Where in the world have we been this year?. World Literature Map!. What connects all these stories?. A hero’s journey – the quest of an individual. Shared archetypes – universal symbols. Common themes – central ideas or messages The human experience!. Universal Themes.
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World Literature Map!
For example, consider the recent themes
we have discussed with Night and Inferno:
survival, faith, forgiveness,
human rights, crime and punishment . . . .
A turbulent time after
the Napoleonic Wars
and the setting for . . .
Victory Hugo’s epic story gained worldwide popularity as a Broadway musical. In fact, Les Miserables (or Les Mis) is the third longest-running show in Broadway history. It has run continuously for 27 years and recently played its ten-thousandth performance in London.
This dramatic story about redemption and revolution has truly universal appeal.
English pronunciation /leɪ mɪzərɑ:b/
French pronunciation [le mizeʁablə]
(1) poor wretches
Even the title of this book has symbolic significance. In Victor Hugo’s mind, the double meaning of “Miserables” reflected social reality in 19th century France. There was often a thin line between desperate poverty and the life of a criminal.
We will return to a discussion of such themes. Let’s get more background.
This classic French epic was written and published by Victor Hugo in 1862. The novel paints a vivid picture of Paris after the French Revolution and the contro-versial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Hugo presents the city as a microcosm of the world. He explores the challenges faced at every level of society during this time, especially the injustices endured by the poor.
In explaining his epic novel, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo famously said,
“I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables.”
Les Misérables is set in the time period between 1789 and 1848, and explains the era in which France’s political structures shifted multiple times. Throughout the struggle between those in power, Hugo makes the point that the plight of the poor improved very little.
Don’t worry if you have limited knowledge of French history, we will discuss the historical background as we read. Start by familiarizing yourself with four major events from this time period:
Reign of Terror
Rule of Napoleon Bonaparte
Restoration of the Monarch (Bourbons)
Several short-lived governments follow the revolution, including the the Directory, which was intended as a represen-tative government. However, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrows appointed leaders through a coup d'état in 1800. (Hugo born 1802.)
(This is when Les Miserables begins!)
Hugo divided his story into five parts. He named each part after a major character.
The storyline of each major character develops separately but eventually intersects with the other characters.
Together, these characters represent the society of Paris in the early 1800s. Each character takes on a different social role or represents a social issue from this time period.
Protagonist, Jean Valjean, begins the story as an impoverished ex-convict, newly released after serving nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Through the course of the story, he defies the odds and rebuilds his life to become a respected man.
In the beginning of the novel, Jean Valjean represents the fate of many poor men in 19th century France. Despite endless revolts by the working class in that century, there was still a sharp divide between the rich and poor.
Jean Valjean’s character and actions were inspired by Hugo’s observations in the streets of Paris. Before starting the novel, Hugo witnessed a poor man being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. As the man was arrested, a rich woman dressed in velvet and furs walked by. Hugo saw the poor man stare at the woman, but she was totally unaware of him. The author later wrote about the encounter, saying, “The moment he became aware of her existence, while she remained unaware of his, a catastrophe was inevitable.”
Jean Valjean’s character also offers a commentary on the prison system in 19th century France. Hugo saw that the French criminal justice system was corrupt and the prisons filled with poor men. At that time, 80-86% of the prisoners in French prisons were male and the majority were in prison for the crime of thievery.
Until 1748, imprisonment meant being sentenced to be a galley slave in a ship where inmates were chained to benches to row. This sentence was often used in place of the death penalty since most prisoners died within a few years. In the book, Jean Valjean is held in a famous prison / galley in Toulon.
Based on Hugo’s own research, prisoners were frequently abused by guards, held in overcrowded cells, required to wear color-coded uniforms to indicate their crime, and were branded or tatooed with an identification number.
Inspector Javert represents the corrupt justice system of France during this time period. In the story, he works as a prison guard and later as a police chief. Javert serves as opposition to Jean Valjean’s character at every turn. Yet, he is a complex man who cannot be viewed as just another “bad guy.”
Class warfare between the rich and the poor was rampant in 19th century France, and government leaders often took advantage of this situation. Many police chiefs gained their position through bribery while the public turned a blind-eye to their abuses.
At this time, the term "police" encompassed varying levels of authority and significance within society. There were the police responsible for the prevention of crime, punishment of criminals, and patrolling the city streets. There were specific police divisions designated to monitor prostitution in Paris. There was even a group of police who worked to arrest vagrant children.
Fantine represents the plight of women, especially poor women, in 19th century France. Because of limited opportunities for work, women without husbands or well-off families often ended up on the streets. After being jilted by her fiance, Fantine struggles to survive. She works in factories and later on the street corner.
In the 19th century, two different categories of prostitutes could be identified. The first category, streetwalkers, were those lower-class women forced into prostitution due to poverty. This form of prostitution was illegal. The second category, courtesans, were prostitutes for upper-class men in society. Becoming a courtesan was actually an acceptable profession for many upper-class women who chose to remain unmarried. Many men in positions of power paid for the company of courtesans.
Cosette and Gavroche are both young children affected by the poverty of this society. Cosette is Fantine’s illegitimate daughter and Gavroche is an orphan who roams the streets of Paris. He forms a family by “adopting” younger orphans. Both play pivotal roles in the story.
Children were in a particularly bad situation in 19th century cities. They were often abandoned or became wards of the state due to poverty. They were sometimes sold into child labor or prostitutsion to make money for the family. Often they ended up on the streets.
The upper class believed that children of the poor inherited their parents’ criminal tendencies, so they didn’t want to take them in when they were abandoned. The government set up a program in 1801 that would take abandoned children.
Readers don’t meet Marius Pontmercy until the second half of the novel. This character offers an important glimpse into the lives of the revolutionaries.
By the 1830s, France has returned to rule under a monarchy. However, many young students and thinkers refused to give up on the fight for individual rights and democracy. Marius is one of the revolutionaries involved in the Liberals’ Rebellion of 1832.
Marius Pontmercy represents a member of the upper-class who turns against his wealthy family to fight for social change. Marius’ grandfather was a Royalist who supported the Monarchy of Louis XVI. He avoided being killed during the Reign of Terror, only to see his son fight in Napoleon’s army and his grandson lead a student rebellion.
Political differences and class warfare turned many family members against each other during this time period. Victor Hugo probably modeled the character of Marius after himself. Hugo’s grandfather was a royalist, his father was a general in the Napoleonic wars, and Hugo was a social activist in his time.
Romanticism was an articstic and intellectual movement of the late 18th and early 19th century that put the individual at the center of the world and of art. Romanticism valued emotional and imaginative response to reality. It evolved partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on restraint and logic.
Les Miserables is a characteristic Romantic work in both theme and form.
The story begins in several villages on the outskirts of Paris. Eventually, most of the actions and the characters revolve around the center of Paris itself.
Hugo explores the life of aristocrats, revolutionaries, and criminals in Paris. He explores the social hierarchy of the city by dissecting the physical space of the city. We find the aristocrats high above in palaces and mansions while the sewers and catacombs of Paris become the stage for escaped convicts and revolutionaries.
The city itself is a symbol of society!!
Beyond the city itself, many other objects will act as important symbols in the story.
We will discuss the symbolism in detail as we begin reading.
Additionally, the character and situational archetypes we have discussed this year will also present themselves through the story.
Keep all stages of the hero’s journey in mind as you read the story of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Remember, everything comes full circle!
Finally, and most importantly, be prepared to discuss these themes in relation to the story: