Les Misérables is a French historical novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, that is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. In the English-speaking world, the novel is usually referred to by its original French title.
Let’s find out amazing facts about it!
1. Beginning in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, the novel follows the lives and interactions of several characters, particularly the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption.
2. Examining the nature of law and grace, the novel elaborates upon the history of France, the architecture and urban design of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, antimonarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love.
3. Les Misérables has been popularized through numerous adaptations for the stage, television, and film, including a musical and a film adaptation of that musical.
4. Upton Sinclair described the novel as “one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world,” and remarked that Hugo set forth the purpose of Les Misérables in the Preface.
5. The novel contains various subplots, but the main thread is the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who becomes a force for good in the world but cannot escape his criminal past.
6. The novel is divided into five volumes, each volume divided into several books, and subdivided into chapters, for a total of 48 books and 365 chapters. Each chapter is relatively short, commonly no longer than a few pages.
7. More than a quarter of the novel – by one count 955 of 2,783 pages – is devoted to essays that argue a moral point or display Hugo’s encyclopedic knowledge, but do not advance the plot, nor even a subplot, a method Hugo used in such other works as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Toilers of the Sea.
8. The topics Hugo addresses include cloistered religious orders, the construction of the Paris sewers, argot, and the street urchins of Paris. The one about convents he titles “Parenthesis” to alert the reader to its irrelevance to the story line.
9. He devotes another 19 chapters to an account of – and a meditation on the place in history of – the Battle of Waterloo, which battlefield Hugo visited in 1861 and where he finished writing the novel.
10. It opens volume 2 with such a change of subject as to seem the beginning of an entirely different work.
11. The fact that this ‘digression’ occupies such a large part of the text demands that it be read in the context of the ‘overarching structure’ discussed above.
12. Hugo draws his own personal conclusions, taking Waterloo to be a pivot-point in history, but definitely not a victory for the forces of reaction.
13. The appearance of the novel was a highly anticipated event as Victor Hugo was considered one of France’s foremost poets in the middle of the nineteenth century.
14. The New York Times announced its forthcoming publication as early as April 1860.
15. Hugo forbade his publishers from summarizing his story and refused to authorize the publication of excerpts in advance of publication.
16. He instructed them to build on his earlier success and suggested this approach: “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame of Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame], he accomplishes for the modern world in Les Miserables”.
17. A massive advertising campaign preceded the release of the first two volumes of Les Misérables in Brussels on 30 or 31 March and in Paris on 3 April 1862.
18. The remaining volumes appeared on 15 May 1862. Critical reactions were wide-ranging and often negative.
19. Some critics found the subject matter immoral, others complained of its excessive sentimentality, and others were disquieted by its apparent sympathy with the revolutionaries.
20. L. Gauthier wrote in Le Monde of 17 August 1862: “One cannot read without an unconquerable disgust all the details Monsieur Hugo gives regarding the successful planning of riots.”
21. The Goncourt brothers judged the novel artificial and disappointing.
22. Flaubert found “neither truth nor greatness” in it. He complained that the characters were crude stereotypes who all “speak very well – but all in the same way”.
23. He deemed it an “infantile” effort and brought an end to Hugo’s career like “the fall of a god”.
24. In a newspaper review, Charles Baudelaire praised Hugo’s success in focusing public attention on social problems, though he believed that such propaganda was the opposite of art. In private he castigated it as “tasteless and inept” (“immonde et inepte”).
25. The Catholic Church banned the book, placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
26. The work was a commercial success and has been a popular book ever since it was published.
27. While exiled in England shortly after its publication, Hugo telegraphed his English publishers a one-character query: “?”. Hurst & Blackett replied: “!”.
28. Translated the same year it appeared into several foreign languages, including Italian, Greek, and Portuguese, it proved popular not only in France, but across Europe and abroad.