When Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables first came out in 1862, people in Paris and elsewhere lined up to buy it. Although critics were less receptive, the novel was an instant popular success. The French word “misérables” means both poor wretches and scoundrels or villains. The novel offers a huge cast that includes both kinds of “misérables.” A product of France's most prominent Romantic writer, Les Misérables ranges far and wide. It paints a vivid picture of Paris's seamier side, discusses the causes and results of revolution, and includes discourses on topics ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to Parisian street slang. But the two central themes that dominate the novel are the moral redemption of its main character, Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, and the moral redemption of a nation through revolution. The novel is a critical statement against human suffering, poverty, and ignorance. Its purpose is as much political as it is artistic. II
| VICTOR HUGO
As a novelist, poet, political activist, and painter, Victor Hugo was a central figure in the Romantic movement of 19th-century France. Both his family and his times influenced Hugo's social views and politics, which included a deep concern with human rights, social injustice, and poverty as the root of evil. Born in Besançon, France, in 1802, Hugo grew up in the years of Napoleon Bonaparte's empire. In 1815 the empire collapsed at the battle of Waterloo, which Hugo describes in detail in Les Misérables, and a constitutional monarchy was established. Hugo’s father was a general in the Napoleonic army with republican sympathies while his middle-class mother had royalist leanings. The young Hugo spent a large part of his childhood in Paris with his mother. He also traveled through Europe in his father's wake and glimpsed the Napoleonic campaigns. After attending school in Paris, he married his childhood love, Adèle Foucher, in 1822. In that same year, Hugo published his first volume of poetry, the beginning of a long and diverse literary career that also included drama and novels. He was acquainted with many major figures on the intellectual and artistic scene. His political convictions changed over time as various French governments rose and fell, however his belief in human rights was consistent. In a letter to a friend describing why he wrote Les Misérables, Hugo said: If the radical is the ideal, yes, I am a radical.... A society which admits poverty, a religion which admits hell, a humanity which sanctions war, seem to me an inferior society, an inferior religion and humanity, and it is towards the higher society, the higher humanity and religion that I turn: society without a king, humanity without frontiers, religion without a book.... 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 Misérables. The 1840s to the 1860s were an active time for the writer. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1841 and to the peerage in 1845 in recognition of his literary achievements. The late 1840s marked a period of serious political involvement for Hugo. He spoke up in the Chamber of Peers, criticizing the legal system and the treatment of the poor, themes to which he returned in Les Misérables. Disillusioned with monarchism, he publicly espoused republicanism and participated in the revolution of 1848. These experiences gave him firsthand knowledge of what barricade fighting was like, which he used in the novel. Louis Napoleon, the elected president of the newly established republic, seized power in a coup d'état in 1851. Hugo criticized the new ruler and ended up in exile, first in Belgium, then later on the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel, where he remained until 1870. Here he wrote most of Les Misérables. Les Misérables was first published in 1862, appearing simultaneously in cities across...
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