Few novels ever swept across the world with such overpowering impact as Les Misérables. Within 24 hours, the first Paris edition was sold out. In other great cities of the world it was devoured with equal relish.
Sensational, dramatic, packed with rich excitement and filled with the sweep and violence of human passions, Les Misérables is not only superb adventure but a powerful social document. The story of how the convict Jean-Valjean struggled to escape his past and reaffirm his humanity, in a world brutalized by poverty and ignorance, became the gospel of the poor and the oppressed.
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About the Author
Victor Hugo (1802-85), novelist, poet, playwright, and French national icon, is best known for two of today’s most popular world classics: Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, as well as other works, including The Toilers of the Sea and The Man Who Laughs. Hugo was elected to the Académie Française in 1841. As a statesman, he was named a Peer of France in 1845. He served in France’s National Assemblies in the Second Republic formed after the 1848 revolution, and in 1851 went into self-imposed exile upon the ascendance of Napoleon III, who restored France’s government to authoritarian rule. Hugo returned to France in 1870 after the proclamation of the Third Republic.
Julie Rose’s acclaimed translations include Alexandre Dumas’s The Knight of Maison-Rouge and Racine’s Phèdre, as well as works by Paul Virilio, Jacques Rancière, Chantal Thomas, and many others. She is a recipient of the PEN medallion for translation and the New South Wales Premier’s Translation Prize.
Adam Gopnik is the author of Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate, and editor of the Library of America anthology Americans in Paris. He writes on various subjects for The New Yorker and has recently written introductions to works by Maupassant, Balzac, Proust, and Alain-Fournier.
Date of Birth:February 26, 1802
Date of Death:May 22, 1885
Place of Birth:Besançon, France
Place of Death:Paris, France
Education:Pension Cordier, Paris, 1815-18
Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction by Peter Washington- Victor Hugo might be regarded as the Mr Toad of French literature: vain, arrogrant, pompous, selfish, cold and stingy; a windbag, a humbug and a fraud, absurdly puffed up with the immensity of his own greatness. But unlike Mr Toad, he was also an astute and energetic promoter of hisown image as a Great Man. The process began early. Writing in Hugo's lifetime, Virginie Ancelot recalls the reception the young poet received in literary drawing-rooms when he arrived to read his latest ode. "...There was a few moments' silence; then someone rose and approached him with visible emotion, took his hand and raised their eyes to heaven.The multitude listened. A single word was heard, to the great surprise of the uninitiated. And this word, which echoed in every corner of the salon, was:'Cathedral!'Then the orator returned to his place; another rose and cried out: 'Ogive!'A third looked round him and ventured:'Egyptian Pyramid!'The assembly applauded, and then it was lost in profound reflection." To the Anglo-Saxon mind - and, it should be said, to many Frenchmen - this is Parisian literary life at its worst: the posturing, the pretension, the self-regard, masquerading under the name of art. Yet Hugo is the man who wrote a handful of the most exquisite lyrics - 'Victor Hugo, helas!'said Gide when someone asked him to name the finest French poet - and at least one novel judged to be supreme. In his person, he sums up all that is most monsterous in writerly vanity; in his best work he transcended his failings. How did he do it? How did a monster come to write the masterpiece that is Les Miserables? * In an early essay on Scott, Hugo prophesies that"After the picturesque but prosaic novel of Walter Scott, there will still be another novel to create ... It is the novel which is at once drama and epic, picturesque and poetic, real and ieal, true and great, the novel which will enshrine Walter Scott in Homer."These words were written in 1823, just after the publication of his own first novel, Han d'Islande, and there is no doubt that Hugo had himself in mind as the man who could 'enshrine Walter Scott as Homer'. Anyone who can still get through this book may take a rather different view. Set in seventeeth-century Norway and dripping with gore on every page, Han d'Islande is nearer to the Gothic horror tradition than to Scott. For the man who really succeeded in reconciling the genres of epic and historic fiction we have to look further afield, to Hugo's own admirerer, Tolstoy. Yet it was Tolstoy who vindicated the French novelist's early ambition by judging Les Miserables one of the world's great novels, if not the greates, and acknowledged its effect on his own work. Les Miserables was completed in 1862, shortly before the Russian novelist began War and Peace. The two novels are set in the same period. It cannot be said that Hugo had much to teach his junior about structure or characterization; like all his attempts at epic, in prose and verse, Les Miserables rambles, there are huge digressions and absurdities of plot, the characters are often thin, the action melodramatic. But in spacious, vigorous story-telling, in the use of an historical framework, in the relating of human events to a larger philosophical and spiritual context, in the deployment of fiction as a social and political weapon, in the exalatation of 'the people' as a supreme authority, in the treatment of suffering as a dominant theme - in all these matters, Hugo exerted a profound influence on Tolstoy. Without his example, War and Peace might have been a very different novel. Perhaps the most extraordinary point of contact between them concerns Napoleon. One might expect the emperor to intrigue European writers in the early nineteenth century, as he intrigues Byron, Balzac and Stendhal, among others, but by the 1860s almost half a century had passed since Waterloo, yet Hugo and Tolstoy are still trying to unravel the mystery of one whose shadow falls across the entire century. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is pre-eminently a human being - an extraordinary man, certainly, the instrument of destiny, but still a man. For Hugo he is more like a superman, a mysterious brooding presence with almost divine powers. The point is made by an ironic comparison between Napoleon and Wellington. Hugo's argument seems to be that Napoleon ought to have won Waterloo by sheer force of genius - indeed, that he did win it, when judged according to the rules of natural justice - but that Wellington achieved a victory on points by taking more care to spy out the lay of the battlefield and to estimate the balance of forces. Calculation is everything to the mundane Englishman, imagination nothing. When lightning flashes round the emperor's head, the duke looks like a very ordinary man. While Napoleon surveys the heavens, Wellington consults his watch. Clearly, the image of general as genius was vital to Hugo's own project of himself as a literary Napoleon, but there is more to it than that. Commentators have often lamented the digression on Waterloo which is quite unnecessary to the plot and, coming early in the book, throws it decisively out of its narrative stride. But Hugo, though careless of structural refinement, does have a more serious purpose here - a purpose from which Tolstoy must have learnt much, and not only in his description of Borodino. For Hugo, who in turn learnt so much from Scott, grasped the fact that by imprinting the significance of a decisive historical moment on the minds of his readers he could hugely enlarge the scope of his novel. Precisely because Les Miserables is about little people, the history of a great man is one means of linking their petty lives with the Infinite. (The link is made touchingly explicit in the chapter called 'In Which Little Gavroche Takes Advantage of Napoleon the Great'.) Even events as great as Waterloo, we are told, can hinge on details: the location of a ditch, the arrival of a platoon. Conversely, the most trivial life may exemplify a great truth - and in that sense, all lives are equally significant, for every existence embodies these truths. At the same time, Hugo's treatment of Waterloo makes it clear that realities and appearances diverge as much in everyday life as they do in historical interpretation - and that the two divergences are linked. What a post-Waterloo Frenchman thinks of Napoleon helps to shape what he thinks of himself. Sometimes we try to envision history in our own image; sometimes we use it to understand ourselves; at all times we are formed by it without our knowledge. One function of fiction is to help us achieve that knowledge. Les Miserables is, among other things, an attempt to explain the people of the mid-nineteenth century to themselves. Jean Valjean finds himself in a certain situation because he is a poor Frenchman at a particular time. This is one version of Fate - the sociological and political explanation of things. But Valjean is like Waterloo: his life also has a deeper purpose, a hidden meaning. Hugo has a number of names for this meaning - Fate, Destiny, God, the Infinite. But whatever he calls it, we observe a complex dialogue throughout the book between the surface causes of Valjean's predicament - poverty and ignorance - and their deeper meaning, to which he penetrates through suffering.
Excerpted from "Les Miserables"
Copyright © 1982 Victor Hugo.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I. A Just Man
II. The Fall
III. In the Year 1817
IV. To Confide is Sometimes to Deliver into a Person's Power
V. The Descent
VII. The Champmathieu Affair
VIII. A Counter-Blow
II. The Ship Orion
III. Accomplishment of the Promise Made to the Dead Woman
IV. The Gorbeau Hovel
V. For a Black Hunt, A Mute Pack
VI. Le Petit-Picpus
VIII. Cemeteries Take That Which is Committed Them
I. Paris Studies in its Atom
II. The Great Bourgeois
III. The Grandfather and the Grandson
IV. The Friends of the ABC
V. The Excellence of Misfortune
VI. The Conjunction of Two Stars
VII. Patron Minette
VIII. The Wicked Poor Man
I. A Few Pages of History
III. The House in the Rue Plumet
IV. Succor From Below May Turn Out to be Succor From on High
V. The End of Which Does Not Resemble the Beginning
VI. Little Gavroche
VIII. Enchantments and Desolations
IX. Whither are They Going?
X. The 5th of June, 1832
XI.The Atom Fraternizes with the Hurricane
XIII. Marius Enters the Shadow
XIV. The Grandeurs of Despair
XV. The Rue de l'Homme Arme
I. The War Between Four Walls
II. The Intestine of the Leviathan
III. Mud but the Soul
IV. Javert Derailed
V. Grandson and Grandfather
VI. The Sleepless Night
VII. The Last Draught from the Cup
VIII. Fading Away of the Twilight
IX. Supreme Shadow, Supreme Dawn
Reading Group Guide
The book which the reader now holds in his hands, from one end to the other...treats the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Heaven to Hell, from Limbo to God. Matter itself is the starting point, and the point of arrival is the soul.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Twenty years in the conception and execution, Les Misérables was first published in France and Belgium in 1862, a year which found Victor Hugo in exile from his beloved France. Enemies and admirers throughout the world devoured his works—poetry, political tracts, and fiction—and the effect of these works upon the public was always sensational. On the morning of 15 May, a mob filled the streets around Pagnerre's book shop, eyeing the stacks of copies of Les Misérables that stretched between floor and ceiling. A few hours later, they had all—thousands of books—been sold. Hugo's critics were quick to condemn him for making money by dramatizing the misery of the poor, while the poor themselves bought, read, and discussed his book in unprecedented numbers. True to Hugo's political stance, he had written a book about the people that was for the people, a book that demanded a change in society's judgement of its citizens.
The story is set between 1815 and 1832, the years of Hugo's youth. The descriptions of Paris, the characterizations of Gavroche and other Parisian stock characters, and such statements as, "To err is human, to stroll is Parisian" all attest to Hugo's unswerving adoration of his home city. Exile no doubt encouraged the romantic meanderings of Hugo's prose. The protagonist of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, is also in exile from the world of men because of the desperate crime he committed in his youth. Liberated from prison, Valjean hides his identity and becomes a successful man, as charitable as he is rich and powerful. His altruism leads him to promise Fantine, a dying prostitute, that he will seek out her exploited young daughter Cosette after her death. The ensuing love between "father" and "daughter" (Cosette) is miraculous, redeeming Valjean and bestowing happiness on his otherwise grim life. To some extent, Hugo also was seeking redemption, having, for much of his youth, ignored the populist concerns of Republican France. He sacrificed his lifestyle in Paris for justice, and Les Misérables, "the Magna Carta of the human race," is a testament of this humanitarian awakening.
The Revolution and Republic of France had failed to redress the unconscionable social conditions in which many French citizens languished. Les Misérables became an expression of and an inspiration for that attempt. Hugo initially entitled his work, Les Misre ("the poverty"), but changed it to Les Misérables, which, in Hugo's time, denoted everyone from the poor to the outcasts and insurrectionists. In Hugo's lifetime, the schism between "haves" and "have-nots" was vast; an unbalanced economy made jobs scarce for those who earned their living by work. This was an era without a welfare system, unemployment benefits, or worker's compensation. The closest thing to a homeless shelter was prison, a macabre dungeon where inmates slept on bare planks and ate rancid food. To this place the disabled, insane, hungry, or desperate citizens of France eventually found their way. The one hope of the poor for relief was charity from those who were, if not indifferent to their plight, outright hostile to it.
Les Misérables vindicates those members of society forced by unemployment and starvation to commit crimes—in Jean Valjean's case, the theft of a loaf of bread—who are thereafter outcast from society. It is fairly common parlance today to suggest that prison creates more hardened criminals than it reforms, but the idea was radical to Hugo's contemporaries. "Perrot de Chezelles, in an 'Examination of Les Misérables,' defended the excellence of a State which persecuted convicts even after their release, and derided the notion that poverty and ignorance had anything to do with crime. Criminals were evil." Jean Valjean morally surpasses characters working on behalf of this excellent State. The poor and the disenfranchised understood Hugo's message, accepted the affirmation he gave them, and worshipped him as their spokesman. Workers pooled their money to buy the book not one of them could afford on their own. The struggling people of France had found an articulate illustration of the unjust forces arrayed against them.
Hugo's gift to the people simultaneously affirms that every citizen is important to the health of the nation and emphasizes how that fact gives each individual responsibility for the conditions we all share. Hugo sees the world as a convoluted pattern: "Nothing is truly small...within that inexhaustible compass, from the sun to the grub, there is no room for disdain; each thing needs every other thing." He illustrates a system full of injustice, but in that same sphere, a single gesture of kindness redeems the world; he shows us a civilization based on self-interest and profit, but in one generous act the possibilities of a better world become manifest; he portrays people who regard their neighbors with suspicion and contempt, but with one vow of love, humanity's faith is born anew. Les Misérables is one of history's greatest manifestos of hope for humankind.
The immense popularity of this story has not diminished over time. Since the original 1935 film version, there have been several other international films entitled Les Misérables including a Spring 1998 release starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman. The "most popular musical in the world" has toured the globe several times and has been running on Broadway since March 1987. Why does this story continue to charm and inspire audiences and readers? In our time, as there was in Hugo's, there is cause for despair: greed and violence undermine true progress; human life is rendered meaningless through materialism and nihilism; children the world over suffer neglect, poverty, and ignorance. Who does not identify with Jean Valjean's arduous journey through the sewers, and who does not long for an escape like his emergence into the pristine Parisian dusk? Hugo illustrates how the most profound revolution takes place in our individual consciences, how every moment we are faced with decisions to do right or wrong, and how to make in our hearts pitched battles against our own worst impulses. Les Misérables incites us to make the best fight of our lives the fight to become authentically good people and gives us hope that our efforts will not be in vain. Time cannot change the necessity or urgency of that message—only people can.
ABOUT VICTOR HUGO
Victor Hugo died in 1885 as one of the most famous Europeans in history. The number of people who attended Hugo's funeral ceremony was larger than the normal population of Paris. On the first of April, Hugo's pauper's coffin, which he had requested in his will, was carried from the Arc de Triomphe to his final resting place at the Panthéon. At eighty-three years old, Hugo had outlived two siblings, his wife, three out of four of his children, and thousands of admirers and critics who had watched his career transform and flourish. Prolific and protean as an artist, a politician, and a man, Hugo was capable of testing the limits of extremes, having learned the tension of polar opposites from his parents early in life. Victor-Marie Hugo was born on 26 February 1802 to Sophie Trébuchet and Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo. His father was a decorated General in Napoléon's army, stationed in Italy and Spain during much of young Victor's youth. His mother was not only a Monarchist, but was involved in a plot to overthrow Napoléon. Under the care of his stoic mother, Hugo grew into a traditionalist, sworn to preserving the neo-Classical tradition of French literature and the rights of the French monarchy.
Hugo's literary talent was first publicized when he was seventeen years old. In 1819, he submitted two poems to the Académie Française, winning the Golden Amaranth for one poem and the Golden Lily, the Académie's highest honor, for another. (Hugo was elected to the Académie in 1841.) He published 112 articles and twenty-two poems in Le Conservateur Littéraire, the magazine founded by his brother Abel. These writings all supported traditional French literature and castigated early Romanticism, an ideology that soon thereafter lured Hugo to its camp with its irresistible ideals of freedom, honesty, and originality.
In 1830, Hugo's play Hernani put all Paris on its feet. The play opened at the Comédie Française and was attended by the new and the old aesthetic regimes. Ignoring the classical unities and their stale dignity of speech, Hernani was cheered by the Romantics and insulted, booed, and declaimed by the older, more conservative "kneeheads." Aesthetic disagreements escalated into riots, and duels were even fought over Hugo's play. Thus began a volatile and prolific career, each work fresh, surprising, and loaded with that Hugolian tendency to incite controversy. Hugo's literary output was staggering and the following is but a brief list of his major works: (poetry) Les Châtiments, Les Feuilles d'automne, La Légende des siécles, Les Orientales, Odes et Ballades, Les Rayons et les ombres, L'Art d'^etre grand-pére, (novels) Bug-Jargal, Notre Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, Les Travailleurs de la mer, L'Homme qui rit, Ruy Blas. Add to this his political and cultural commentary, his travelogues, letters, speeches, and plays, and you have a corpus of work that scholars are still compiling, publishing, and analyzing.
Hugo made no attempt to separate his life as a writer from his life as a citizen. In 1845, Hugo was made a pair de France (life peer and member of the Upper House), a position which should have endeared him to powerful circles and alienated him from the people. Yet a comfortable existence acquiescing to unjust powers was not to be Hugo's destiny, as he often proclaimed, "Not to believe in the people is to be a political atheist." During the revolutions, riots, and massacres of 1848 and 1849, Hugo abandoned the regime of Louis-Napoléon, nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, because of its increasing authoritarianism; and when Louis-Napoléon was confirmed the leader of the Republic, Hugo and thousands of other thinkers, dissenters, and literati went into exile. For the next twenty years, Hugo disseminated his works from Belgium and the small islands in the English Channel, smuggling political satires and polemical verse in sardine tins, walking sticks, and baggy trousers. It was at this period Hugo produced his magnificent excoriation of Louis-Napoléon, Napoléon-le-Petit, as well as Les Châtiments (The Punishments), an explosion of poetic wrath directed at the emperor. Throughout his life, Hugo worked to further Republican virtues, affirming education and a democratic distribution of property, denouncing the unbalance of power and capital punishment.
Hugo's home, however, did not quite match the utilitarian simplicity of his ascetic ideal Jean Valjean. He had proven that one could get rich writing books; it was partially Hugo's love of humanity that had made him a millionaire. The two women he loved—his wife Adèle and his mistress Juliette— shared in a large part of the work—answering letters, copying manuscripts, etc.—and a small part of the glory. Hugo had married his childhood sweetheart against his parents' wishes in 1822, and they had four children. This family avoided the actress and ex-prostitute who resided down the street from them, Juliette. Her affair with Hugo lasted for fifty years, perhaps the longest extra-marital affair in history. Neither a model of virtue or simplicity, Hugo nonetheless inspired the people of many nations and many generations to act with greater regard for others.
Today it is hard to imagine a playwright whose works young men die defending, a poet whose followers cry for revolution, a thinker whose thoughts change world history. Hugo was all of these and his legacy survives through his tremendous literary bequest. He lived in a time when children were shot in the streets of Paris and governments were violently overthrown every twenty years. His presence was a beacon and a pillar, a palpable force to struggle against or with, a mad blend of courage, genius, and kindness. It is not his godliness which assures Hugo's place in eternity, but his humanity.
Notre-Dame of Paris
Translated with an Introduction by John Sturrock
This powerful evocation of Paris in 1482 and the tragic tale of Quasimodo has become the classic example of French romanticism.