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Dr. Robert Schwartz, Mount Holyoke College – Hugo, History, and Les Misérables

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Robert Schwartz of Mount Holyoke College explores the historical events that inspired Victor Hugo to pen Les Misérables.

Robert Schwartz is the E. Nevius Rodman Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College where he teaches courses on the history of eighteenth and nineteenth-century France. His current research studies rural communities and politics in Burgundy during the century following the French Revolution. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

About Dr. Schwartz

Dr. Robert Schwartz – Hugo, History, and Les Misérables

Recently the musical version of Victor Hugo’s great novel, Les Misérables, has been transferred from stage to Hollywood’s big screen. I hope the new film renews interest in reading the book because there is so much more in the novel than could possibly be brought to the stage or screen.

Hugo completed the work in 1862. He was then in his tenth year of exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, beyond the reach of the French police of the Second Empire ruled by his political enemy, Napoleon III, nephew of the Emperor Napoleon I. The unifying story is the redemption of Jean Valjean—his transformation from a sullen convict to a good man and dutiful foster father. In Hugo’s telling there is much, much more. There are erudite lectures on the history of convents and on the ways Paris and its people equal or surpass their classical counterparts of Athens and Rome, a lecture that builds to the bold claim: “Paris is the ceiling of the human race.” There is romance gone wrong in the story of Fantine, unrequited love in the story of Eponine, and love fulfilled in the courtship and marriage of Marius and Cosette. There is the martyrs’ tale of Enjolras and his comrades battling to their deaths at the barricade near, very appropriately, the street of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a very old section of Paris.

This climactic episode is often mistaken as an event in the great Revolution of 1789 or in the later Revolution of 1848. In fact, the episode was part of a small uprising in June of 1832, one which Hugo himself observed and later justified in the novel as a moral act that was part of a French revolutionary tradition begun in 1789 and devoted to securing the rights of the people.

In Hugo’s historical account in the novel, the Revolution of 1830 had secured the rights and political influence of the bourgeoisie, who then, unjustifiably, brought further political and social progress to a halt. In their eyes, withholding political rights from the lower classes was justified because they were debauched and dangerous. In 1848, as elected deputy of the revolutionary National Assembly, Hugo himself took up arms against rebellious Parisian workers in the bloody suppression of the so-called June Day’s insurrection. Looking back to 1848 from exile, a chastened Hugo sought his own redemption in writing the novel. Hence, the greater unity of the entire work lies in his political philosophy of democratic republicanism that runs throughout. Look, look again, Hugo appeals to bourgeois readers. The people are basically good; they will shape our future. Working people are not debauched and dangerous; they deserve equal rights and equitable division of the nation’s comfort and wealth. Open your minds; open your hearts to the Fantines and Gavroches of city and country; open the doors of the Republic; let the people in. Be on the right side of history; work for progress. In sum, Hugo joins history and philosophy to teach and inspire readers. In our own age of growing inequality, this is a good moment to read and study the novel.

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