PVDE/Bridgeman Images

Victor Hugo on the terrace of Hauteville House, Guernsey, where he wrote Les Misérables, 1868

Is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, as David Bellos would have us believe, “the greatest novel of the nineteenth century”? A number of titles in that greatest century of the novel can surely lay claim to this accolade: War and Peace, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, Middlemarch, maybe also The Charterhouse of Parma, Great Expectations, Lost Illusions. I don’t think Les Misérables makes the cut, though not because it isn’t great in its peculiar way.

Bellos comes closer to the truth, and the problem, when he writes: “The episode in the sewers,” in which Jean Valjean carries the wounded Marius after the fall of their barricade, “makes Les Misérables something grander than a novel in the nineteenth-century mode. It reaches out towards the creation of a legend and the transformation of a character into a myth.” Whatever it is, Les Misérables doesn’t quite qualify as a novel. It’s some kind of monstre sacré. It has lent itself well to various adaptations over the decades since its publication in 1862, perhaps a sign that its form is so elastic, or unimportant, that its matter can easily be reworked without losing the book’s essence.

Flaubert, who admired Hugo greatly, was caustic:

I found in this book neither truth nor grandeur…. The characters are mannequins, sugar candy figures…. You are not allowed to paint such a false portrait of society when you’re a contemporary of Balzac and Dickens.

Flaubert wanted a greater realism. It is true also that Hugo doesn’t have the ability of Dickens, Balzac, or even Eugène Sue to make his plots dramatize the issues at the heart of the novel. He always has to intervene in his own voice, endlessly sermonizing. Social realities are not so much observed as postulated by an Olympian author. It’s at times like the garrulousness of an old man in love with his own voice. Reading Les Misérables, one often wishes Hugo would shut up.

Yet even Flaubert conceded that Hugo’s subject was great and important. Les Misères, as the original working title of the novel had it—poverty, misery, social destitution, the creation of a class of the wretched of the earth—was the profound and inescapable issue for thinking persons of the nineteenth century. How had the evolution of society and industry created such a vast and growing underclass? It remains a crucial issue for us today, though one has the impression that it has ceased to have the moral urgency it had for Hugo and many of his contemporaries.

Nineteenth-century France produced some remarkable inquiries into social misery, including Eugène Buret’s De la misère des classes laborieuses en Angleterre et en France (1840); Louis-René Villermé’s report on textile workers in Tableau de l’état physique et moral des ouvriers employés dans les manufactures de coton, de laine et de soie (1840); and Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet’s remarkably thorough and influential study of prostitution in Paris, De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris, considérée sous le rapport de l’hygiène publique, de la morale et de l’administration (1836). Such works invented sociological inquiry. And then across the Channel came the most famous, Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845).

The shift from Les Misères to Les Misérables, Bellos writes, reflected Hugo’s decision that his account of society would come not in a tract but in a novel about those who lived in poverty, and sometimes in crime, since the grim life of destitution often included crime, petty and great. As Louis Chevalier contended in his magisterial study Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes (Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses), for the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, the working class, which had become vastly larger and more visible in cities, was newly seen as dangerous, the potential agent of crime and insurrection.

The facts of social misery increasingly were there to see—if anyone wanted to look at them. As Hugo writes early in Les Misérables, “Society must look at these things because it creates them.” The program of the novel is explicitly “the eradication of misery.” Hugo’s famous prefatory note ends: “So long as ignorance and misery exist on earth, books like this may not be without use.” We are summoned by the very rhetoric of the passage to enter a melodrama of social concern, one in which plot and characters exist in a state of excruciating extremity, frequently commented on by the author.

Hugo goes much further than he had in his earlier novel about the last day of a man condemned to the guillotine, Le dernier jour d’un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man), published in 1829 and then again in 1832 with a preface that makes a resounding plea against capital punishment. “The scaffold is the only edifice that revolutions don’t abolish,” he wrote, a truth only too often confirmed since then. One may find the earlier and much shorter novel a more effective tract than the sprawling Les Misérables, but it’s the later novel that has attained mythic status. Jean Valjean’s nineteen years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread still resonate today in a society that has incarcerated more of its misérables than any other.


In The Novel of the Century, Bellos cites a letter from Hugo’s Belgian publisher, Albert Lacroix, to the novelist upon receipt of the final installment of corrected proofs:

Your work, dear master, is that great and magnificent forest where everything exists, merges and combines. Like the song of birds, the call of the eagle, the ray of the divine, you show us all that is there: the ecstasy of hearts, the ulcers on souls, the darkness of minds, joy and suffering…. Your book is the forest of human life and of our nineteenth century. It leaves us captivated, penetrated, moved, transfigured, renewed, improved and pensive.

As Bellos comments, the publisher has begun to sound like the novelist himself. Lacroix speaks for innumerable of Hugo’s contemporary readers. This was sublime stuff. By the time of his death in 1885, at age eighty-three, Hugo was a national hero, his funeral cortège one of those immense cultural and political demonstrations that nineteenth-century France turned into a popular art form.

Bellos’s fine book could be seen as part of the recent critical genre that Joyce Carol Oates baptized the “bibliomemoir” (Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is the best-known example). But it is not so much about Bellos’s personal engagement with the novel as a study of its genesis, its production, its reception, and notably its language. Hugo’s first ideas for Les Misérables reached back to 1845, but it was only in 1860 that he began work on his early draft again. He was by this point famously an exile from Napoleon III’s Second Empire—one of its opponents proscribed after the coup d’état of December 2, 1851. He had refused to accept amnesty when it was later offered by the man he called “Napoléon le Petit.” He had settled finally on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, where he commanded a view of the sea from his study on the top floor of Hauteville House, while a large cast of family, lover, and servants ran the household and copied his manuscripts.

The story of the composition of the novel, and of the journey of manuscript, proofs, then corrected proofs between Guernsey and Brussels, is one of the most entertaining and illuminating in Bellos’s book. Because of the unpredictability of French censorship under the Second Empire (as with the trials of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal) and his unstinting opposition to the regime, Hugo chose as his primary publisher the Belgian company A. Lacroix, Verboekhoven & Cie, demanding, and obtaining, the highest price ever paid for a novel.

He worked on the revision of his manuscript from seven to eleven o’clock in the morning, then gave it to his two devoted scribes, his long-standing lover Juliette Drouet and his sister-in-law Julie Chenay. In the afternoon he revised the copies they had completed, then in the evening from eight o’clock to midnight he corrected proofs of the pages already set in print. Everything—manuscript, proofs, and proof corrections—had to travel on the thrice-weekly mail boat to Southampton, then on from there to London, Dover, Ostend, and Brussels. Material from the publisher took the reverse journey to St. Peter Port on Guernsey. When the book was published in the spring of 1862, it was an international launch, with the first volumes on sale not only in Brussels but also in Paris, Leipzig, London, and St. Petersburg. Edition followed edition as the novel turned into an enormous best seller.

Bellos relishes the details of the novel, and those he furnishes are mostly well worth having, such as the nature of the loaf of bread Jean Valjean steals: not the baguette we now admire but the loaf of the poor, “an oval weighing four and a half pounds, with a thick black crust and heavy grey meal inside.” Bellos details the book’s “money plot” in a tour de force that explains how Jean Valjean, the escaped convict who becomes Monsieur Madeleine, makes his fortune manufacturing synthetic jet jewelry, and why he deposits his profits with the Lafitte Bank. Bellos also explains why, when Valjean is obliged to withdraw the money in bank notes (in gold coin it would have weighed 465 pounds) and bury it in a chest, it never loses its value over ten years (no inflation).


Likewise, the details of book publishing: around 1860, shortly before the publication of Les Misérables, the steam press, the stereotype that took the place of lead characters, and the manufacture of cheap paper from vegetable matter converged to make the democratization of the printed book a reality. The first two volumes of the novel sold out in two days.

Best of all is Bellos’s command of the French language, including its linguistic underclass, argot. As someone who from early in his career had sought to open up literary language to a broader vernacular (“I put a red bonnet on the old dictionary”), Hugo saw the rich resources of slang as a kind of counterlanguage. He was of course following in the footsteps of Sue and Balzac, who both found the language of the criminal underworld rich in expressive metaphor and energy.

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo; drawing by David Levine

Hugo is more discursive on the subject, inevitably, especially in his reflections on how argot both constitutes a colorful language in its own right and at the same time figures as a kind of excrescence on standard language that reflects the misère of its users. In this apparent contradiction, Bellos points out, lies the problem we still face: Would speakers of various dialects be better off if they learned a standard language? In Les Misérables, both the villainous Thénardiers and the loveable gamin Gavroche are examples of “functional diglossia,” competent in whatever register of language is needed for the occasion.

The characters’ various idiolects, along with Hugo’s often Latinate rhetoric, give the novel “an opulent, overblown style that is the opposite of how composition teachers think English should be written nowadays,” as Bellos puts it. And he goes on to analyze in some detail Hugo’s rhetorical devices. He is an excellent guide to a kind of nineteenth-century high style that needs to be enjoyed for itself if we are to respond fully to Hugo’s epic ambitions. At his best, Hugo achieves an eloquence hard to match. For instance, this passage on Jean Valjean’s anger after his years of incarceration:

After all, human society had done him nothing but harm. This angry face that it calls Justice, and that it presents to those it smites, was the only one he had ever seen. The only reason other people had laid a hand on him was to hurt him. He had had no physical contact with anyone that had not been a blow struck against him…. With every succeeding injury, he had gradually come to the firm belief that life is a war, and in this war he was the vanquished. He had no other weapon than his hatred. He resolved to hone it in prison and take it with him when he left.

But Hugo’s epic ambitions often fail to create a successful novel, in part because we rarely see the world through the eyes of the main character, Jean Valjean. If the genius of the novel as an imaginative form is closely linked to its ability to make us see through other eyes, to experience life through another consciousness (Flaubert, Dostoevsky, James, and Proust all testify to this), Hugo does not make much use of Valjean as a means to observe the world. “Valjean must surely be the least talkative protagonist of nineteenth-century fiction before Melville’s Bartleby,” writes Bellos (though Bartleby in fact predates Valjean by a decade).

Hugo makes no attempt to create a spoken language for this peasant turned mayor. At two moments of critical decision-making—whether he should reveal his ex-convict status to save the innocent Champmathieu from conviction in his place, and whether he should give Cosette up to her beloved Marius—we are witness to a kind of dramatic formal debate within Valjean’s mind. Hugo offers crises of conscience, then, but no attempt to render the movements of consciousness. We follow Valjean’s actions instead, along with the novelist’s commentary on them. The famous slog through the sewers of Paris, “the Intestine of Leviathan,” in which Valjean carries the wounded Marius over his shoulder, unfolds with scarcely a reflection from the hero.

It is also preceded by Hugo’s disquisition on the sewers, which includes passages on the loss of useful fertilizer that should be recycled rather than dumped in the Seine, the progress of their extension and improvement over the years (Parent-Duchâtelet had done an important study of Paris sewers a few years before his work on prostitution), and recommendations for future progress. Balzac and Tolstoy can annoy us with their polemical digressions, but in Les Misérables, just about every piece of action is preceded by a kind of essay. The novel begins with a long presentation of the character of Bishop Myriel before Valjean ever appears at his door. Part II starts with a memorable essay on the Battle of Waterloo, Part III with a memorandum on the street children of Paris, and Part IV with an essay on the virtues and shortcomings of King Louis-Philippe, who reigned from 1830 until the revolution of 1848—the latter the subject of another digression at the start of Part V. Les Misérables breaks all the rules of novelistic composition.

It is clear that its popularity has never suffered from its overstuffed repletion. As the notably durable musical adaptation from 1980 demonstrated, there is something for everyone in Les Mis. Hugo’s capacity to play on a full emotional register, from saccharine pathos to heroic uplift, has given his novel an afterlife that seems to defy the changes of taste over the decades. It’s as popular in Russia as in France; it has lent itself to Japanese animated film adaptations and to numberless fan fictions. The main figures remain untouched by adaptation, elements of a universe that still corresponds to our understanding of how life can be reconfigured in the heightened conflicts of melodrama.

Bellos titles his first chapter “Victor Hugo Opens His Eyes,” which picks from Hugo’s Choses vues, the journal in which he recounted things that struck him, a couple of powerful incidents that would be incorporated in the novel. In one, a well-dressed young man on a wintry night shoves a handful of snow down the back of a prostitute, she fights back, and she is arrested. Hugo follows her to the police station and, as a celebrity, obtains her release. That story, with Fantine and Valjean as the principal actors, would become part of the novel. In another episode, Hugo witnessed a wretch being dragged to prison for stealing a loaf of bread, while a “dazzlingly beautiful” aristocratic woman played with her baby in her silk-upholstered carriage. The miserable man stares at the woman, but she never looks at him. There for Hugo is the potential for revolution: “Once this man realizes that this woman exists while the woman does not notice that the man is there, a catastrophe is inevitable.”

Hugo, who began his literary career as a young royalist, coeditor with his brothers of the magazine Le Conservateur littéraire, evolved toward political liberalism and then, in his unrelenting opposition to Napoleon III and the criminal coup d’état that began his reign, became the very symbol of resistance to an authoritarian state. His politics were visceral rather than theoretical, but almost always marked by a spirit of generosity and reconciliation. Though he fought against the workers’ uprising in the June Days of 1848 (and tried to explain why in one of the digressions of Les Misérables), by the spring of 1871 and the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune by the official government—which sent the French army from Versailles to invade the city—Hugo was the rare public figure who offered refuge, in Belgium, for those Communards who escaped the slaughter and agitated for their amnesty.

In his final novel, Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three, named for the year of the Terror during the French Revolution), he attempted a reconciliation of his warring compatriots: those who had never accepted the republic and those for whom the republic was the indisputable inception of the modern world. That novel, for all its inflated rhetoric, concludes in extraordinary final chapters in which the three main characters—an unredeemed Breton aristocrat, his great-nephew who becomes a republican general, and a former priest who becomes a doctrinaire revolutionary—debate the meaning of revolution, rights, justice, equality, and social democracy.

In Les Misérables, at the moment of the barricade of the rue de la Chanvrerie during the brief uprising sparked by the funeral of General Lamarque in 1832, Hugo expresses his solidarity with the “magnificent human movement irresistibly begun on July 14, 1789…. The French Revolution is an act of God.” That sums up his political and humanitarian commitment as well as anything. To remain faithful to the spirit of the French Revolution means taking notice of social misery and committing yourself to a future of social justice. He compares the work of criminal punishment to the sea closing over a drowning man: “the inexorable social night into which the penal system throws its condemned.” That’s a lesson that we still need to hear. In his allegiance to the French Revolution, Hugo takes from the slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” especially the last term, and he makes it his own: Les Misérables is an operatic tribute to fraternity, to social cohesion, to the notion that we are stronger together than apart.