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 achievements.
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.