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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Context


The Revolutions and Restorations of France

France embarked on a long and bloody path to republican government beginning in 1789, with the French Revolution, which took place over a 10-year period. The causes of the Revolution were numerous but can generally be attributed to the breakdown of the feudal system, which had been in place in Europe since the Middle Ages, and the rise of the bourgeoisie—prosperous and wealthy commoners, such as merchants, manufacturers, and professionals, who demanded more political power. Well-to-do peasants were also clamoring for additional rights and the ability to increase their wealth. The ideas of enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau provided the political theory for a new approach to government in which power would derive from the collective will of the people rather than the divine right of kings. The most immediate causes of the Revolution were the crop failures and food shortages of 1788 and the bankruptcy of the government, brought about by France's participation in the American Revolution.

The Estates-General, an official gathering of three major political constituencies of clergy, aristocracy, and commoners (Third Estate), convened in May 1789 to decide how to handle the country's budget deficit. The Third Estate argued the vote should be by head count rather than Estate, which would give them the advantage. They ended up staging a coup in which they identified themselves as a National Assembly and wrote a constitution. While the king conspired to regain power, the National Assembly, to avoid a peasant revolt, abolished the feudal regime and introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed liberty, equality, the right of property, and the right to resist oppression.

As the Revolution progressed, France was attacked from outside by Austria and Prussia and inside by the beginnings of civil war. The radical faction of the National Convention gained ascendency, and a Reign of Terror ensued, beginning in 1793, in which the royal family was executed along with many others who were deemed disloyal to the Revolution. Execution was done by guillotine, a primitive machine that beheaded the condemned. Thus, Monseigneur Bienvenu visits the old "Conventionist" in Part 1 of the novel and takes him to task for '93, referring to the Reign of Terror and the blood that was spilled in that purge.

By 1795 the radicals had been replaced by a bicameral legislature (a legislature with two branches or chambers) and a five-man directory under a new constitution, but the new government had to rely heavily on the military to maintain its authority, and in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup and took the reins of government. Thus began the Napoleonic era, in which Napoleon both maintained some of the reforms of the Revolution but also ruled France like a king, declaring himself emperor in 1804. Napoleon also made his way across Europe with his Grand Army, warring with several countries and bringing a vast amount of territory under French control. Napoleon suffered a crushing defeat when he tried to conquer Russia in 1812. A coalition of European troops forced him to step down in 1814.

Napoleon regrouped and retook France in 1815 but was defeated for good at Waterloo, in Belgium, by combined European forces under the Duke of Wellington. Les Misérables begins in 1815, after Napoleon's last defeat, and those who dislike him refer to him as Bonaparte, while those who regret his fall from power refer to him as Napoleon. The Bonapartists in the novel credit Napoleon for promoting liberal reforms in both France and Europe and for burnishing the glory of France. Those like Marius's father, who fought with him in his wars, revere him as a great leader. The Royalists like Gillenormand hate Napoleon for his role in the Revolution and for usurping royal power and privilege. The radicals like Enjolras do not see much difference between Napoleon and the Royalists, since both prevented the establishment of a true republic.

The monarchy was restored in 1814, briefly deposed during Napoleon's 100 days of re-conquest, and then restored again in 1815, under Louis XVIII. The king ruled under a constitutional monarchy in which a parliament voted on the laws he proposed and approved the budget. The country had drifted to the right by 1820, as the "ultras" (the ultra-royalists, or strong supporters of a return to monarchist government) clung to power in the Chamber of Deputies. When the king died in 1824, he was replaced by Charles X, who became more and more unpopular as he attempted to roll back democratic reforms. He was forced to abdicate in 1830 in the July Revolution.

Victor Hugo notes the July Revolution was "stopped," meaning the bourgeoisie prevented a slide into "radicalism" that would have established a real republic. Louis-Philippe, a moderate royal, was put on the throne under a reestablished constitutional monarchy. The June Rebellion of 1832, the climax of Les Misérables (Parts 4 and 5), was an unsuccessful attempt to continue the Revolution of 1830. Louis-Philippe ruled until the Revolution of 1848, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

The Political Spectrum

In the first legislative bodies of the French Revolution, aristocrats were seated on the Speaker's right (the place of honor), while commoners (the bourgeoisie) sat on the Speaker's left. This arrangement formed the beginning of the traditional binary political spectrum and the derivation of the terms left and right in a political context. In Hugo's day those "on the right" represented the interests of the aristocracy and Church (preserving order and the social hierarchy); those "on the left" represented republican ideals, secularism, and civil liberties (promoting movement and social equality). To "move left" or "move right" meant (and still does) to move closer to the ideals and outlooks of those on that end of the spectrum.

As time passed, various economic and government systems came to be associated with the terms left (radicalism; socialism; communism; liberalism) and right (capitalism; fascism; conservatism)—although the terms are not necessarily linked to each other. For example, capitalism and fascism are neither synonymous nor mutually inclusive. (Capitalism, in fact, would have been considered a right-leaning position during the French Revolution.)

The same binary system is still used today, although it has a slightly different meaning in the United States than in Europe, where (especially in France, where the terms originated) left refers primarily to socialism—not to liberalism, which is considered to be on the right.

Homeless and Abandoned Children

Foundling homes run by the Catholic Church were an institution by the 19th century. Mothers in France had the option of leaving their babies in a hospice, where they would be put out to "wet nurses" and then raised by church or state. There were few provisions for adopting these abandoned children. Such children did not get much education, and when they were released from custody, they often became criminals or prostitutes. The criminal Montparnasse in Les Misérables is only 19 and could very well be one of these orphaned children. Some parents who could not care for their children put them out on the street, as the Thénardiers do with Gavroche. Fantine also appears to be have been an abandoned child. Such children resorted to begging, stealing, and even prostitution to survive on their own.


Prostitution was not illegal in 19th-century France, and poor women like Fantine might become prostitutes if they had no other means of employment. Prostitutes of the lower classes as opposed to the well-paid courtesans of the upper classes might be independent agents or work in a state-controlled brothel. Napoleon instituted the registration and health inspection of prostitutes to control the spread of venereal disease, but this system added to the humiliation and subjection of these women at the hands of the authorities. If a prostitute was caught soliciting without being registered, she was arrested and would be forced to register. It was common for prostitutes to be assaulted or taunted by men on the street—as Fantine is—and these crimes went unreported or unprosecuted.

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