Les Miserables by Victor HugoIntroducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Miserables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thenardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Miserables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.
The Historical Background to 'Les Miserables'
Matter itself is the starting point, and the point of arrival is the soul. Enemies and admirers throughout the world devoured his works—poetry, political tracts, and fiction—and the effect of these works upon the public was always sensational. A few hours later, they had all—thousands of books—been sold. Liberated from prison, Valjean hides his identity and becomes a successful man, as charitable as he is rich and powerful. His altruism leads him to promise Fantine, a dying prostitute, that he will seek out her exploited young daughter Cosette after her death. To some extent, Hugo also was seeking redemption, having, for much of his youth, ignored the populist concerns of Republican France. The Revolution and Republic of France had failed to redress the unconscionable social conditions in which many French citizens languished.
The convict Jean Valjean is released from a French prison after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and for subsequent attempts to escape from prison. When Valjean arrives at the town of Digne, no one is willing to give him shelter because he is an ex-convict. Desperate, Valjean knocks on the door of M. Myriel, the kindly bishop of Digne. Myriel treats Valjean with kindness, and Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silverware. When the police arrest Valjean, Myriel covers for him, claiming that the silverware was a gift. The authorities release Valjean and Myriel makes him promise to become an honest man.
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In the English-speaking world, the novel is usually referred to by its original French title. 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. So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless. Towards the end of the novel, Hugo explains the work's overarching structure: . The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.