Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1968
‘Les Misérables’ is the title of the most important work of author Victor Hugo. When he finished it in 1862, he was actually living in exile in the English Channel Island of Guernsey. Published in the same year, it highlights the social conditions of 1815-1833 Paris.
Hugo’s main characters do not belong to the highest echelons of society. He rather illustrates the struggle for survival of the impoverished in the overpopulated French capital. The story focuses on Jean Valjean. Deeply impressed by the encounter with a clergyman, the former convict and parolee decides to change his life for the better. The repentant man works his way up, gets rich, and even becomes mayor in Montreuil.
There Valjean rescues little Cosette, the daughter of poverty-stricken Fantine, from the clutches of a cold-hearted, greedy host, and funds her education. Under a different name, he also supports other people with generous contributions. But when an innocent man is accused of being the prisoner Valjean, he decides to reveal his true identity even if that means losing his fortune. Later, Cosette falls in love with the poor student Marius, who is almost killed in the barricade fights of the 1832 Paris Uprising. Although Marius is rescued by Valjean, he will later drive a wedge between him and Cosette, bringing the old man close to despair. It is only in the last minute that everything finally turns out well.
It took Victor Hugo almost 15 years to write the highly complex story revolving around Jean Valjean. With ‘Les Misérables’, he accomplished his ultimate breakthrough as a writer. The author’s criticism of the prevailing grievances, the progressive proletarization of ever-growing sections of society in the course of industrialization found an expression not only in his literary oeuvre. Sent to exile as a punishment for his political commitment, Hugo publishes with ‘Les Misérables’ a monumental opus that still provides the material for movies, performances, musicals.