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Victor Hugo was born
in 1802 in the French town of Besançon. His
father was a general in Napoléon’s army, and much of his childhood
was therefore spent amid the backdrop of Napoléon’s campaigns in
Spain and in Italy. At the age of eleven, Hugo returned to live
with his mother in Paris, where he became infatuated with books
and literature. By the time he was fifteen, he had already submitted
one poem to a contest sponsored by the prestigious French Academy.
Hugo wrote prolifically in all genres, but his plays proved
to be his earliest critical and commercial successes. France’s 1830
July Revolution opened Hugo’s creative floodgates, and he began
producing a steady stream of work, most notably the novel The
Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831).
Hugo also began to cultivate his interest in politics and was elected
to France’s National Assembly after the revolution of 1848.
As Hugo grew older, his politics became increasingly leftist, and
he was forced to flee France in 1851 because
of his opposition to the monarch Louis Napoléon. Hugo remained in
exile until 1870, when he returned to his
home country as a national hero. He continued to write until his
death in 1885. He was buried with every conceivable
honor in one of the grandest funerals in modern French history.
Hugo remains one of the most popular and respected authors
in French literature. His writings were cultural fixtures throughout
the nineteenth century, and he quickly emerged as one of the leaders
of the Romantic movement in literature. Hugo also developed his
own brand of imaginative realism, a literary style that combines
realistic elements with exaggerated symbolism. In this style, each
character represents a significant social issue of the time. Indeed,
political concerns dominate much of Hugo’s writing, and he used
his work to champion causes such as universal suffrage and free
education. Hugo believed that the modern writer had a mission to
defend the less fortunate members of society. Though he often drew
criticism for his politics, his passion for documenting injustice
ultimately led to widespread praise for both his literary and social
Hugo began writing Les Misérables twenty
years before its eventual publication in 1862.
His goals in writing the novel were as lofty as the reputation it
has subsequently acquired; Les Misérables is primarily
a great humanitarian work that encourages compassion and hope in
the face of adversity and injustice. It is also, however, a historical
novel of great scope and analysis, and it provides a detailed vision
of nineteenth-century French politics and society. By coupling his
story of redemption with a meticulous documentation of the injustices
of France’s recent past, Hugo hoped Les Misérables would
encourage a more progressive and democratic future. Driven by his
commitment to reform and progress, Hugo wrote Les Misérables with
nothing less than a literary and political revolution in mind.
Les Misérables employs Hugo’s style
of imaginative realism and is set in an artificially created human
hell that emphasizes the three major predicaments of the nineteenth
century. Each of the three major characters in the novel symbolizes
one of these predicaments: Jean Valjean represents the degradation
of man in the proletariat, Fantine represents the subjection of
women through hunger, and Cosette represents the atrophy of the
child by darkness. In part, the novel’s fame has endured because
Hugo successfully created characters that serve as symbols of larger
problems without being flat devices.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!