Victor-Marie Hugo (February 1802-May 1885)
Mainly known as a poet but also a novelist and playwright, He wrote essays and made visual art, on top of being a politician. He contributed greatly to the Romantic movement. He wrote many novels and later on in his life focused on artistic drawings.

Victor Hugo lived in France most of his life. He was mainly raised by his mother because she had temporarily separated from his father when Victor Hugo was young. She was a catholic royalist and his father was an atheist republican, Since he grew up with his mother his early work was greatly influenced by her, and therefore promoted Catholicism and monarchy. However, around the 1848 revolution Victor Hugo’s work began to oppose his mother’s views, propagating republicanism and free thought. He was a catholic early on but gradually became anti-catholic because the church did not aid the working class that was oppressed by the monarchy.

Much of Victor Hugo’s work became a social commentary of sorts. His Notre Dame de Paris (Hunchback of Notre Dame) for example increased tourism to the old church, which then shamed France into renovating it. People began to re-appreciate pre-renaissance buildings. Les Miserables is also a work of social commentary; the book revolves around concepts such as injustice to the working class and the injustice of the death penalty.

It took him 17 years to write Les Miserables, because he wanted it to be perfect. It’s popularity quickly skyrocketed even though it was criticized by several renowned people.

Victor Hugo did not just write about social injustice, he actively took a role against it. In 1841 he entered the higher chamber and set about trying to change the laws so that the death penalty and social injustice could be eliminated and so that the press would have freedom and Poland be capable of governing itself. He declared Napoleon III a traitor to France because he set up an anti-parliamentary constitution.

Sign of the times

During the 19th century many improvements were made due to several reasons such as population growth. Technology advanced greatly, railroads, along with better medicine, and other parts of the industrial revolution that facilitated human life.
Literature also changed, in the 18th century Realism had been the main movement, however in the 19th century as a reaction to it the main movement became Romanticism. In France however, where Victor Hugo lived, the Napoleonic wars set back literature, however when it returned Modernism took over. Literature became huge in the 19th century, many famous authors worldwide were from that period.

The book Les Miserables is no exception to the greatness of 19th century literature. It reflects on the social injustice that was occurring in France and how the church would not support the oppressed against the monarchy. An issue that Victor Hugo was dealing with in real life and trying to change. France had just undergone a revolution and free-thought was beginning to spread, Hugo incorporated that into Les Miserables.


Jean Valjean is an exconvict who was released from jail recently. On his way to a new life he stops in a town to rest but no one will take him in for the night. Finally he stays a benevolent bishop’s house. In the morning he leaves and takes silver candlesticks with him. He is caught and brought back to the bishop’s but the bishop claims they are Jean Valjean’s candlesticks, and thereby Jean Valjean starts to live a life in morality and without sin. He moves to a town called Montreuil and reforms completely becoming so well honored and respected that he reluctantly becomes mayor. He also became very rich.

Victor Hugo then suddenly changes the story to that of Fantine, a girl who had a child but had to leave it behind because she could not afford it. She agrees to send the adopting family a sum every month to pay for her child. She works in Jean Valjean’s factory but is fired. She becomes a prostitute because she is desperate to meet her financial needs, unfortunately she is arrested. Jean Valjean saves her from going to jail. She becomes sick and is destined to die soon, so she wants to see her child one last time. Jean Valjean promises to bring Cosette to her. He is however, incapable of doing so as he has to keep an innocent man from being arrested for Jean Valjean’s crimes. He is then arrested near Fantine who dies from shock.

Jean Valjean escapes by diving into the water by the port to save a sailor. He uses this chance to get to Cosette and save her from the Thenardiers who are rather cruel to her. He lives with Cosette for a while in an old house, however Javert somehow manages to find him. Through an elaborate escape they finally end up at a convent where he was very fortunate to have been accepted. They remain at the convent happily for several years.

Hugo then once again changes perspective and switches over to the story of Marius. Marius lives with his grandfather because the grandfather purposely separated him from his father who was one of napoleons generals. As such he doesn’t care much when his father dies. Then he stumbles across the information that his father really did love him greatly and therefore runs away from his grandfather. He changes from being a royalist to following Napoleon. He encounters difficulty income wise and then manages to live a very frugal life. However he falls in love with Cosette and his life changes.

He met her at the Luxembourg gardens and silently they communicate. He puts on his best clothe everyday. Then one day he follows her home and questions the doorman about her, a grave mistake. The next week he finds out that they have moved without leaving an address.

He meets her again when he spies on his neighbors and Jean Valjean comes to visit them. He notices that his neighbors are plotting against Jean Valjean so he calls the police. Later that night the police come just in time to save Jean Valjean who escapes in the heat of the moment. Cosette disappears again, but his neighbor’s daughter who loves him finds Cosette for him once more. He finally sums up the courage to tell her he loves her and she loves him back. They remain happy for a short while however because Jean Valjean decides to take Cosette to England for her own safety.

Meanwhile Marius takes part in a front against the government looking to find his death because he thinks he will never see Cosette again. They find Javert as a spy and tie him up to execute him later. He fights bravely and Jean Valjean joins in as well. Valjean learned that Marius loved Cosette and that she loved him so he decided to protect him for her sake. Jean Valjean then releases Javert under the presumption that he is executing him. Marius gets wounded and Jean Valjean drags him through the sewers to safety. Unfortunately Javert arrests him when he was almost done. Valjean pleads to be allowed to take Marius to his grandfather and Javert concedes. After Valjean wants to visit a house, then when he comes back out to be arrested Javert is gone, a life for a life. Javert however kills himself because he did not fulfill his duty.

Marius recovers from his wounds and is finally allowed to marry Cosette. Jean Valjean told Marius of his past and slowly Marius took Cosette away from him; which rendered Jean Valjean fatally ill. When he is dying Marius and Cosette arrive in time to console him because Marius found out by chance that Jean Valjean is the one who saved him.

Personal review

Les Miserables is an outstanding novel. The many subplots come together to make a whole while still keeping the reader interested. The fact that the main character changes four times but the story still makes sense is a mark of Victor Hugo’s craftsmanship. He skillfully addresses the social injustice of the time yet still manages to give the police a good name.

In looking at Javert symbolically, his character represents the police. He may be seen as the villain in the story seeing as he is constantly pursuing Jean Valjean. However , I feel that it is his perseverance that should be admired. He is so loyal to his duty that he is willing to give up his life for it.

Les Miserables is a very touching novel. Jean Valjean changes from a complete scoundrel into a truly honorable human being, most likely one more virtuous than any of us. His relationship with Cosette is also very touching, they are so close that when separated he turns ill. I find that the ending of the novel is nicely wrapped up and sends warm glowing feelings to the reader. I recommend it, even though it may be a bit lengthy, it is definitely worth it.

Connection Corner

Les Miserables the musical is very similar to the original novel content wise. Obviously, however, there were going to be changes simply because of time limits. As such many of the characters parts have been narrowed down. The Bishop and Javert for example do not have in depth backgrounds as they did in the book. Some characters have been eliminated altoghether, such as Eponine’s sister.

Les Miserables the anime is based on the novel by Victor Hugo. However the whole anime is based on Cosette and starts off with her with her mother and then as an indentured servant who is saved by the kind mayor. So it loosely follows the plotline of the novel.


The Giver by Lois Lowry concerns Jonas a twelve year old boy who lives in a dystopian society. Everyone is the same however he is given the task to remember memories from the past. He has to remember what life was like before their new society. He much like Cosette does not live with his real parents, in fact no one lives with their real parents. He also has a mentor that teaches him things, specifically memories which he then uses to overcome difficulties when he runs away with a baby. Gabe, the baby, did not learn how to sleep quietly so he was supposed to be killed. The ending isn’t positive however it is assumed they survived as they show up in another book titled Messenger.
By: Celine Feyten