“LesMiserables” is a novel bythe French writer Víctor Hugo (1802-1885) in which people had to overcome andfind a way to deal with many difficulties that take place in 1815, France. Thatis, the time in which the war had just ended and the French revolutionideologies started to spread and change humanity’s way of thinking. Accordingto Acemoglu et al., all these difficulties arose due to the economic adversitymany had to go through during the pre-Napoleonic era. In addition, this aspectcan be seen in the plot of the story. Graham Robb says the book is one of the”latest masterpieces of universal access to European tradition”(22)that deserves special attention because it is legitimate in time and space. Forthis reason, in this paper, I will compare some specific events of the bookwith the concept of hope, as a way to survive in the context of a changingworld.
After spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loafof bread and breaking a window for his hungry family, Jean Valjean triesmultiple times to escape from prison, but all he gets is the extension of hissentence. When finally released from prison, he is required to carry a yellowpassport which identifies him as an ex-prisoner, and for that reason, he isrejected wherever he goes. Hungry and hopeless, Valjean is disinterestedlyhelped by Bishop Myriel and this makes him rethink his life and starts tobecome a kinder person. Consequently, he becomes a successful businessman in aprosperous French town, and shortly after that he even becomes mayor asrequested by the king, which makes him regain hope of a better future.The plot of the book takes place in France shortlyafter the revolution and the Napoleonic era, at the beginning of the 19thcentury. Historical figures such as Napoleon and Robespierre are mentioned, anddetailed descriptions of Parisians from that time are also described.
VíctorHugo is also able to portray the social environment around the time of theconsolidation of the Napoleonic Empire, between 1804 and 1810, through hisdepictions of the streets, parks, and even sewers in Paris that reflects theliving conditions at that time. The battle of Waterloo in where the Englishbattled together with combined armies from Holland and Germany with the greatFrench army in 1985, is an event of singular significance in the collectivememory, and memory of the author even though he wasn’t even there.There are some details in the book that reflect thehistorical context Victor Hugo lived in. For example, when Bishop Myrielwelcomes Jean Valjean in the episcopal palace. Although it was not prudent indifficult times to shelter anyone, Myriel decides to take care of him; however,Valjean takes advantage of the occasion and steals two candelabrums. Hence, acouple of hours later he is captured and taken to Myriel, who not only forgivesValjean but also allows him to continue his journey. In the year 1802, whenVictor Hugo was only around 6 weeks old, he was temporarily handed over by hismother Sophie to a woman named Claudine, while his family moved from Marseillesto Corsica.
According to Robb, this “temporary abandonment” isreflected through all the problems Valjean has to face in order to recoverCosette from the lodging property in Thenardier. Also, during this periodVictor Hugo’s father, who belonged to the imperial army, was accused of fraud inregard to army funds. This, then, aggravated the problems between his parents,leading to their divorce when he was just a child. It is evident that thisaffected Hugo significantly since it manifests the situations of abandonment inwhich the character of Valjean was, as well as Cosette. The abandonment Victor Hugo experienced duringhis childhood becomes more noticeable when his mother, Sophie, gets divorcedfrom his father, moves out to live with General Victor Lahorie. Graham Robbstates that Victor Hugo himself expresses that he felt “abandoned by all,but his mother” who at the end was the one who supported him in hisliterary endeavor. (57) The narrations about the Battle of Waterloo alsoupholds the historical background of the book.
When this crucial battle tookplace, Victor Hugo was barely 13 years old, and this influenced and affectedthe children of that time. The author reflects his personal experience from twodifferent points of view: from a theological perspective when he says:”Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed.I have vexed God “(225). On the other hand, he expresses that the timeshad to change: “These plethoras of all human vitality concentrated in asingle head; the world mounting to the brain of one man — this would-be mortalto civilization were it to last”. The reference is allusive to theemperor, indicating that the French were looking for a change in Napoleon’sabsolutist government. Victor Hugomentions in the novel that a simple rain prevented the French artillery fromoperating easily: “the transports of provisions, embedded in the softroads, had not been able to arrive by morning; and fasting” in theWaterloo field, which caused the shift Europe had after the defeat of Napoleon.
However, Hofschröer considers the problem wasn’t the weather, but by thesupport given by the German troops in Waterloo, which he labels as a”German victory rather than a success of the Duke of Wellington”, whocommanded the English troops that defeated Napoleon (22).On the other hand, Gallo states that Napoleon justifieshis defeat and his withdrawal to Paris, by admitting that his great objectivein battle was only to keep France as an independent country (800). Just as inthe book, Valjean achieves his independence from the person he was, just untilhe crosses paths with the boy from whom he took a coin. Hugo also mentions thatSergeant Thenardier saves Pontmercy’s life shortly after the battle ends andthat when that happened there was a full moon that illuminated the cemeterywhere 70,000 French soldiers died. Thenardier participated in the book of oneof the bloodiest and most definitive battles in European history. In thisbattle, Napoleon is defeated and later deported to the island of Santa Helenafrom which he never returns. Yet, according to Schom, the defeat of the Frencharmies marks a new era after Napoleon ordered the trade embargo with GreatBritain, who is the enemy that then poisons him in an island of North Africa(853).
Napoleon ends up fleeing to Paris the same night thatVictor Hugo mentions: “Bonaparte victor at Waterloo; that does not comewithin the law of the nineteenth century “; in the same way, Thenardiertook all the valuable possessions from soldiers killed in battle. Europe wasgetting prepared for a new historical era full of conflicts.The historical background of the book allows us tounderstand and visualize the real environment of a country after Napoleon wasdefeated in the fields of Waterloo. Hunger and injustice reigned in adictatorial regime led by Robespierre, which is nothing more than thereflection of the political and social situation in which Victor Hugo lived inand depicts in his book. Many French citizens were in despair because of theextreme poverty and hunger, which was very common in the streets of Paris.
Thework “Les Miserables” is constituted as a critic to the society andpolitics of its time, but at the same time, it rises like a novel that believesand keeps alive the hope of a better future.