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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo | Biography


Victor-Marie Hugo was born on February 26, 1802, in Besançon, France, two years before Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor. The author's personal story is inextricably linked with France's tumultuous cycle of revolt, revolution, republicanism, and restoration from 1793 until 1870.

The most celebrated of the French romantic writers, Hugo is judged to be among France's best poets. Nonetheless he is more famous worldwide for his two great novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les Misérables. A political man as well as a writer, Hugo used much of his prodigious literary output as a bully pulpit to promote republicanism, or rule by the people, and he became known as "the voice of the people." He wrote political essays, articles, literary criticism, novels, plays, and poems. His first mature novel, The Last Days of a Condemned Man (1829), a polemic against capital punishment, influenced writers as diverse as Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Hugo's shifting politics, evident in his magnum opus, Les Misérables, can be traced back to his beginnings. He was the third son of a career soldier and Bonapartist who eventually became a general in Napoleon's army, while his mother was a Royalist. His father, Joseph Léopold-Sigibert Hugo, was an atheist, and his mother, Sophie Trébuchet Hugo, was a devout Catholic. Hugo's parents separated when he was a young child, and he was raised primarily by his mother in Paris. Not surprisingly the author began life as a Royalist and devout Catholic but disavowed those beliefs as he came to maturity. While the mature Hugo hated the Church's dogma and political views, his morality remained rooted in his early Christian training, as evidenced in his positive portrayals of some of the clergy in Les Misérables and the divine intervention he writes into the story. Marius's transformation in Les Misérables from a Royalist to a Bonapartist and Republican, therefore, somewhat mirrors the experience of the author.

To please his father, Hugo studied law and received his degree, but like Marius, he did not practice at the bar. He married a childhood friend, Adèle Foucher, in 1822, after his mother died. The couple had five children together—including one who died in infancy. The eldest girl and a favorite of Hugo's, Léopoldine, died along with her husband in a boating accident when she was just 19. Hugo was devastated by the loss of his daughter and wrote a series of poems inspired by his grief.

Although a champion of the poor and the downtrodden, Hugo was not a socialist and wrestled with radicalism his entire life. The author witnessed the revolts of 1830 and 1832 and began his political career in 1845, when he was appointed as a Peer to the Chamber by Louis-Philippe, the monarch of the 1830 Restoration. In February 1848 a new revolt, in which the National Guard supported the rebels, deposed Louis-Philippe, and Hugo was elected to the assembly of the Second French Republic as a representative from Paris. But his first act after being elected was to side with the conservatives who feared a full-scale revolution that would move the country too far left. Thus he supported disbanding the national workshops, which had been providing employment to some 100,000 Parisians but were taxing landed gentry and rural farmers to pay for the work program.

In June 1848 the working class of Paris staged a second uprising and raised the famous barricades the author references in Part 5 of Les Misérables. Hugo supported martial law and Louis-Napoleon for president of the Second Republic, even fighting on the government's side at the barricades. But as the new government became more and more repressive, Hugo moved left. In 1851 Louis-Napoleon staged a coup d'état (seizure of government power) and declared himself emperor of the French, taking the name Napoleon III. By this time Hugo opposed him and was forced to flee France in 1851. He first went to Brussels and then to the Channel Islands, off the coast of Normandy. Hugo continued to write political tracts against the new regime, and he took up his old manuscript of Les Misérables, begun several years earlier. The novel uses the uprising of 1832 as a kind of generic template to portray revolt and serve as a vehicle for the author's political ideas. The novel itself also criticizes Louis-Napoleon's Second Empire.

Victor Hugo did not return to Paris until 1870, after another revolt deposed Louis-Napoleon and gave rise to the Third French Republic. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1871, and this time sided with the leftists. However, when a radical socialist "commune" took over the government of Paris that same year, Hugo again left his city. The commune was soon crushed, but when Hugo returned home he supported amnesty for remaining "communards."

Les Misérables has a long history of popularity with readers, but a dual reputation with literary critics. In the 19th century Les Misérables was condemned by the Catholic Church and privately criticized by some writers and critics, including Charles Baudelaire, a respected French poet and essayist, who said it was "a vile and inept book." The novel appeared after the heyday of the French romantic movement, and the realists criticized Hugo for the novel's excessive sentiment and melodrama and lack of realism. Les Misérables has a large number of improbable coincidences that more than strain the reader's credulity. Yet the novel has retained its prestige into the modern era, resonating with many writers, including Leo Tolstoy, who cited Les Misérables as having had an "enormous" influence on him: no doubt Victor Hugo's version of Napoleon and description of the Battle of Waterloo motivated Tolstoy to tell the story of the French emperor's conquests from a Russian (and much less flattering) perspective. Hugo's use of extended metaphor in his novel likely influenced Tolstoy's use of the extended simile (or epic simile) in War and Peace and perhaps gave him license to gloss his own historical novel. Like Hugo, Tolstoy includes many chapters of commentary on historical events.

Les Misérables continues to be a story loved by the masses, even as it was from its first publication, when people waited in line to buy the first copies of the book and workers pooled their money so they could purchase a text that was otherwise unaffordable. The novel has been read in abridged versions over the years, translated into some 22 different languages, and adapted numerous times for the stage and screen. Hugo's vivid prose has a cinematic quality that makes the novel a natural for visual treatment. Innumerable film versions in various languages include the 2012 musical based on the stage adaptation of the novel which premiered in Paris in 1980. The English-language version of the musical premiered in 1985 in London and ran for over 20 years in New York, and productions have been staged over the years in some 44 countries.

In Hugo's last years of life, he experienced the sorrow of outliving his children, wife, and mistress. Heart trouble in 1878 put an end to his writing career. Hugo's death on May 22, 1885, became an occasion for national mourning, in which two million people filed past the Arc de Triomphe, where the people's national hero lay in state before being buried in the Panthéon.

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