Last modified: March 18, 2017
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Les Misérables is an epic novel written by Victor Hugo, the prolific and well-loved writer from France, in 1862. Originally written in French, while the author was living in exile in England, the novel was translated into English in the same year and became a classic in both the languages. That translation by C.E. Wilbur remains the most definitive of all those published later.
The main theme of Les Misérables and its characters are typically French and underscore the deep love that Hugo had for his country. However, the themes are also universal in their ambit, covering human nature, man’s eternal struggle to overcome evil and attain the good and the branding by the society that makes this difficult and almost impossible to achieve. The moral redemption of man, as illustrated by its main character Jean Valjean, is juxtaposed with the moral redemption of a country, here France, through revolution.
And the background of Les Misérables is the great French Revolution, the characters are all connected to the revolution and the impact of the revolution on the lives of these French people is depicted in all its misery, its glory, its bloodiness, the lawlessness and injustice. In fact, the novel received severe criticism from the literary critics for its sentimentality and from the French government authorities for its disparagement of the legal system. However, it is a people’s novel and the people gave it a warm welcome everywhere. Les Misérables is a significant pronouncement against human suffering, poverty, and ignorance. The underlying principles are both artistic and political at the same time.
Les Miserables means the wretched and the poor, the weak and the helpless, but also the scoundrels and the villains. The novel revolves on characters picked from this downtrodden and squalid part of the French society. Jean Valjean, the protagonist, a tree pruner gets sentenced to the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed Cosette, a poor woman’s child. After many failed attempts, he manages to get released from his shackles after nineteen years. Though the society shuns him and he himself tries to steal again, M. Myriel, a bishop saves him and puts him on the path to goodness.
Although he rises up in society after changing his identity, the past keeps haunting his footsteps in the form of Javert who knows his antecedents, Fantine, the prostitute whose child he stole the bread for, and Cosette herself. Being forced to reveal his identity at Fantine’s death-bed, Valjean is arrested once again but manages to escape from the prison. Cosette, now a young woman, is adopted by Valjean.
Another character in Les Miserables is Marius Pontmercy, grandson of a wealthy man, who falls in love with Cosette. He joins the students’ revolutionary group ABC and fights in the barricades. It is fruitless battle as they are overwhelmed by the constabulary but Marius is saved by Valjean just at the nick of time. Marius does not realize who his benefactor was until the end and tries to betray him. Later, everything comes to a happy conclusion with all misunderstandings resolved and Valjean dies a peacefully with his friends around him.
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