Les Miserables Can Inspire And Inform Our Movements

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has echoed a message of social justice and morality for over a century and a half. The book invites the reader to perceive the world like an 1800s street urchin, a career thief and swindler, a felon, a policeman, and someone driven to prostitution by poverty. It advocates compassion and stirs the reader to joy and disgust.

The book was published in 1862 France. It was highly anticipated. Hugo thought of the project in the late 1930’s after the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Les Miserables took two decades to conceive, write, and publish. Hugo published the book assured of its quality and it received a warm commercial response. The book has been adapted often and made into movies, a musical, radio series, and television series.

One major pillar of the story follows a band of doomed revolutionaries in a rebellion that actually took place, the Paris Uprising of 1832. The rebellion was sparked by the death of the only French nobleman thought to be sympathetic to the people. An estimated 3000 insurgent Republicans held the Paris streets for a night before being devastated by military reinforcements to the Royalty’s National Guard.  

By Emile Bayard

Other locations and events Hugo explores, often in depth, are prison labor camps, Paris and its catacombs and sewers, The Battle of Waterloo, great barricades in Parisian history, and a factory town. The reader witnesses the plight of poor, single mothers, and the moral reasoning of a voice of the law while enforcing unjust laws.

Bishop Myriel and Valjean by Emile Bayard

The Thenardiers, by Gustave Brion

The dark heart of humanity sits on display in the character of Thenadier and his peers. Thenadier’s only criminal limits are his own ignorance, he is ruthless. He at one point wishes that he had not forgotten his gun so as to extort more money from the fugitive and protagonist, Jean Valjean. The Bishop of Digne juxtaposes the criminal Thenadier. He shields Valjean from the legal repercussions of stealing his silver, and then gives the silverware and silver candlesticks to him. Bishop Myriel says that he bought Valjean’s soul for God with the silver. Thus begins the protagonist’s redemption. The story follows Valjean’s 1500 page journey of persecution from poverty, to petty crime, to prison, to freedom, redemption, and fatherhood. It holds lessons about morality, history, compassion, civic duty, parenthood, and love that will intrigue and benefit any reader.

Hugo, who had previously been a writer, entered French politics in the early 1840s. He spoke out against the death penalty and social injustice, and for the freedom of the press. He was elected in the parliamentary system in 1848 and entered a self-imposed exile when Napoleon III seized power in 1851. He wrote and published Les Miserables and several political pamphlets from exile.

I recommend this book to people because it paints a melancholy and at times bright picture for the reader of the tragedy, cruelty, and hardship of poverty in the same manuscript as the compassionate, joyous, and generous heights of human kindness, and the courageous yet barbarous acts of people fighting for freedom and representation.

The preface of the book explains its importance:

“SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

Point me to more stories of people whose work “cannot be useless” in Hugo’s sense. Also, learn the story of Les Miserables. Read its 1500 pages, or start with an abridged version. Check out the movies or the musical. But also remember to fight for the vulnerable communities Hugo sought to highlight.

Cosette cleaning the Thenadier’s Inn by Emile Bayard

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