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
For example, consider the recent themes
we have discussed with Night and Inferno:
survival, faith, forgiveness,
human rights, crime and punishment . . . .
Now pack your bags and let’s follow these themes to . . .
19th Century France!
A turbulent time after
the Napoleonic Wars
and the setting for . . .
Les Misérables
by Victor Hugo
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 longestrunning 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 Misérables”?
English pronunciation /leɪ mɪzərɑ:b/
French pronunciation [le mizeʁablə]
What does Les Misérables mean?
(Fr. noun)
(1) poor wretches
(2) scoundrels
or villains
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
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 controversial 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
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
A Bit About Victor Hugo
• Born Feb. 26 1802 (during
Napoleon Bonaparte’s
• 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
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 Misérables
Part 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
French Revolution
Reign of Terror
Rule of Napoleon Bonaparte
Restoration of the Monarch (Bourbons)
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
Louis XVI
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
• 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
Several short-lived
governments follow the
revolution, including the
the Directory, which was
intended as a representative government.
However, Napoleon
Bonaparte overthrows
appointed leaders
through a coup d'état in
1800. (Hugo born 1802.)
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!)
Napoleonic Wars
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
• 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 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.
Meet the cast of characters . . . .
and the social issues they explore.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Fantine represents the plight of women, especially poor
women, in 19th century France. Because of limited
opportunities for work, women without husbands or welloff 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
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
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
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
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
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 Misérables :
Literary Elements
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
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
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 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 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
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 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
• ?
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
• !
• 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

Slide 1