We’ve all seen France through the lens of cinema: Movies love to showcase its rolling countryside dotted with vineyards and the romantic allure of Paris. We pair French wines with French cheeses that we spread on French breads—without a doubt, France is known worldwide for its film, its fashion, and its food.
But France is also home to a rich literary tradition. Whether you’re a fluent speaker or you’ve never uttered a word of French, chances are you’re familiar with one or two novels from the country. French texts have found a global audience: They’ve inspired Broadway shows, Disney musicals, and countless renowned films. Today, we’ll explore a few foundational works of French literature and the real-life settings that shaped them.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Les Misérables, popularly known as Les Mis, is one of France’s most beloved titles. Though it saw massive commercial success when it was first published in 1862, Victor Hugo’s magnum opus found further acclaim throughout the centuries thanks to an award-winning Broadway musical and its star-studded film adaptation.
It’s no surprise that Les Mis was a sudden hit—its commentary on social inequality and the injustice of the justice system in the tumult of post-Revolution France set the country aflame. Under the imperial Bonapartist regime reestablished by Emperor Napoléon III, Les Misérables allowed Hugo to openly broadcast his radical republican values.
Sadly, most of Hugo’s Paris was demolished when Napoléon III enlisted urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann to overhaul the city’s landscape. Haussmann introduced much of what Paris is known for today: its wide avenues and long, tree-lined streets. But his many critics, Hugo included, argue that Haussmann’s changes stripped Paris of its charm. Others claim he served the imperial agenda by making civilian uprisings easier to quash—the widened streets prevented rioters from forming barricades and allowed government troops to travel easily throughout the city.
In spite of Haussmann’s renovation, many locations in Les Misérables still stand today, and they’re well worth the visit for anyone curious about the Paris of Victor Hugo.
Get more info about the history behind Les Mis here.
Landmarks of Les Misérables
Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis
The Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis provides the setting for Marius and Cosette’s wedding in Les Misérables. Hugo’s own life inspired the event—his daughter’s wedding ceremony was held at the Saint-Paul in 1843. Léopoldine Hugo died that same year, but her life is subtly immortalized in Hugo’s writing.
“Ah! what a sweet, charming little wedding this will make! Our parish is Saint-Denis du Saint Sacrament, but I will get a dispensation so that you can be married at Saint-Paul. The church is better. It was built by the Jesuits. It is more coquettish. It is opposite the fountain of Cardinal de Birague.”
—Volume V, Book V, Chapter 4
Jardin du Luxembourg
This lush garden is home to the Palais du Luxembourg, where the French Senate gathers. Inspired by Florence, Italy’s Boboli Gardens, the Luxembourg is a popular destination for French natives and tourists alike. In this romantic setting, Marius first lays eyes on Cosette.
“One day, the air was warm, the Luxembourg was inundated with light and shade, the sky was as pure as though the angels had washed it that morning, the sparrows were giving vent to little twitters in the depths of the chestnut-trees. Marius had thrown open his whole soul to nature, he was not thinking of anything, he simply lived and breathed, he passed near the bench, the young girl raised her eyes to him, the two glances met.”
—Volume III, Book VI, Chapter 3
Paris Sewer Museum
Underneath its scenic city streets, Paris holds a much less romantic secret: its sprawling sewer system. Little remains of the Parisian sewers as Hugo knew them—since they promoted diseases and harbored criminals like Jean Valjean, urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann redid the sewers along with the rest of the city. Still, the Musée des Égouts de Paris offers tours that take attendees through the city’s septic history from its early days.
“…Paris has beneath it another Paris; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind-alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is of mire and minus the human form.”
—Volume V, Book II, Chapter 1
Pont au Change
Though the Pont au Change isn’t one of Paris’ most celebrated bridges, it serves as the site for one of Les Misérables’ most dramatic moments: Javert’s suicide. During the novel’s high-octane climax, Jean Valjean’s generosity so upsets Javert’s strict black-and-white worldview that he casts himself into the Seine from the side of the Pont au Change near the Place du Châtelet.
“Jean Valjean knew that he was delivered from Javert. The story had been told in his presence, and he had verified the fact in the Moniteur, how a police inspector named Javert had been found drowned under a boat belonging to some laundresses, between the Pont au Change and the Pont-Neuf, and that a writing left by this man, otherwise irreproachable and highly esteemed by his superiors, pointed to a fit of mental aberration and a suicide.”
—Volume V, Book V, Chapter 5
Learn more about Victor Hugo’s Paris here.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
A grand tale of adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo brings its readers on an international journey—from Marseille to Rome to the Mediterranean island of Montecristo. Most of the action, however, takes place in the bustling streets of Paris.
Published serially between 1844 and 1845, Dumas’ story draws heavily from the controversy surrounding Napoléon Bonaparte’s assumption of—and fall from—power several decades earlier. Edmond Dantès is falsely jailed when his jealous peers frame him as a Bonapartist sympathizer—but to enact his revenge, he escapes and emerges from prison as the Count of Monte Cristo.
Get more info about the history behind The Count of Monte Cristo here.
Landmarks of The Count of Monte Cristo
Off the coast of Marseille, jutting out of the Mediterranean Sea, stands a robust fortress: the famed Château D’If. Originally a military stronghold, the complex was converted into a state prison in 1580. The prison, much like California’s Alcatraz, was famously secure. During its 291 years in operation, no prisoner is known to have slipped through the cracks—except, of course, Dumas’s protagonist Edmond Dantès.
Largely thanks to The Count of Monte Cristo, the island is now a popular tourist destination.
“Dantès rose and looked forward, when he saw rise within a hundred yards of him the black and frowning rock on which stands the Château d’If. This gloomy fortress, which has for more than three hundred years furnished food for so many wild legends, seemed to Dantès like a scaffold to a malefactor.”
—Volume I, Chapter 8
Cemetery of Père Lachaise
This prominent cemetery is visited by mourners and tourists alike—its shady, tree-lined walkways foster an atmosphere of somber beauty.
In Monte Cristo, Monsieur de Villefort insists that his relatives are buried at the Père Lachaise. Villefort’s family rests alongside prestigious company, including Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, and The Doors frontman Jim Morrison.
“M. de Villefort, a true Parisian, considered the cemetery of Père-Lachaise alone worthy of receiving the mortal remains of a Parisian family; there alone the corpses belonging to him would be surrounded by worthy associates.”
—Volume V, Chapter 105
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Situated between the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées is one of the world’s most famous—and lively—streets. Home to shopping malls, dozens of restaurants, and Bastille Day celebrations, the avenue never lacks activity.
The Count of Monte Cristo himself lived at No. 30 on the street.
“The Champs-Élysées, filled with sunshine and with people, were nothing but light and dust, the two things of which glory is composed. The horses of Marly, those neighing marbles, were prancing in a cloud of gold. Carriages were going and coming. A squadron of magnificent body-guards, with their clarions at their head, were descending the Avenue de Neuilly; the white flag, showing faintly rosy in the setting sun, floated over the dome of the Tuileries. The Place de la Concorde, which had become the Place Louis XV once more, was choked with happy promenaders.”
—Volume III, Chapter 55
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Unlike Les Mis and The Count of Monte Cristo—two grand, sprawling adventures—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a more restrained work. In Bovary, Flaubert explores the banalities of life in the French countryside. It’s no surprise, then, that Flaubert “found neither truth nor grandeur” in Les Mis. He instead preferred to present the tragedy of the ordinary.
Flaubert’s own life mirrors Emma Bovary’s—born into a middle-class Norman family, the author famously declared, ”Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” But in spite of his upbringing, Flaubert openly scorned the vanity of the bourgeoisie. Criticisms of middle-class values pervade Madame Bovary, and that’s no accident. He later wrote that only “two things sustain [him]: love of Literature and hatred of the Bourgeois.”
Get more info about the history behind Madame Bovary here.
Landmarks of Madame Bovary
In Madame Bovary, Emma and Charles visit Rouen to escape the misery of Yonville. After Charles leaves, Emma secretly meets Léon at the cathedral, where a beadle convinces the reluctant pair to take a guided tour. The beadle insists on explaining the “curiosities of the church,” and for good reason: It’s an impressive structure with an impressive history.
“It was a beautiful summer morning. Silver plate sparkled in the jeweller’s windows, and the light falling obliquely on the Cathedral made mirrors of the corners of the grey stones….”
—Part III, Chapter 1
Yonville-l’Abbaye is the creation of Flaubert, but it’s widely believed to be inspired by the town of Ry, a small farming village located just outside Rouen. Flaubert outright denied these suspicions, yet in the years since Madame Bovary’s publication, Ry has become a shrine to Flaubert—cafés, museums, and squares are named in his honor. It’s clear that the village—depicted in the novel as a place of maddening boredom—has desperately capitalized on its sole claim to fame.
That said, the town still offers its share of attractions for dedicated Flaubert fans. Ry’s tourism office leads Bovary-themed outings for those curious about its supposed real-life inspiration. The town cemetery boasts the grave of Delphine Delamare, the world-weary, adulterous housewife who allegedly served as the model for Emma. Perhaps the strangest point of interest is the Musée des Automates, a former wine press that now houses a collection of 300 unsettling miniature automatons that reenact scenes from the novel.
Whether or not Yonville has its roots in reality, Ry seems something of a tourist trap—but its unique brand of Flaubertmania may be well worth the visit.
“Yonville-l’Abbaye has remained stationary in spite of its “new outlet.” Instead of improving the soil, they persist in keeping up the pasture lands, however depreciated they may be in value, and the lazy borough, growing away from the plain, has naturally spread riverwards. It is seen from afar sprawling along the banks like a cowherd taking a siesta by the water-side.”
—Part II, Chapter 1
That concludes our tour for today! If you’d like to learn more about these titles, along with other literary classics, check out Course Hero’s infographics and study guides here!
About the Author
AJ Villeneuve is a student at Washington University in St. Louis and a summer intern at Course Hero. On the rare occasion that he’s not studying, he enjoys hiking, reading, and listening to sad music.