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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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what connects all these stories
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
Universal Themes

For example, consider the recent themes

we have discussed with Night and Inferno:

survival, faith, forgiveness,

human rights, crime and punishment . . . .

19 th century france
19th Century France!

A turbulent time after

the Napoleonic Wars

and the setting for . . .

hey why does that title sound so familiar
Hey, why does that title sound so familiar?

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.

how do you pronounce les mis rables
How do you pronounce “Les Misérables”?

English pronunciation /leɪ mɪzərɑ:b/


French pronunciation [le mizeʁablə]

what does les mis rables mean
What does Les Misérables mean?


(Fr. noun)

(1) poor wretches

(2) scoundrels

or villains

what s in a name
What’s in a name?

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.

les miserables introduction
Les Miserables Introduction

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.

victor hugo author s purpose
Victor Hugo – Author’s Purpose

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.”

a bit about victor hugo
A Bit About Victor Hugo
  • Born Feb. 26 1802 (during Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire)
  • Major leader in the French Romantic movement of the 19th century
  • Most famous for Les Miserables and his earlier Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • He believed that art should show the grotesque as well as the beautiful
  • Hugo was a passionate political advocate during his day.
politics in les miserables
Politics in 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.

les mis rables part i historical background
Les MisérablesPart I - Historical Background

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:

French Revolution

Reign of Terror

Rule of Napoleon Bonaparte

Restoration of the Monarch (Bourbons)

french revolution
French Revolution
  • The French Revolution (1789–1799) was a period of political and social upheaval and radical change in the history of France, during which the French government, previously an absolute monarchy with privileges for the aristocracy and Catholic Church, underwent radical change based on Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights.
  • These changes were accompanied by violent turmoil, which included the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Hugo supported these revolutionary ideals.
french revolution storming of the bastille
French Revolution Storming of the Bastille
reign of terror
Reign of Terror
  • A period of violence that occurred fifty months after the onset of the French Revolution, incited by rival political factions within the new French Republic.
  • It was marked by mass executions of "enemies of the revolution." Estimates vary widely as to how many were killed, with numbers ranging from 20,000 to 40,000. Most “enemies” were royalty, aristocrats, or loyal bourgeois.
  • The guillotine ("National Razor") became the symbol of a string of executions.
napoleonic era
Napoleonic Era

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.)

napoleonic wars
Napoleonic Wars
  • Most historians agree that the Napoleonic wars were a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution. They refer to the conflict between Napoleon’s French empire and various European alliances.
  • French power conquered most of Europe but collapsed rapidly after the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Napoleon goes into exile.
  • Napoleon's empire ultimately suffered complete military defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

(This is when Les Miserables begins!)

second restoration bourbon dynasty
Second Restoration / Bourbon Dynasty
  • From 1816 to 1830, the rule of France returned to the heir monarch – King Louis XVII and then Charles X. During this time, the French established a constitutional monarchy where the king governed alongside an elected parliament.
revolution continues
Revolution Continues
  • By 1830, the July Revolution occurred, pushing Charles X from the throne and replacing him with Louis Phillipe “the citizen king.”
  • When Louis Phillipe dissatisfied, the poor and working class staged a uprising in 1832 (referred to as the Liberals’ Rebellion or the Barricades in the novel).
  • Revolts continue to disrupt politics in France for several more decades. The country struggles to establish a government that truly ensures everyone’s right to “liberty and equality.” Hugo’s writing focuses on the workers and individuals who made great sacrifices to reform the country and build a democracy.
les mis rables the story
Les Misérables: The Story

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.

the hero jean valjean
The Hero: Jean Valjean

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.

social issue poverty and the poor
Social Issue: Poverty and the Poor

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.”

social issue criminals and prisons
Social Issue: Criminals and Prisons

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.

the villain inspector javert
The Villain: Inspector Javert

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.”

social issue abuse of power
Social Issue: Abuse of Power

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.

the damsel fantine
The Damsel: Fantine

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.

social issue prostitution
Social Issue: Prostitution

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.

the children cosette gavroche
The Children: Cosette / Gavroche

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.

social issue children in poverty
Social Issue: Children in Poverty

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.

the lover marius
The Lover: Marius

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.

social issue class warfare
Social Issue: Class Warfare

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.

les mis rables and romanticism
Les Misérables and Romanticism

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.

traits of romanticism
Traits of Romanticism

Les Miserables is a characteristic Romantic work in both theme and form.

  • In theme, the novel glorifies freedom of thought and spirit and makes a hero of the average individual.
  • In form, the novel offers a descriptive, passionate writing style rather than classical restraint. Attention to detail and “flowery” language are traits of Romantic literature.
les mis rables the setting
Les Misérables: The Setting

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!!

les mis rables symbols and archetypes
Les Misérables: Symbols and Archetypes

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.

a hero s journey
A Hero’s Journey

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!

les mis rables major themes
Les Misérables: Major Themes

Finally, and most importantly, be prepared to discuss these themes in relation to the story:

  • Class Conflict and Revolution
  • Justice and Injustice
  • Human Rights
  • Society’s Laws and God’s Laws
  • Personal Change and Transformation
  • The Power of Love
”The son of a father to whom history will accord certain attenuating circumstances, but also as worthy of esteem as that father had been of blame; possessing all private virtues and many public virtues; careful of his health, of his fortune, of his person, of his affairs, knowing the value of a minute and not always the value of a year; sober, serene, peaceable, patient; a good man and a good prince; sleeping with his wife, and having in his palace lackeys charged with the duty of showing the conjugal bed to the bourgeois, an ostentation of the regular sleeping-apartment which had become useful after the former illegitimate displays of the elder branch; knowing all the languages of Europe, and, what is more rare, all the languages of all interests, and speaking them; an admirable representative of the “middle class,” but outstripping it, and in every way greater than it; possessing excellent sense, while appreciating the blood from which he had sprung, counting most of all on his intrinsic worth, and, on the question of his race, very particular, declaring himself Orleans and not Bourbon; thoroughly the first Prince of the Blood Royal while he was still only a Serene Highness, but a frank bourgeois from the day he became king; diffuse in public, concise in private; reputed, but not proved to be a miser; at bottom, one of those economists who are readily prodigal at their own fancy or duty; lettered, but not very sensitive to letters; a gentleman, but not a chevalier; simple, calm, and strong; adored by his family and his household; a fascinating talker, an undeceived statesman, inwardly cold, dominated by immediate interest, always governing at the shortest range, incapable of rancor and of gratitude, making use without mercy of superiority on mediocrity, clever in getting parliamentary majorities to put in the wrong those mysterious unanimities which mutter dully under thrones; unreserved, sometimes imprudent in his lack of reserve, but with marvellous address in that imprudence; fertile in expedients, in countenances, in masks; making France fear Europe and Europe France; Incontestably fond of his country, but preferring his family; assuming more domination than authority and more authority than dignity, a disposition which has this unfortunate property, that as it turns everything to success, it admits of ruse and does not absolutely repudiate baseness, but which has this valuable side, that it preserves politics from violent shocks, the state from fractures, and society from catastrophes; minute, correct, vigilant, attentive, sagacious, indefatigable; contradicting himself at times and giving himself the lie; bold against Austria at Ancona, obstinate against England in Spain, bombarding Antwerp, and paying off Pritchard; singing the Marseillaise with conviction, inaccessible to despondency, to lassitude, to the taste for the beautiful and the ideal, to daring generosity, to Utopia, to chimeras, to wrath, to vanity, to fear; possessing all the forms of personal intrepidity; a general at Valmy; a soldier at Jemappes; attacked eight times by regicides and always smiling; brave as a grenadier, courageous as a thinker; uneasy only in the face of the chances of a European shaking up, and unfitted for great political adventures; always ready to risk his life, never his work; disguising his will in influence, in order that he might be obeyed as an intelligence rather than as a king; endowed with observation and not with divination; not very attentive to minds, but knowing men, that is to say requiring to see in order to judge; prompt and penetrating good sense, practical wisdom, easy speech, prodigious memory; drawing incessantly on this memory, his only point of resemblance with Caesar, Alexander, and Napoleon; knowing deeds, facts, details, dates, proper names, ignorant of tendencies, passions, the diverse geniuses of the crowd, the interior aspirations, the hidden and obscure uprisings of souls, in a word, all that can be designated as the invisible currents of consciences; accepted by the surface, but little in accord with France lower down; extricating himself by dint of tact; governing too much and not enough; his own first minister; excellent at creating out of the pettiness of realities an obstacle to the immensity of ideas; mingling a genuine creative faculty of civilization, of order and organization, an indescribable spirit of proceedings and chicanery, the founder and lawyer of a dynasty; having something of Charlemagne and something of an attorney; in short, a lofty and original figure, a prince who understood how to create authority in spite of the uneasiness of France, and power in spite of the jealousy of Europe, — Louis Philippe will be classed among the eminent men of his century, and would be ranked among the most illustrious governors of history had he loved glory but a little, and if he had had the sentiment of what is great to the same degree as the feeling for what is useful.”
Victor Hugo almost set the world’s record for short letter writing. A month or so after the octavo edition of Les Miserables was published he wrote to his publisher the following:
  • ?Victor Hugo
  • Hurst & Blackett, the London publishers, not to be outdone by the master, produced the world’s shortest letter when they wrote back to Hugo on the firm’s letterhead:
  • !
  • and did not sign it. Nobody could write anything shorter that would convey any meaning.
In America, the civil war was going on at the release of the novel. The book became a sensation, especially among Confederate soldiers, who read the novel voraciously, calling themselves “Lee’s Miserables.”
  • The novel had many enemies, including those who thought that it encouraged people to rebel against government institutions.
  • Critics also condemned Hugo for writing a book about poor people and making money on it; however, the book was bought in record numbers by the poor in unprecedented numbers. Workers often pooled their money to buy the book, which they then shared among themselves.