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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | 11 Things You Didn't Know


Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, published in 1862, is considered one of the finest works of French literature and remains one of the most well-known historical novels ever written. The novel explores the effects of the French Revolution of 1789 on the population of Paris and explores a wide array of topics including ethics, history, justice, and religion.

Hugo frames his novel primarily through the lens of Jean Valjean, a former convicted thief on a path to moral redemption. Hugo crafted his novel to be a modern French epic, with Les Misérables investigating and critiquing many facets of French culture and political thought. Although it met with mixed critical reception upon publication, the novel was a public success that went on to spawn countless adaptations. The most notable of these is the 1980 musical, which has become as synonymous with the title as Hugo's original work.

1. Both Valjean and Javert are based on the same historical figure.

Eugène François Vidocq was a former convict-turned-detective who served as Hugo's inspiration for both Valjean, a thief, and Javert, an inspector. A close friend of Hugo, Vidocq once saved a factory coworker by lifting a cart onto his shoulders, just as Valjean does in the novel. Repenting of his former crimes, Vidocq became a successful businessman and, years later, the first private detective in France.

2. The musical of Les Misérables has been seen by more than 70 million people.

The Broadway staging of the musical alone had a total of 6,680 performances during its run from 1987 to 2003. Internationally, the musical has been translated into at least 22 different languages and performed in some 44 countries. More than 70 million people have seen the show over the course of its thousands of professional performances.

3. The Catholic Church banned Les Misérables.

Despite one critic complaining that the novel featured "too much Christianity," the Vatican banned Les Misérables, citing its undertones of socialism. The book was also burned publicly in Spain and banned by Tsar Nicholas I in Russia in 1850 because of its negative portrayal of royalty. Despite this and other harsh criticisms, Hugo's novel sold well upon its publication—including in the United States, where more than 120,000 copies of an English translation were in print within a year of its publication.

4. Numerous events in Les Misérables were inspired by real-life happenings Hugo witnessed.

Many anecdotes throughout Les Misérables were based on events Hugo observed or participated in. Most notably Hugo once rescued a prostitute from arrest, just as Valjean does. Hugo even went so far as to use parts of his conversation with the police after this incident as dialogue in the novel. Hugo also admitted that Marius was a semiautobiographical character, whose shifting political views mirrored Hugo's own as a young man.

5. Another famous French author expressed his disdain for Les Misérables.

Gustave Flaubert, author of the famous 1856 novel Madame Bovary, was outspoken about his abhorrence of Les Misérables. In one of his published letters, Flaubert wrote, "I find neither truth nor greatness in this book. As for the style, it strikes me as deliberately incorrect and low. It's a way of flattering the populace."

6. The "Elephant of the Bastille" depicted in the novel was a real monument in Paris.

Despite the elephant sculpture's intended grandeur, Hugo describes it as a makeshift dwelling for Paris's homeless population. The statue was conceived by Napoleon to be a magnificent bronze sculpture, but only a plaster model was finished in 1814. The model was "left to rot" for many years before being demolished in 1842. An urban legend states that, upon its demolition, swathes of rats that had called the statue home ran into the streets of the city and wreaked havoc on local homes and businesses for months.

7. Hugo's great-great-grandson started a lawsuit against unauthorized sequels to Les Misérables.

Victor Hugo's descendent, Pierre Hugo, sued the publishing company Plon in Paris over two unauthorized sequels to Les Misérables, entitled Cosette and Marius. Pierre Hugo was originally awarded $1.30 as a symbolic gesture for "breach of moral rights," but even this was overturned by a higher French court, which stated that the earlier ruling was a "violation of the intellectual property code."

8. Hugo did not allow his publishers to provide summaries or excerpts of Les Misérables.

Although French and foreign outlets, including the New York Times, announced the forthcoming publication of the novel in 1860, two full years prior to its publication, Hugo took a firm stance against letting his work be summarized or excerpted. Instead, he told his publishers to have the outlets reference his earlier writing in order to promote sales.

9. More than a quarter of Les Misérables is considered to be "digressions" from the plot.

Part of the reason that Les Misérables is such a lengthy text is that Hugo included an astronomical number of tangents and descriptions that deviated from the novel's action. The "digressions" appear in the form of historical explanation, political thought, and other tangential material not related to the novel's action or characters. Of the original edition's 2,783 pages, 955 are devoted to these digressions.

10. One sentence in Les Misérables is more than 800 words long.

The 800-word sentence in Les Misérables is one of the longest grammatically correct lines to appear in any work of literature. Hugo has mistakenly been credited for writing the longest sentence, but authors such as Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett have crafted even longer ones. One of the longest published sentences to date is a whopping 13,955 words and appears in Jonathan Coe's 2001 novel The Rotters Club.

11. The title has many possible translations in English.

Although most English translations of the novel retain the French title, "Les Misérables" is often interpreted to mean "the miserable ones" or "the wretched ones." However, many critics argue that the most accurate translation is "the dispossessed" or "the outsiders," as these fit Hugo's literary intentions and portrayals of his characters more closely.

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