Do you hear the people sing? Les Miserables is one of the most well known musicals to
date, and one of the most long-standing musicals on Broadway. Additionally, it was converted into the award-winning motion picture of the same name in 2012. With gripping characters, a complex storyline, arguably some of the best acting roles for both stage and screen, and beautiful and cathartic music pieces, Les Misérables has captured audiences far and wide for decades. However, the lesser known fact of the musical is that it is not only based on true events, but it is based on famous French author Victor Hugo’s timeless novel Les Misérables. The musical closely follows important plot points and characters of the novel, although many parts had to be left out due to the fact that the book is one of the longest written novels in all of history. The book Les Misérables is an important literary and historical artifact of French culture, as it highlights important events and defining values of French culture through their history. Victor Hugo himself was a very interesting and important figure in French history, and he put French literature on the map of timeless literature classics that is still recognized globally.
To summarize (spoilers ahead!) Les Misérables follows an ex-convict named Jean Valjean who seeks redemption and living a better, more fulfilling life after his time in prison. Valjean has a religious awakening as an ex-convict, and attempts to escape his identity in order to lead a better life than being a convict would allow him. Along the way, he becomes Mayor, and adopts Fantine’s child after she passes away. Fantine led a life of hardship, loss, and illness, and her one wish to Valjean was to have her child cared for. In order to give her justice and peace, he loves this child, Cosette, as his own. He spends most of his life running from a police officer named Javert, as he knows Valjean’s identity the best. Javert believes he is doing the right thing by pursuing the convict. Valjean lives a life full of giving, kindness, and love, and escapes from the system that condemned him. Valjean also meets a group of poor schoolboys leading a rebellion against the government due to an unjust system that causes their suffering. This important aspect of the novel, as it centers around an unjust system that condemns the poor and forces them into a life of pain (this is also the reason Valjean became a criminal- his family was poor and starving and he had to steal), is based on the true events of the June Rebellion, which was a republican uprising against the monarchy, in Paris in 1832. Eventually, Valjean confesses his true identity to his daughter, saves her lover in the tragic rebellion and allows her to marry him, and he dies at peace. The end of the novel centers around the famous quote “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise,” which signifies hope after suffering. There are many more characters and subplots within the large novel, but these are the most important plot points
and values that the novel is known for.
Victor Hugo was not only a phenomenal author- he also led a very tumultuous, artistic, and interesting life, making him a fascinating person in French History. He was a poet and novelist and was an important figure during the Romanticism movement. To put it simply, Romanticism in literature covered much of the 19th century and focused widely on human connection, intrinsic turmoil and morals, cathartic writing, and deep-rooted emotions. For reference, Gothic literature is a subcategory of the Romantic movement. Romanticism showed opposition and pushed back to the previous period of Enlightenment, and was criticized by many academics due to the emotionally- driven focus of the Romantics. However, ultimately the movement spread globally and became a defining era for all arts, such as visual art, literature, and music.
Victor Hugo’s life was fast-paced from the start. He was born Victor-Marie Hugo in 1802. He moved around a lot due to the fact that his father was in Napoleon’s army. His mother was a devoted Catholic woman. Due to the constant moving, Hugo’s mother separated from his father and lived in France with her children. Both parents had other relationships while separated, but eventually Hugo, his mother, and his siblings rejoined Hugo’s father in Spain in 1811. An important fact in Hugo’s life is that his mother and siblings lived in a convent while his father fought in the Peninsular War (before they rejoined him). A conspirator named Victor Fanneau de La Horie, who also hid in the convent, became a mentor for Hugo. When Hugo was only fifteen, he won an honorable mention award for writing a poem for a contest sponsored by the L’Académie Française.
On top of Hugo being a profound artist and writer, who was elected to the L’Académie Française in 1841 (although he had to fight to get in as a Romantic artist), he also led a profound political life that influenced his works. He became a member of the Upper Chamber of Parliament in 1845, and fought against the death penalty, social injustice, and fought for freedom of press and self- government for Poland at the time. He was well known for fighting for third class people, and his speeches were famous for fighting against poverty and the death penalty. When Napoleon III rose to power in 1851, Hugo called him a traitor to France, moved to England, but was then banished from England due to his written criticisms of Queen Victoria. He then lived in exile on the island of Guernsey from 1855 until 1870. It was during his exile that he continued to voice his strong opinions against Napoleon III and fighting for those less fortunate, including speaking of support towards ending the slave trade.
It was also during his exile that Hugo wrote Les Misérables, which speaks volumes about the themes of hope, suffering, and fighting for what you believe in. Hugo was exiled for voicing his opinion, and his strong support for those in poverty and despair shined through in the cathartic third class characters that starred in his novel. He wrote his novel during the time of the June Rebellion, which was a tragic rebellion that ultimately failed and resulted in lots of bloodshed. However, Hugo could capture the courage and meaning of the rebellion, which is fighting and dying for justice and love, resulting in a hopeful future. This event otherwise might have been forgotten in history, but Hugo’s novel and its meaning aids in remembrance of an important aspect of French history, literature, and culture.
Another important novel by Victor Hugo is The Hunchback of Notre Dame which also has notable values like love and was also converted into a successful musical and a well known animated Disney motion picture musical. Besides his well-known novels he wrote various poems that also represent his values, empathy, character, and artistic voice. Hugo’s connection to values, love, and empathy along with caring and fighting for those less fortunate as represented through his life and art makes him and his works important in French history. He and his pieces also serve as a signifier for the values French culture became known for during this tumultuous time in history and he helped keep these important French cultural values alive through his timeless pieces, allowing them to be celebrated on a global scale.