Les Miserables: A Historical Source?

The Paris, Look Down and the Robbery Scene from the musical version of Les Miserables.

Published in 1862, Les Miserables is perhaps one of the most famous and iconic French novels and today is perhaps best known by the general public in its musical form. Victor Hugo’s epic spans from 1815 to 1832, across the lives of a number of characters, principally Jean Valjean who is convicted for stealing a loaf of bread. Contrary to public perception, the novel is not set during the French Revolution but instead in the events following the end of the revolution; the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the French monarchy, detailing the events of the June Rebellion. I will be looking at Les Miserables as a historical source. I believe that it has its worth as more than just a novel, Hugo intended Les Miserables not just as entertainment but as a damning record of the degradation of France’s poor as Hugo sets out in the preface:

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

Without Les Miserables, the June Rebellion would be likely an unknown event outside of France, due to failure and lack of significant impact. Hugo rescued the rebellion from its future obscurity due to witnessing the rebellion first hand. Caught up in the rebellion, Hugo was forced to shelter from gunfire, unable to return home due to the barricades. A significant portion of the novel focuses on the lead up to the rebellion as well as the rebellion itself. While elements are obviously fictional, such as the Friends of the ABC, the group of students who the novel follows, even the fictional elements on based on fact. The death of General Lamarque was indeed the rallying point for the rebellion, groups of republicans set up barricades in the streets of Paris, and ultimately they were not joined, as they believed they would be, by the people of Paris and slaughtered by National Guard and army. Hugo’s first-hand account of the rebellion, even with its combined fictional elements in the novel, probably makes the portrayal of the June Rebellion as Les Miserables’ greatest strength as a historical source.

One of the most famous aspects of Hugo’s writing is his habit of digressions from the story on other issues. This is apparent clearly in Les Miserables, where around of the quarter of the novel is made up of these, some more relevant than others. One of these digressions is Hugo’s account of the Battle of Waterloo. Hugo had visited the battlefield in 1861, and was inspired to give an account of the battle to help link characters in the novel together. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this part of the novel is Hugo’s thoughts about the battle. Hugo believed that God determined that Napoleon had to be removed to allow the “tide of the nineteenth century” and that Waterloo was the beginning of liberty in Europe. This links the events of Waterloo to the events that follow, whereas in Britain at least, Waterloo is often perceived in isolation solely as a British victory. Les Miserables helps place Waterloo back into history, at least for British readers.

Next I will look briefly at three significant characters of the novel. While all these characters are fictional, Hugo uses them as representations of the degradation of people under poverty and repression. Therefore they are a valuable source, partly due to the limited sources on French poor in the 19th century compared to their richer countrymen, Hugo also presents another perspective, a more sympathetic perspective than many at the time would. Rather than portraying them as immoral and causing their own fates, Hugo argues against this showing the circumstances and injustice that the poor faced, that lead to their horrific circumstances. From a social history perspective, Les Miserables is an invaluable source.

Jean Valjean, the central character of the novel, represents everything that Hugo attempted to do with the novel. Arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family when they were starving, he spends nineteen years in prison for his ‘crime’ and attempting to escape. Bitter and angry for this injustice, and forced to carry a passport identifying him as an ex-convert which limits his ability to pursue legitimate work, when given shelter from a bishop he steals from him but is caught. Instead of sending him back to prison the bishop allows him to keep the stolen goods to start a new life for himself, on the promise that he will lead a moral life. From this point onwards Valjean dedicates his life to God and the pursuit of charity. Not only does Valjean represent Hugo’s belief in forgiveness and redemption, he also represents what Hugo believes people should aspire to be: Kind, charitable, and striving to lift people out of poverty. He is unpolitical, the only reason he goes to the barricades is to save Marius. Having suffered under poverty, and becoming a criminal due to this poverty, he strives to help others in unfortunate circumstances. Valjean is the novel’s moral centre, and Hugo’s ideal.

Fantine as a character illustrates Hugo’s purpose in the novel. Cruelly abandoned by the father of her daughter, Cosette, she is forced to place Cosette with the Thernadiers who exploit her for money, under the pretence of caring for Cosette. Fired from her factory job due to her ‘immorality’ of having a secret child, she struggles to provide for herself, and enough to satisfy the demands of the Thernadiers, when ‘respectable’ work runs out she is forced to sell her hair and teeth. Finally she turns to prostitution. For Hugo, Fantine symbolises the treatment of women living in poverty, the father of her child is a wealthy student who values her as nothing other than a game, she is treated with contempt for stepping outside the rigid accepted morality of French society and suffers horrifically due to lack of support and charity. Fantine is a victim of society and dies to sacrifice her life for her daughter. Without Valjean, Cosette probably would have suffered a similar fate.

Eponine is a fascinating character who undergoes perhaps the most change from novel to musical. This in some regards is a shame as in the book she is probably more realistic for her conditions in contrast to the somewhat romanticised version in the musical. In both mediums she retains her role as young woman living in poverty, the daughter and accomplice of the cruel criminal Thernadiers. Hugo describes her in pitiful terms, ravaged by living in poverty, prematurely aged and malnourished. Her voice is described as hoarse, damaged by alcohol abuse. On stage Eponine is generally played by an exceptionally pretty actress with some make up masquerading as dirt with a beautiful voice, unsurprisingly for a musical! Eponine, like Fantine, represents the limited circumstances that poor women in 19th century France found themselves in. Lack of opportunity gave Eponine little chance to escape her circumstances; she would have great difficulty finding respectable employability. Hugo elevates her by her morality within the novel. Many would have seen those living in Eponine’s circumstances as godless and immoral, however Hugo presents her as a woman saved by her love and sacrifice for Marius. Marius is arguably the only person to have shown her kindness after her childhood.

So can Les Miserables be used as a historical source? Certainly, I would argue it is a very important historical source. It echoes the sentiment that is espoused by many in the twenty-first century, making it relevant, and is a useful source for those studying from below. While at its heart it is a story of morality and redemption, it is also an account of the injustice and poverty that ruins a society. Just remember, it is not about the French Revolution.


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