Victor Marie Hugo (February 26, 1802 ~ May 22, 1885) was born in Besancon, a small city in eastern France. He was the youngest of three sons, and were born to parents with almost opposite political views. His father, Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo, was an adventurous officer in Napoleon’s army and his mother, Sophie Trébuchet was a Catholic Royalist. Hugo was born during a very stable time, right after the French Revolution and ruling powers switching back and forth between the Bourbon Family and Napoleon. Although he moved around the country and to neighboring countries following his father during his early childhood, he was raised and educated by his mother after his parents separated. This is probably why his political views and religious views change dramatically during the course of his life. During France's 1848 Revolution, he changed to a more republican viewer, abandoning his old views as a Catholic. In other words, he shifted from his mother’s view toward his father’s view. During his lifetime, Hugo was remained an active figure in the political scenes - getting exiled due to disagreements with Napoleon III, elected to the National Assembly and the Senate.

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Hugo was an active in many areas – politics, arts, and of course literature. He is known as one of the greatest poets and playwrights in France. Some of the most famous works in literature are Les Miserable (novel) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (novel), and Les Contemplations (poetry) and La Légende des siècles(poetry). Many of his works portray the public he saw through his lenses, and used literature as a way to pass down history thorugh them.

As an artist, Hugo produced over 4000 works during his lifetime. Many were drawn in black ink, rarely using color, and is said to be one of the first artists to experiment with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Some famous works are shown below.
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Ville avec le pont de Tumbledown, 1847. Le phare ("The Lighthouse")]

Les Miserables is a story told through many characters. Each section is a story about one of the characters, and the plots slowly tie in together towards the end. The story unravels with a brief scene and background of Jean Valjean. He has just been released from prison after 19 years for steeling bread and repeatedly attempting escape. After several tries he finds a place that would accommodate him, and from there works his way up in public by starting a business, and eventually becomes mayor of the town. The first section starts with Fantine, a girl who sets out for Paris to make some fortune. While in Paris, she gets empregnated through an affair, but is left behind. Hopeless and lost, she asks the Thenardiers to take care of her baby girl, Cosette. Although the Thenardiers cruelly ask for more money than they really need to raise Cosette, Fantine never gives up and ends up with prostitution. Her energy and will to keep her child happy is amazingly strong, and she represents the suffering lower class of that age.
The next section is about Cosette and her life with the Thenardiers. Her early childhood is bitter and filled with hardships being oppressed by the Thenardiers, but around the age of eight Jean Valjean comes to her ‘rescue’ and buys her off of the Thenardiers. From then she lives as a daughter figure of Valjean, but hard times continue. Valjean, being an ex-convict, is still being chased around by a cop in the name of Javert. Javert knows Valjean’s real identity, and would do almost anything to catch him. Valjean and Cosette flee their apartment and find a refugee convent where they are accepted and start a life there.
The next section is about a man named Marius Pontmercy, son of a colonel in Napoleon’s army. Because of the differences in political view between his father and grandfather, he is raised by his grandfather only, never to see his father. When he learns the truth about his father and him, Marius leaves his grandfather in anger and sets out to Paris as a young, poor law student. There, he sees Cosette and falls in love at first sight at a café shop. Although he attempts many times to find her, he fails because Valjean and Cosette have to keep fleeing from the Javert and the police. After numerous attempts and following clues, he successfully gets together with Cosette and marries her, in consent of Valjean. Valjean dies a happy man.

Sign of the Times
1800s France was a very unstable, hard time, especially for the poor. Many aspects of Hugo’s experiences can be observed in the story, especially through Marius. Marius is raised by his royalist grandfather, but later returns to his father’s republican views and beliefs as a colonel of Napoleon’s army. Marius’s clash with Napoleon’s guards also represent his problems with Napoleon in Hugo’s life. At the same time Hugo used the novel to tell the conditions of his time and record of history, he used it as a record of his existence; Hugo’s life lives within the novel.

Connection Corner
Les Miserables has been turned into a world famous musical – we sang some of the songs in Kitara two years ago! The songs portray the struggles and hardships of being poor and surviving in the cold streets and people of Paris. The power of each individual that have overcome these hardships can be observed as well. See the following for some examples:
Other novels that hold similar concepts are the Potato Factory by Bryce Courtnay and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
Potato Factory is about a woman, much like Fantine, that strives to make a fortune out of her one skill – calculating using the Chinese abacus. She faces reality when she sets out in London; nobody would hire her for the sole reason that she is a woman. Slowly she descends down to prostitution, the only place she could find work. The story is about how she finds the lights in her life and move up the ladder.
Oliver Twist holds the same concept. He is basically in the same situation as Cosette, except that he gets put into a orphanage. These novels portray well the invisible glass that separates the poor and upper or even middle classes, the glass that prevents them from moving up.
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Les Miserables was very compelling for me. This was truly one of the novels I read at the fastest pace. I remember the whole story as almost like a movie in my head – of Fantine scene of dismay, Valjean’s rescue of Cosette, Marius dressing up for Cosette and visiting the same place everyday. This novel contains so many of the things that occur in life, such as struggle, love, misunderstandings, hatred, and as mentioned before Hugo’s life lives in the novel. I think that is what made the novel so realistic and page turning. I also love how the story was written from different perspectives and places, and then tieing in to connect every character together. I picked this novel because I loved the parts of the musical of Les Miserables I did know, but the songs match the content of the story very well. Reading historical novels sometimes gives a much thorough image of that time in history than textbooks, I’d say. And its much more fun as well.