Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French writers of all times, was a witness to nearly the whole of the 19th century, as he was born in 1802 and died in 1885. His range as an author is exceptional: poet, playwright, novelist, essayist. He produced masterpieces in all these fields. But he was also a visionary and precursor as may be seen in the following text, an address to a Peace Congress held in Paris, on August 21, 1849:
A day will come when your arms will fall even from your hands! A day will come when war will seem as absurd and impossible between Paris and London, between Petersburg and Berlin, between Vienna and Turin, as it would be impossible and would seem absurd today between Rouen and Amiens, between Boston and Philadelphia. A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood, just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, all our provinces are merged together in France. A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by
votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate which will be to Europe what this parliament is to England, what this diet is to Germany, what this legislative assembly is to France. A day will come when we will display cannon in museums just as we display instruments of torture today, and are amazed that such things could ever have been possible.
Indeed, during most of his life, Victor Hugo fought for peace, for justice, for equality, for fraternity. His ideas were quite advanced for their time. He had a very profound understanding of human nature and of the effects of dire poverty. He felt deeply about all the manifestations of social injustice in the established order of society. He denounced in particular the way society, not only crushes for all sorts of good reasons those who have fallen, but also does not give them any real chance of redeeming themselves, even once their sentences have been completed. He saw very clearly that societies all over the world mostly fail in their duty to protect, uplift and educate those who are at the bottom of the social ladder. He wrote his most famous book, Les Miserables, at a time when the industrial revolution in Europe had created, particularly around big cities, an underworld of exploited workers living in abysmally bad conditions and working amazingly long hours (up to 14 hours per day!), including all too often women and young children.
He wrote a very intense letter to his Italian editor:
You are right, sir, when you tell me that Les Miserables is written for all nations. I do not know whether it will be read by all, but I wrote it for all. It is addressed to England as well as to Spain, to Italy as well as to France, to Germany as well as to Ireland, to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs. Social problems overstep frontiers. The sores of the human race, those great sores which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold
for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: "Open to me, I come for you."
In the same letter, he also wrote:
At the hour of civilization through which we are now passing, and which is still so sombre, the miserable's name is Man; he is agonizing in all climes, and he is groaning in all languages.
Hugo was not surprised that Les Miserables should evoke strong reactions in some members of the public. Obviously not everyone may like to look at themselves in the mirror provided by Hugo:
This book, Les Miserables, is no less your mirror than ours. Certain men, certain castes, rise in revolt against this book, — I understand that. Mirrors, those revealers of the truth, are hated; that does not prevent them from being of use. As for myself, I have written for all, with a profound love for my own country, but without being engrossed by France more than by any other nation. In proportion as I advance in life, I grow more simple, and I become more and more patriotic for humanity.
He concluded with a very Hugo-like flourish:
Whether we be Italians or Frenchmen, misery concerns us all. Ever since history has been written, ever since philosophy has meditated, misery has been the garment of the human race; the moment has at length arrived for tearing off that rag, and for replacing, upon the naked limbs of the Man-People, the sinister fragment of the past with the grand purple robe of the dawn.
Les Miserables is a long story and is built in such a way that it seems to contain different novels inside the main one. The link
between these stories is the main character, a formidable and enigmatic man named Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean was condemned to five years of forced labor as a young man. The reason for his arrest and conviction: he had stolen a loaf of bread! Moreover, if he stole the bread, it was not for himself, it was for his sister's many children who were famished in the midst of winter with nothing to eat. But the judicial system of these times was often merciless, particularly towards the poorest segment of society. One can feel underneath Hugo's indignation for this absurdly excessive condemnation. So Valjean was convicted and sentenced. Due to various circumstances, mostly repeated attempts to escape, the initial five years grew to nineteen years in total. Therefore, when, at long last, Valjean regained his freedom, he was no longer a young man.
But even then he quickly discovered that his so-called freedom was not real: as an ex-convict, he was given a "yellow" passport and had to report to the authorities wherever he went. He experienced rejection and injustice. A once promised salary was cut in half because his status of ex-convict had been discovered and "it is good enough for you".
Entering the city of Digne, despite repeated attempts he couldn't find a place for spending the night. Finally a benevolent old lady directed him to one house. There, despite immediately revealing his condition of ex-convict, he was received as a guest of honour by the master of the house that Valjean took for an old priest.
We had been told beforehand at great lengths about this priest, who was in fact the bishop of Digne, and was called Monsignor Welcome due to his saintly reputation. He lived with his sister and an old lady servant, who, despite their reservations and fears, were under the spell of the bishop's exceptional qualities. So there was quiet obedience when Monsignor Welcome received Valjean as if a lost brother.
Valjean was not able to resist temptation and sneaked out in the middle of the night with the silverware of the house. Arrested by the countryside police and brought back to the bishop's, he
was dumbfounded when Monsignor Welcome rescued him by claiming that the silverware was a gift. The bishop even gave him his two silver candlesticks as well, chiding him gently for leaving in such a hurry that he forgot those most valuable pieces.
"Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of."
This is the key sentence in Les Miserables. This is the moment when Valjean's life changes radically, even if he is not yet aware of it. That act of compassion and deep love coming as it was from someone he had betrayed would remain engraved in his heart for ever and would be his guiding light at all the crucial moments of his life.
Victor Hugo's depth of understanding is truly admirable. Monsignor Welcome's charity had to be so deep and delicate so as to go much beyond the normal reaction of any human being after having been betrayed and robbed by someone received as a friend. And this is what rescues Valjean from the utter bitterness of a revengeful ex-convict.
Soon after, Hugo had Valjean commit his last act of meanness when he robbed a young boy, Petit Gervais; immediately after, realizing what he had done, he tried desperately to repair his fault, alas without success. This episode is a masterly evocation of the travails of a struggling soul.
Quite a few years have passed. We are told of a M. Madeleine who has become the benefactor of the city of Montreuil-sur-Mer through the establishment of a successful business enterprise, providing jobs and many other benefits to the inhabitants. M. Madeleine has become so popular that he has been made the mayor of the city. We are made to understand that M. Madeleine is no one else than Jean Valjean.
Then comes another major inner crisis. M. Madeleine had been taking care of Fantine, a very sick girl who had become destitute after being unjustly fired from her job in one of Madeleine's factories
(without his knowledge). Fantine's situation had been so desperate that she had to part with her daughter. While Valjean was trying to reunite Fantine with the little Cosette, fate brought him a terrible dilemma: a man had been arrested and was strongly suspected to be Jean Valjean. His trial was coming up very soon and, despite his desperate denials, it looked quite certain that he would be officially convicted as three ex-convicts had sworn that this man was indeed Valjean.
This acute soul crisis for Valjean-Madeleine is admirably developed by Hugo and once again, the poet shows his remarkable mastery of inner psychology while describing the kind of fierce inner exertions, through twists and turns, that a man faced with such a life and death decision may experience. It would have indeed been relatively easy for Valjean to justify inaction: so much was at stake, from Fantine's acute need of present support to the continuation of Montreuil inhabitants' new prosperity which he only could ensure. His social responsibility was huge: could he ignore it and throw everything away for the sake of some unknown miserable thief who had the bad luck of facing an error of identification? Moreover, the conviction of that man would mean that the continuing search for Valjean, the ex-convict, still accused of crimes like the robbing of Petit Gervais, would finally be called off and final tranquility obtained for ever.
But even as he resolved to stay put and even felt the need to destroy the last bits of evidence from his past as a convict, throwing them in a big chimney fire, he suddenly stared at the two silver candlesticks of Monsignor Welcome which he had preciously kept. That stopped him and brought back the dilemma in full force.
Finally, Madeleine decided to go to the far-away city where the trial was to take place. All the while during a very difficult journey full of unexpected problems, which could result in his failing to be in time through no fault of his, the inner churning continued. Madeleine wondered if these obstacles were not signs that a higher Providence wanted him to keep silent. This was the ultimate temptation. Yet some inner force pushed him ahead and
he managed to arrive at the courthouse in time to save the man falsely accused... and to destroy his own beautiful new life at the same time.
There is no doubt that it is relatively rare in life to be faced with a dilemma as terribly acute as Valjean's, but anyone with a little life experience can feel the accuracy of Hugo's depiction of the inner debate as well as the practical truth of the feverish interpretations of signs that come and go in the dense atmosphere brought by the crisis.
The story or, rather, the stories go on through many twists and turns: after Valjean revealed his identity in the court house, his old enemy, police inspector Javert, elated to be proven right in his suspicion about the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, arrested him. Somehow, the following day, Valjean broke out of the jail long enough to hide a good part of his fortune. Then he was arrested and sent again to forced labour for life. While working aboard a ship, he managed to escape again. Keeping his promise to Fantine (who had died by now), after a long voyage he reached the village where the little Cosette was being ill-treated by an evil couple, the Thenardiers, with whom Fantine had trusted to take care of the child. On a dark Christmas night, Jean Valjean at last rescued the poor little girl and went off with her.
Then follow ten years of hiding in Paris, moving from place to place, always staying just ahead of Javert. Seven or eight happy years were spent in a convent where Valjean managed to narrowly escape a team of policemen led by Javert. He worked with the convent gardener, a man whom he saved from death a few years before and who had introduced Valjean to the sisters as his younger brother. Cosette attended a girls' school in the same convent.
Feeling that Cosette must have an opportunity to experience all of life, they left the convent when she was about 15. Valjean was nearly betrayed and recaptured due to the insidious deeds of the Thenardiers, now in Paris.
Since Valjean was continuously on the lookout for people who might guess his identity, he made their home always in out of the way places. With time passing, Cosette became aware of her
own feminity and beauty. She and Marius, a young student, were drawn to each other and fall in love.
The story of the love between Marius and Cosette is the final lengthy episode of Les Miserables in which we see Valjean obliged, despite his inner resistance, to yet again sacrifice himself for the sake of Cosette. Since Marius distrusted him, he was deprived of the young girl's visits which were the joy of his existence. He was about to die alone and forgotten when Cosette and Marius (who finally realised how unjust his own behaviour of rejection had been) came back to him. Finally, he was able to die peacefully in the joy of being reunited with Cosette.
Victor Hugo's numerous novels are still very much read not only in contemporary France but all over the world. His literary production, novels, poems, dramas, essays, is astoundingly large, as may be seen in the list of his various writings which is given in Appendix IV. He had other talents, such as being a good painter and illustrator. A noted French painter even said once that if Victor Hugo had chosen to be a painter rather than a poet or a novelist, he would have become one of the greatest.
In this monograph we could only give a small sample of one of his best known novels, Les Miserables. We do hope that our readers will be as moved as we were while preparing this monograph by the intense human quality which permeates the episodes that we have selected.