The enduring relevance of Victor Hugo

TO UNDERSTAND the significance of Victor Hugo, one must begin at the end, with his death on May 22, 1885. His funeral attracted more than two million people, one of the largest mass mobilizations ever seen in Paris and more than the city’s total population at the time.

The French government was well aware that Hugo’s funeral would attract masses of people and feared an uprising. Only a few years earlier, half a million people had shown up to pay respects to him on his seventy-ninth birthday. In an attempt to capitalize on his death, the government co-opted the service, preparing a massive tribute to the writer despite his expressed wish for a simple funeral. The only request the government honored was that he be buried in a pauper’s casket. Despite all the pomp and circumstance, it was truly a festival of the oppressed, as workers, the poor, and the exploited arrived en masse to celebrate the life and work of a man who had given voice to the voiceless.

Graham Robb, the author of one of the best biographies of Hugo, describes the scene as a “fairground” where “drunken bodies littered the Champs-Élysées. Wine-shops stayed open, and as the night of the wake wore on, the singing became merrier and politically suspect.”1 Brothels closed as prostitutes dressed in mourning to pay their respects. “Behind the bushes in the Avenue Victor Hugo,” writes Robb, using first-hand accounts, “‘abominable outrages’ were taking place ‘which the police [were] impotent to repress.’”2

Among those who came to pay their respects were delegations of “war veterans, civil servants, artists and writers, animal-lovers and school children.”3 There were major debates about the order of the procession. For example, “The militant feminist journal, La Citoyenne, complained that the suffragettes were placed a long way behind the gymnasts and the department stores.”4 According to urban legend, there was even a notable spike in the birth rate nine months later.

It is a testament to the enduring appeal of his work that 150 years after the publication of his masterpiece, Les Misérables, Hugo once again has crowds lining up to experience the epic story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. His significance as a writer—an extremely prolific writer—is incontestable. As the poet and critic Mallarmé argued, Hugo “divided all French literature into two epochs—before and after Hugo.”5

Hugo had a lasting impact on a wide range of writers, from his French contemporaries Zola and Flaubert to Dostoevsky and Camus. But, as his funeral made clear, it was as a hero of working people that Hugo gained his greatest notoriety—this despite his politics more often than not. As a politician, he left much to be desired, but as a writer he captured the revolutionary spirit of his age and inspired generations to come. In particular, Les Misérables captured the struggles, heroism, and humanity of those who had been condemned to marginality.

Eugene Debs, who was given the middle name Victor in honor of Hugo, read Les Misérables over and over throughout his life, both in French and English. The brutality of poverty—the theme of Hugo’s masterpiece—was something he never forgot. Louise Michel, the inspiring revolutionary female incendiary and leader of the Paris Commune, called herself Enjolras after the student leader of the revolution at the heart of Hugo’s novel. And 150 years later, in film and on stage, Les Misérables inspires audiences around the world to sing of revolution, barricades, and a better world.

Hugo is nothing if not controversial and there is a long history of debate and disagreement among radicals about how to understand this man and his work. One of his more famous contemporary critics, Paul Lafargue, who was married to Marx’s daughter Laura, argues that it is ultimately as a writer and poet of the bourgeoisie that he distinguishes himself. In Hugo, Lafargue argues, the bourgeoisie sees “one of the most perfect and brilliant personifications of its instincts, passions and thoughts.”6 That Hugo was bourgeois is undeniable. Hugo’s politics changed drastically throughout his life. At his best, he espoused a form of left-wing bourgeois republicanism—a hodgepodge of humanism and pacifism with a little socialist mysticism thrown in. At other times, he was a royalist, imperialist, and counterrevolutionary.

The popularity of Victor Hugo cannot be explained by his personal politics alone. Nor can his legacy be understood solely on literary or aesthetic grounds. Despite his early success as a writer, he rarely received critical acclaim and, in fact, often elicited the ire of critics. The French poet and politician, Alphonse de Lamartine, a contemporary of Hugo who was the head of the 1848 provisional revolutionary government, argued that Les Misérables provides “an excessive, radical, and sometimes unjust critique of society, which might lead human beings to hate what saves them, which is social order, and to become delirious about what will cause their downfall: the antisocial dream of the undefined ideal.”7 Reviewing the first English language edition of the novel, The New York Times praised the novel, while deeming Hugo himself a “prosy madman.”8The New Englander went further, arguing: “The whole career of Jean Valjean presents a series of impossible cases, of strange incongruities, and stands in continuous antagonism with the principles of truth and honor which ought to be every honest man’s line of conduct.”9

These critiques are echoed 150 years later in a tirade dripping with condescension by David Denby for The New Yorker titled: “There’s Still Hope for People who Love ‘Les Mis.’” Denby describes Tom Hooper‘s movie based on the musical as “terrible; it’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive.”10 He is baffled by the emotion it elicits from its audience, arguing “the story doesn’t connect to our world (which may well be the reason for the show’s popularity)”11 and deplores the sense of “victimization” that he argues is at the center of the story. It is Denby, however, not Hugo who is disconnected from the world today. For modern viewers, the “victims” of Hugo’s novel—the poor, oppressed and disenfranchised— are all too familiar. Furthermore, Hugo’s “victims” fight back. It is their heroism, despite adversity, that continues to inspire. It is as the “voice of the people,” as Hugo was often described, giving literary expression to the aspirations of the oppressed, that he became a hero to masses of working-class people.

Ultimately, it is as a product of his period, as a writer of an era of revolution, that Hugo gains his greatest power. As one British obituary put it, “To understand Victor Hugo’s life is to understand the nineteenth century.”12 In this regard Les Misérables, a novel forged in revolution, is his crowning achievement. It is only by understanding the revolutionary period from which the novel was born that we can understand why it continues to speak to and inspire radicals and revolutionaries all over the world.

Victor Hugo’s life and politics
In Literature and Revolution, Trotsky argues that “a work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why.”13 Despite the weaknesses and betrayals of Hugo the politician, and despite the formal limitations of his literary work, Les Misérables captured the imagination of a generation of workers because it was the political, aesthetic, and literary manifestation of a century of revolution and, most importantly, the revolution of 1848.

Victor Hugo was born into a world that had been upended by the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, his family was a product of the revolutionary turmoil. His father was an atheist and an ardent supporter of the republic created following the abolition of the monarchy in 1792. His mother was a devout Catholic who remained loyal to the deposed dynasty. Hugo claimed that his parents met when his father was serving in the republican army dispatched to suppress the royalist rebellion in Western France.14 Hugo was born in 1802, three years after Bonaparte had seized power, declaring “the revolution is over,” and two years before the same general declared France an “empire” and crowned himself Napoleon I. Hugo’s early years were spent traveling around the war-torn empire with his father, who became a general in Napoleon’s army.15 From his early childhood, he was thus enmeshed in the political debates opened by the 1789 revolution.

Coming of age after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, in the period known as the Bourbon Restoration when the monarchy was returned to power, Hugo began his life as a poet and writer of royalist sympathies and a key figure in the development of French Romanticism.16

Nonetheless, even his early writing shows an inchoate commitment to raising social justice issues and giving voice to the oppressed. In particular, he was a lifelong opponent of the death penalty—the horrors of which he had witnessed firsthand in both Spain and Paris. One of his earliest novels, Le dernier jour d’un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man), gives expression to the inner thoughts of a man condemned to die for an unspecified crime. This work would have a lasting impact on such writers as Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Albert Camus, who cites it as a direct influence on his novel, L’Étranger (The Stranger).17

Over the next few decades, Hugo’s politics shifted, and his ideas changed as a result of the revolutionary upheavals he witnessed. Unfortunately, this at first led him to a fascination with Napoleon I.

In 1830, Hugo witnessed the first revolution of his life: the July Revolution. He participated in the “three glorious days,” as they are known, which overthrew Charles X and established a constitutional monarchy under Louis Philippe. Still, while Hugo saluted the noble students who had helped to restore freedom, he continued to think of Napoleon as a child of the revolution.18

By the 1840s, Hugo had already achieved the pinnacle of French literary success, elected to the Académie Française in 1841 and honored by Louis Philippe, developments that were considered a betrayal by many of his fans.

Two events in this time period were to have major impacts on him. On June 5, 1832, the death of General Lamarque sparked a rebellion against the monarchy of Louis Philippe which was quickly and brutally repressed. This would provide the inspiration for the student revolt at the center of Les Misérables. At the time, in words that he would later deride, Hugo described the insurrection in his diary as “follies drowned in blood.” “We shall have a republic one day,” he argued, “and when it comes of its own free will, it will be good. But, let us not harvest in May fruit which will not be ripe until July; let us learn to wait. . .. We cannot suffer boors to bespatter our flag with red.”19

The year 1848 would prove to be a major turning point for Hugo, France, and Europe. A combination of bad harvests, unemployment, skyrocketing food prices, and a major recession led to a level of misery unseen since the revolution. At the same time, France’s rising middle classes, feeling excluded from power by the regime’s restricted suffrage (based on an onerous poll tax), organized a series of banquets across the country to press for broader voting rights. When the government banned a banquet from being held in Paris in February 1848, France found itself in a perfect revolutionary storm. On February 23, the National Guard sided with the people and Louis Philippe fled the country.

As a public figure, Hugo was politically influential. Following Louis Philippe’s abdication, a new republic known as the Second Republic was declared, and the provisional government was announced from Hugo’s balcony. It was hardly revolutionary. He proposed a “Regency” headed by the Duchesse d’Orléans. The people of France were unimpressed. With a gun pointed at Hugo’s head, one man yelled, “Down with the pair de France!’20 The pair de France (peer of France) was a designation of high distinction applied to a small number of the French nobility.

Despite disillusionment with Hugo, he shot to political fame after the February revolution and was ultimately elected as a representative of Paris. But 1848 would be a crucial political test.21

Much to the disappointment of his supporters, in his first speech in the national assembly he went after the ateliers or national workshops, which had been a major demand of the workers. Two days later the workshops were closed, workers under twenty-five were conscripted and the rest sent to the countryside. It was a “political purge” and a declaration of war on the Parisian working class that set into motion the June Days, or the second revolution of 1848—an uprising lauded by Marx as one of the first workers’ revolutions. As the barricades went up in Paris, Hugo was tragically on the wrong side. On June 24 the national assembly declared a state of siege with Hugo’s support.22

Hugo would then sink to a new political low. He was chosen as one of sixty representatives “to go and inform the insurgents that a state of siege existed and that Cavaignac [the officer who had led the suppression of the June revolt] was in control.” With an express mission “to stop the spilling of blood,” Hugo took up arms against the workers of Paris. Thus, Hugo, voice of the voiceless and hero of workers, helped to violently suppress a rebellion led by people whom he in many ways supported—and many of whom supported him.23 With twisted logic and an even more twisted conscience, Hugo fought and risked his life to crush the June insurrection.

After the assault, a heartbroken Hugo described the scene as follows:

Leaving a barricade, one no longer knows what one has seen. One has been ferocious, yet one has no recollection of it. Swept up in a battle of ideas endowed with human faces, one’s head has been in the light of the future. There were corpses lying down and phantoms standing up. The hours were colossal—hours of eternity. One has been living in Death. Shadows have passed. What were they? Hands with blood on them. A short deafening din. An atrocious silence. Open mouths shouting; other mouths, also open, but soundless. . . One seems to have touched the sinister perspiration of unknown depths. There is something red under one’s fingernails. One remembers nothing.24

In the wake of the revolution, Hugo tried to make sense of the events of 1848. He tried to straddle the growing polarization between, on the one hand, “the party of order,” which coalesced around Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who in December 1848 had been elected France’s president under a new constitution, and the “party of movement” (or radical Left) that, in the aftermath of 1848, had made considerable advances. In this climate, as Hugo increasingly spoke out, and faced opposition and repression himself, he was radicalized and turned to the Left for support against the tyranny and “barbarism” he saw in the government of Louis Napoleon.25

The “point of no return” came in 1849. Hugo became one of the loudest and most prominent voices of opposition to Louis Napoleon. In his final and most famous insult to Napoleon, he asked: “Just because we had Napoleon le Grand [Napoleon the Great], do we have to have Napoleon le petit [Napoleon the small]?”26 Immune from punishment because of his role in the government, Bonaparte retaliated by shutting down Hugo’s newspaper and arresting both his sons.

On December 2, 1851, Louis Napoleon launched his coup, suspending the republic’s constitution he had sworn to uphold. The National Assembly was occupied by troops. Hugo responded by trying to rally people to the barricades to defend Paris against Napoleon’s seizure of power. Protesters were met with brutal repression. On December 4, the army fired indiscriminately on protesters, shooting children and stabbing people who tried to run indoors or help the wounded. Hundreds died in this massacre. Under increasing threat to his own life, with both of his sons in jail and his death falsely announced, Hugo finally left Paris. 27 He ultimately ended up on the island of Guernsey where he spent much of the next eighteen years and where he would write the bulk of Les Misérables.28 It was from here that his most radical and political work was smuggled into France.

In 1852, President Bonaparte replaced the Second Republic with the Second Empire and crowned himself Napoleon III. Hugo’s work Napoleon le petit, a scathing indictment of the “emperor, was smuggled into France in boxes of tobacco, tins of sardines, prayer books, and even plaster busts of Napoleon III.”29 This was followed by Les châtiments (Castigations), one of his most important political collections of poetry, which likewise found a huge audience in France.

Despite being granted amnesty by Napoleon III in 1859, Hugo chose to remain in exile, writing: “Faithful to the undertaking I have given my conscience, I shall share the exile of freedom to the end. When freedom returns, so shall I.”30

It was in these years that Hugo really gained his reputation as a radical, outspoken political writer who lent his voice and support to movements all over the world. And, most importantly, he wrote and published Les Misérables, the novel that more than anything else would make his name synonymous with revolution.

After Napoleon’s surrender to the Prussian army in 1870, Hugo finally returned to Paris. A new republic was declared, the Third. Paradoxically, the country was moving to the right as the  monarchists won a majority of the National Assembly in 1871 and were hoping for a new restoration, yet Paris voted socialist that year. Hugo was elected to the National Assembly in a vote that February, coming in second only to Louis Blanc (a socialist leader of the 1848 revolution) and thus left Paris to join the assembly in Bordeaux.31

A few days later, on March 13, 1871, Hugo’s son Charles died of a heart attack. His funeral coincided with the eruption of the Paris Commune. Working people in Paris, still fired up from the war with Prussia and wary of the new republic (established not in Paris but in Versailles), declared their city independent, creating one of the greatest experiments in workers’ democracy the world has ever seen.

The Paris Commune provided another crucial test for Hugo in which his contradictory politics were revealed. At first, asked to run for the central committee, he explained that while he supported the communards’ cause, he condemned their methods. Thus, he left Paris once more and from Belgium tried to find a middle ground, condemning both sides.32

In May, the Versailles government sent troops to invade the city and overthrow the Commune. The crushing of the Commune made it clear that there was nothing equal about the “violence” of the two sides and no “middle.” The Commune was drowned in an ocean of blood. As hundreds of communards were lined up and executed in Père Lachaise Cemetery, hundreds more fled, facing certain death if caught. Despite his ambivalence about the Commune itself, Hugo defended the defeated communards against the Right. He opened his home in Belgium to provide asylum to any communard escaping the terror. Returning to Paris, Hugo continued to plead for convicted communards and fought for complete amnesty, which was finally granted in 1879.33

Although reelected to serve in the Third Republic, by then Victor Hugo was an old man. Defending the communards became one of the last causes for which he earned fame and notoriety—as he regained the support of working people and the ire of many of his contemporaries.

Les Misérables
Les Misérables was arguably Hugo’s most important contribution to the working class and to the Left. Published in 1862, it was one of “the biggest operations in publishing history,” released with great fanfare in “Paris, London, Brussels, Leipzig, Rotterdam, Madrid, Milan, Turin, Naples, Warsaw, Pest, St. Petersburg, and Rio de Janeiro” simultaneously.34 Its release was a major event in Paris. As Robb writes:

The view from the street was an inspiring contract. At six o’clock on the morning of 15 May, inhabitants of the Rue de Seine on the Left Bank woke to find their narrow street jammed with what looked like a bread queue. People from all walks of life had come with wheelbarrows and hods [brick carriers] and were squashed up against the door of Pagnerre’s bookshop, which unfortunately opened outwards. Inside, thousands of copies of Les Misérables stood in columns that reached the ceiling. A few hours later, they had vanished. . .. Factory workers contributed money to kitties and raffled off the novel to buy what would otherwise have cost them several weeks’ wages.35

The book had widespread influence internationally, and Hugo gained immense literary and political prestige. In Mexico, which Napoleon III’s armies had invaded in 1861 ostensibly to guarantee “free trade,” French army positions were “bombarded with. . .leaflets bearing the famous message: ‘What are you? Soldiers of a tyrant. The best of France is on our side. You have Napoleon. We have Victor Hugo.’”36

A longtime abolitionist who in Les Misérables cites John Brown in a list of notable revolutionaries, Hugo had a particular appeal in a Civil War-torn United States. Soldiers on both sides of the war brought Les Misérables with them into battle and read it in the trenches.37 One soldier for whom the novel had a particular resonance was Wilky James, the brother of Henry and William James who served in the 54th regiment, the famous free black regiment. Writing in his diary, he noted: “Today is Sunday and I’ve been reading Hugo’s account of Waterloo in ‘Les Miserables’ and preparing my mind for something of the same sort. God grant the battle may do as much harm to the Rebels as Waterloo did to the French.”38

Like Hugo, the novel is a product of the period and reflects the mixed and contradictory nature of its author’s shifting politics. Some of its contradictions stem from the fact that it was written over a twenty-year period and thus reflects both Hugo’s pre- and post-1848 vision of the world.

Les Misérables actually began in the 1840s as a novel about Jean Tréjean, a pruner who breaks a window to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven children who are literally starving to death. He is imprisoned for nineteen years: five years for the crime and an additional fourteen for trying to escape. This character would become Jean Valjean, the novel’s famous protagonist. In its first incarnation, Les Misérables was a protest against poverty, a love story, and a religious or moral story, but more than anything else it was a critique of the inhumanity of the criminal justice system.

The 1848 revolution transformed the novel, prompting Hugo to explore the question of revolution and class struggle. Fully one-fifth of the novel is set on June 5 and 6, 1832, the dates of an armed insurrection against the regime of Louis Philippe. For Hugo, this insurrection had become a symbol for all the revolutions of the nineteenth century, particularly 1848. Written after the revolution of 1848 and Napoleon’s subsequent coup in 1851, this section becomes the political and literary center of the novel. Divided into five major sections or books, the section of Les Misérables entitled St. Denis, the neighborhood in which the barricades of 1832 were mounted, is the only section not named after one of the novel’s major characters: Cosette, Valjean, Marius, and Fantine. In the post-1848 world, revolution had essentially become one of the major characters of the novel.

Notably, the barricades are one of only two places in the novel where the lives of all the characters intersect—all but Cosette, who though physically missing provides the crucial link between the young revolutionaries and Valjean. As Robb argues, “This is the metaphorical and literal barricade at which all the strands and most of the characters converge like twigs floating up against the dam.”39

Critics note that Hugo is extremely vague about the reasons for the 1832 insurrection at the center of the novel. The uprising occurred at the funeral of General Lamarque. Hugo witnessed these events firsthand, but aside from one impassioned speech about the fight for a better world, the novel says little concrete about the insurrection’s goals. In part, this is because Hugo uses the minor uprising of 1832 to symbolize revolution more generally. It stands in for the revolution of 1830, the revolutions of February and June 1848, and the future revolution that Hugo hopes will overthrow Napoleon. The novel, as well as its modern musical adaptation, continues to inspire because modern audiences continue to see their own aspirations represented in this revolution. What the depiction lacks in historical specificity, it makes up in broad appeal and inspiration.

The novel contains a heavy religious and spiritual bent, which is emphasized in the movie version of the musical. The novel itself begins with the Bishop Myriel, a saintly man who through an act of charity redeems Valjean when prison and parole have almost completely robbed him of his humanity. Even this section, however, was changed after 1848. In a notable addition, Hugo included an incredible scene in which the bishop talks to a revolutionary from 1789, a member of the convention who would vote to execute Louis the XVI. On his deathbed, the conventionnel gives an impassioned defense of revolutionary violence and in a reversal of roles, the scene ends with the bishop asking for his blessing.

Such scenes earned the novel condemnation from the Catholic Church. Despite his own belief in God, Hugo had a well-known aversion to the Catholic Church and religious institutions in general. He notably refused religious rites at his deathbed and his funeral. He was proud of the more than 740 attacks on the novel found in Catholic publications of the time. In particular, he enjoyed the accusation of a religious paper from Madrid that insisted that Satan was the author of Les Misérables.40

If there is one central message of the novel, it is that no one is born good or evil; it is society that makes one so or, as Robb puts it, “Criminals are a product of the criminal justice system. . .[and] the burden of guilt lies with society. . .. Rational reform of institutions should take precedence over the punishment of individuals.”41

Written for the masses, Hugo wrote history from the point of view of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited, and the forgotten. As the book’s title itself announces, it is the tale of the wretched of the earth. The collective immiseration of the majority of people is the crime the novel exposes.

On a formal level, Les Misérables has been critiqued for its numerous digressions and its wordiness. It is notable for containing the longest sentence in French literature. Digressions make up close to one-third of the novel, but these digressions are actually crucial, as they frame the narrative and provide the historical backdrop of the story. They emphasize that these characters—albeit fictional—are part of a history that is very real. In a chapter on l’argot, or French slang, Hugo argues that slang is a language that expresses the misery of the masses. Written primarily during Hugo’s eighteen years of exile, these digressions also attempt to preserve a history in danger of being lost or erased. The pain of exile oozes from some of the passages describing Paris. In one famous section, Hugo details the twists and turns of the roads Valjean takes through Paris as he attempts to escape Javert. As Hugo wrote, many of the street names memorialized in the novel were being erased as the entire map of Paris was transformed. Haussman, an official under Napoleon III, was creating the Paris we now know with its grands boulevards, in part to make it harder for workers to raise barricades and to make it easier to move troops to suppress revolts.

The lengthy digression on the sewage system toward the end of the novel is also a tribute to an old Paris that is rapidly disappearing. While replacing medieval sewers with more efficient waste management systems was a step forward for hygiene, on a symbolic level the old sewers had been “the conscience of the city” where everything reverts to its true form and even the face of the emperor “turns frankly green.” “The sewer never lies.”42 It’s also an allegory for the novel as a whole, as Valjean must pull himself out of the slime of moral and social waste and corruption.

The section on Waterloo is perhaps the most notorious and least justified digression of the novel. It is hard to know what to make of Hugo’s weirdly fatalistic version of history here, as he blames the weather for Napoleon’s defeat. But here too Hugo rewrites history from the perspective of its victims, not the victors whose tales we already know. For Hugo, “the man who won the battle of Waterloo” was a man by the name of Cambronne, an “obscure officer”—one of the last standing on the field who after being ordered to surrender answers “Merde!”

The use of the word “Merde!” (shit) offended many critics.43 Nonetheless, the scene captures some of Hugo’s humor and defiance in the face of a history that is brutal and vicious. Faced with catastrophe, Cambronne’s utterance is for Hugo “Perhaps the finest word ever spoken by a Frenchman.” As Hugo argues, “After this carnage to have laughter on one’s side is immense.”44 It means, for Hugo, to emerge from the barbarism of history as the victor.

Most of the characters quickly became household names and are the main reason behind the novel’s popularity. The novel’s heroes are women, the poor, revolutionaries, and convicts. They are the disenfranchised, the criminalized, the wretched of the earth who give the novel its title.

The character Fantine, played with surprising depth of feeling by Ann Hathaway in the movie, is an expression of Hugo’s commitment to women’s rights as well as a defense of the poor. A working-class woman, she becomes pregnant with the child of a student who abandons her. She leaves the child with innkeepers, the Thénardiers, whom she erroneously thinks are good parents, and goes to work in the factory of M. Madeleine. There she is eventually fired when it is discovered she had had a child out of wedlock. To support her child, she works as a seamstress earning virtually nothing despite intense labor almost twenty-four hours a day. She sells first her hair, then her teeth. Left with nothing else, she is forced to sell her body. After being assaulted by a wealthy, vile man, she fights back and is thrown in prison for defending herself. There she meets Valjean—living under the name of M. Madeleine—who defends her, takes her in, and on her deathbed vows to take care of her child Cosette.

This episode is based on Hugo’s real-life experience in which he played the role of M. Madeleine and helped to set a woman free. Despite the sexism he often exhibited in his personal life, Hugo had an early commitment to women’s rights. In 1845, he argued about women:

For her, social laws are rough and stingy. Poor, she is condemned to labor, rich, to constraint. Prejudices. . .weigh more heavily on her than on man. . .. The more adept she is at loving, the more she suffers. . .. And, yet, what a contribution she makes to the total sum of providential acts which result in the continual improvement of the human race!45

Yet Hugo’s hypocrisy was glaring. One of his lovers, Leonie Biard, was arrested for adultery after her husband, from whom she was seeking a divorce, had her followed by an investigator. Meanwhile Hugo faced no consequences (and offered little protest outside his literary work) because he had immunity as a pair of France.

It was in November 1845, while Leonie Biard was still in jail, that Hugo began working on what would ultimately become Les Misérables. At the time, he described the work as “the story of a convict and an abandoned woman, a plea for natural justice written by a man who was above the law.”46 His own experience with the hypocrisy and misogyny of the law as it applied to women undoubtedly inspired the character of Fantine. For all his failures in his personal life, his literature gave expression to the early struggle of women against oppression and inequality.

Jean Valjean is of course the most famous character of the novel. As a convict whose humanity is almost destroyed by nineteen years of chain gangs, he is an unlikely hero. At the heart of his battle with Javert is a debate about the criminalization of the poor and human nature. For Valjean, human nature is malleable. Evil is a product not of human nature, but rather of a society that debases humanity. It is perhaps not surprising that critics and fearmongers called Hugo “the candidate of the convicts of France.”47

Inspired by several real incidents, the story of Valjean continues to resonate today. One cannot help but think of the millions of people incarcerated today in the United States when, after Valjean’s sentencing, Hugo writes, “What a mournful moment is that in which society withdraws itself and abandons irreparably a thinking being forever.”48 Jean Valjean is not so far removed from the victims of what Michelle Alexander calls the new Jim Crow. After nineteen years in jail, he is released only to find that life on parole is no life at all. Legally discriminated against everywhere he goes, he tears up his parole papers and assumes a false identity to try to start a new life. By breaking his parole, he once again becomes a fugitive pursued by the intransigent Javert. As a novel about the dehumanization that passes for “justice,” Les Misérables occupies an important role in the history of protest literature.

Gavroche is arguably the most memorable character of the novel. The younger brother of Eponine, son of the Thenardiers, he is essentially cast off by his family and left to fend for himself. He lives on the Place de la Bastille in the stomach of the plaster cast of a giant elephant—a monument planned but never actually built by Napoleon I. He thus literally lives in the belly of the decaying beast of empire. He makes the streets his school with humor, defiance, resilience, courage, and generosity. A child himself, he takes in two younger children to care for—and unbeknownst to him they’re his younger brothers. When revolution erupts he rises to the task. Try as he might, Marius cannot get him to leave the barricades. His death is one of the most moving scenes of the novel—and the musical. Refusing to be cowed by the immense force of the entire state apparatus, he climbs the barricade, and in full view of the troops proceeds to gather the unused ammunition from dead soldiers. As the troops begin to shoot at him, he defiantly continues, singing all the while. Gavroche’s death is a searing indictment of the violence and inhumanity of the state. At the same time it is an incredible tribute to the courage of the working class, and a reminder that children are not just passive victims of a brutal history, but at times its heroes.

Eponine, Gavroche’s sister, is likewise a child of the streets—although she is older and begins life with far more advantages as the favored daughter of the Thenardiers before her family’s descent into abject poverty. When we meet her again in Paris, she has become in many ways the face of poverty. Her whole being is emaciated, sunken, and stunted by her living conditions. Like Gavroche, she tenaciously holds on to her spirit and courage in the face of misery. She is in many ways the heart of a heartless society and, another example of a strong female character who defies conventional stereotypes. As she falls in love with Marius, she is increasingly confronted with the impossibility of a happy ending to her own story. She, too, refuses to stay away from the barricades and dresses up as a boy to participate in the revolt. She saves Marius’s life by blocking a bullet meant for him and dying as a result.

Through these characters, Hugo showed the dignity and heroism that emerges from the absolute worst misery and wretchedness. But the novel’s villains also have much to teach. First and foremost is Javert, the ultimate figure of law and order: a man who detests anything that challenges authority or law, and believes that in no circumstances can people change. While he is almost a caricature, Hugo refused to reduce him to pure and unadulterated evil. He, too, is a victim of society. Born in prison to a fortune-teller and a convict, the misery of his own early years has much to do with his later intransigence. All adaptations of the novel, Robb argues, make sure the story’s villain is not Javert, but the system he serves.49 Indeed, the minute he considers the possibility that people can change, his entire world order collapses and he kills himself. Ironically, the Paris police department assumes that he has gone mad.

Hugo saves his most scathing mockery for the rulers of the old order. M. Gillenormand, Marius’s grandfather who kicks him out for being a Bonapartist, is depicted as a pathetic old royalist with few redeeming values.

But Hugo’s greatest ire is reserved for the Thenardiers, the ultimate representatives of the petite bourgeoisie. Because they are the class most likely to support Napoleon III, it is perhaps not surprising that Hugo paints them as true monsters who treat their own children as scum, rob from the dead, and have a key to the sewers. It is fitting that at the end of the novel they are sent off to America where Hugo notes they become slavers.

While the major characters of Les Misérables are in many ways stock characters, there is also a dynamism to them that makes them elude easy interpretation. This is certainly true of Marius, a character based on Hugo himself. While the 2012 film portrays him as one of the revolutionaries from the beginning, in the novel he begins life as a royalist, like his grandfather. After learning that his father died at Waterloo, he becomes a Bonapartist. Forced to leave his home as a result, he experiences poverty for the first time. He meets by chance the students of the ABC (an acronym which spoken in French means “abased” or the kept down)—the revolutionary group who lead the insurrection of 1832. He ends up at the barricades almost by accident because he thinks Cosette is leaving for England. But once there his heroism helps at least temporarily to save the day. Most of Hugo’s characters are, like Marius, accidental heroes swept along in the tide of revolution. But ultimately what matters is that they fight and risk their lives for freedom. Revolution for Hugo is both political and extremely personal.

Enjolras is the key exception. The leader of the revolution, Enjolras was not part of Hugo’s original idea for the novel but is a product of 1848. He is the embodiment of the spirit of revolution. He lives and breathes politics and declares his only family his country and freedom. It is for this reason that Louise Michel, leader of the Paris Commune, took his name as her own.

The influence of 1848 is powerful, as the novel ultimately teaches us that revolution is the act through which people try to create a new world. As Hugo argued, “If you wish to understand what Revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to understand what Progress is, call it Tomorrow.”50

By the end of the novel, only Marius and Cosette remain to ensure the existence of a future bourgeoisie. Marius, rid of his revolutionary impulses, has moved back home, with his grandfather who is now a softer and gentler royalist and bourgeois. Valjean himself is, also, in many ways the ultimate bourgeois. He makes his own fortune after escaping parole by using the technology he learned in prison to make jewelry and glasswork, using a German black glass that is cheaper and inventing a clasp that is far more cost effective. Indeed, on his deathbed, he insists on this point, emphasizing that this fortune was rightfully gained based on his own entrepreneurship, and thus, Cosette’s inheritance is legitimate according to the laws of the French bourgeoisie.

Yet poverty, inequality, and the criminal injustice system constantly intervene within the narrative to prevent his fulfillment as a bourgeois hero.

To be clear: Hugo is neither anticapitalist nor a revolutionary hero. Rather, he had a vision of a humane, beneficent, and thus illusory capitalism. He was a bourgeois revolutionary and a reformist at heart—but he was a reformist in an age when revolutions were often needed to win reforms. Nonetheless, Les Misérables leaves behind a powerful legacy of the poor and oppressed rising up to fight for what rightfully belongs to them. This is why two million people showed up to Hugo’s funeral to celebrate his life and work, and why the newest film based on the musical grossed $18.2 million on Christmas Day alone, on course to becoming the highest grossing musical in American film history.

Les Misérables, in all its incarnations, is an homage to working-class heroes who have been erased by history—much like Valjean, who at the end of the novel is buried in an unmarked grave with a handwritten note on his tombstone later erased by time. Hugo celebrated, romanticized, and made heroes of prostitutes, convicts, homeless children, and all people who in the face of the catastrophes, brutality, and misery of modern history chose to resist—or, at the very least, defiantly shouted “Merde!” even when there was nothing left to salvage.

Writing to an Italian minister, Hugo gave voice to the universality of the themes and ideas expressed in Les Misérables:

You are right, sir, when you say that the book Les Misérables is written for all people. I don’t know if it will be read by all, but, I wrote it for all. It speaks to England as much as Spain, to Germany as much as Ireland, to republics that have slaves as well as to empires that have serfs. Social problems know no borders. The wounds of the human race, those great wounds which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. Wherever man is ignorant and despairs, wherever woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of a book to instruct him and a hearth at which to warm him, the book Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: “Open to me, I come for you.”51

Today, as 150 years ago, such works are still necessary. Beyond the barricades, Hugo points the way to another world, one in which, one hopes, Les Misérables will continue to exist, but solely as a reminder of a terrible time when women were forced to sell their bodies to support their children, people were locked in jails for trying to feed their families, and all the best of humanity was squashed by an inexorable pursuit of profit. Beyond the barricades, one can only begin to imagine the new art, new literature, and new life such a world could create.

  1. Graham Robb, Victor Hugo: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), 528.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 529.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 538.
  6. Paul Lafargue, “La légende de Victor Hugo,” accessed January 13, 2013,
  7. Lamartine cited in Mario Vargas Llosa, The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables, trans. John King (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 166.
  8. Cited in Louis P. Masur, “In Camp, Reading ‘Les Miserables,’" The New York Times, February 9, 2013, accessed on April 15, 2013,
  9. Ibid.
  10. David Denby, “There’s Still Hope for People who Love ‘Les Mis’” The New Yorker, January 3, 2013, accessed on April 16, 2013,
  11. Ibid.
  12. Robb, Victor Hugo, 527.
  13. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, ed. William Keach (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 150.
  14. Robb, Victor Hugo, 4–10.
  15. Ibid., 40.
  16. Ibid., 114.
  17. Ibid., 136
  18. Ibid., 156.
  19. Victor Hugo, Choses vues: Souvenirs, journaux, cahiers, 1830–1885 (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2002), 76.
  20. Robb, Victor Hugo, 265.
  21. Ibid., 265–67.
  22. Ibid., 269.
  23. Ibid., 270.
  24. Hugo cited in ibid., 276.
  25. Ibid., 284.
  26. Hugo cited in ibid., 290.
  27. Ibid., 302–06.
  28. Ibid., 306–21.
  29. Ibid., 321–22.
  30. Ibid., 373.
  31. Ibid., 458.
  32. Ibid., 466–67.
  33. Ibid., 466–71.
  34. Ibid., 377.
  35. Ibid., 378.
  36. Ibid., 403.
  37. Louis P. Masur,“In Camp, Reading ‘Les Miserables,’"The New York Times, February 9, 2013, accessed on April 15, 2013
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid., 384.
  40. Ibid., 32.
  41. Ibid., 382.
  42. Ibid., 383.
  43. Ibid., 380.
  44. Hugo, Les Miséables, Part II: Cosette (Paris: Jules Rouff et Compagnie, 1862), 52.
  45. Hugo cited in Robb, 251.
  46. Ibid., 254.
  47. Ibid., 380.
  48. Hugo, Les Misérables, Part One: Fantine (Paris: Jules Rouff et Compagnie, 1862), 118.
  49. Robb, 381.
  50. Hugo, Les Misérables, Part II: Cosette, 63.
  51. Hugo, “Lettre a M. Daelli,” appendix to Les Misérables, Volume III (Paris: Jules Rouff et Compagnie, 1862), 353.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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