them revel in the irreclaimable hideousness of Bulwer's Villains. For there are no graceless scamps or vagabonds in the chambers of M. Hugo's mind. His most infamous creation has some principle of homogeneity left; but the vagabond of one English novel, like the sinner of Jonathan Edwards' theology, is past redemption. In short, the French novel is civilization; the English novel affectation—semi-nude barbarism. It is not, however, much to the credit of our vaunted enlightenment, that the greatest of recent Fictions—this very Les Miserables—should have been but poorly received by the press.... [It] is safe to say, at the least, that another so grandly brilliant a book, of its class, will not appear in the lifetime of the youngest of this generation.

Source: T W M, in a review of "Les Miserables—Famine," in The Southern Literary Messenger, July, 1863, pp 434-46.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview

Explore Study Guides