Study Guide

Les Misérables

By Victor Hugo

Les Misérables Introduction

It's not easy to put Les Misérables in a nutshell, considering that it's one of the longest novels ever written. But hey! That's our job, so here goes: the novel is about how an ex-con named Jean Valjean tries to live a good life and help the people around him, even while he struggles to escape his criminal past. Along the way, he gets super rich, adopts a child named Cosette, and spends nearly his entire adult life trying to elude a tenacious policeman named Inspector Javert.

Plus there's a whole thing about some revolution. And a giant statue of an elephant. And a bunch of French politics. And some rumination of the nature of mercy and justice. And …

Okay, you got us. There's practically no way to sum up this massive, gorgeous, breathtaking novel in a nutshell. That's because Les Misérables isn't your everyday ex-con story

Published in 1862, it's a platform for Victor Hugo to rant against the injustice that's committed against the poorest and most vulnerable members of modern society. The French Revolution of 1789 was supposed to take care of all that by bringing liberty and equality for all the people of France, but we all know how that ended. (Guillotine.) Sure, they took care of that pesky monarchy—but only temporarily. The poor continued to starve in the streets and the rich kept getting richer. Victor Hugo couldn't stand the idea that so many people had fought and died for nothing, and he was determined to use art to do what war couldn't – create real social change.

By the time you get through this novel, you'll see just how much a society can work against its poorest and most vulnerable members. To be fair, Hugo never says that a poor person can't work their way out of poverty. After all, that's exactly what Jean Valjean does. But Hugo's no Tea Party ancestor. Les Misérables points out that people like Jean Valjean will always be the exception to the rule. The fact that some people can work their way out of poverty doesn't mean we live in a legitimate society, because the vast majority won't. They're the miserable ones of the title—and they're the ones the modern welfare state evolved to protect.

Whatever you think about things like social assistance, unemployment insurance, and pensions, Victor Hugo wants you to understand one thing: a safety net might have saved Fantine.

What is Les Misérables About and Why Should I Care?

Maybe we should start by letting Victor Hugo tell us.

In his preface to Les Misérables, the author writes, "[So] long as misery and ignorance remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless."

In other words, we need books like Les Misérables to teach us that we can't go projecting all of our emotional baggage onto other people. Just because we might be cynical doesn't mean that everyone around us is secretly feeling the same way. And just because we've worked hard and had success doesn't mean we can expect everyone else to do the same. And just because some prostitute is shivering and starving in the street doesn't mean she wants to be there. (Duh? Not according to a lot of people in the book.)

In other words, Les Misérablesteaches us to have sympathy—which is the opposite of assuming that everyone else is just like you. Instead, sympathy means accepting that people have a different mindset and different circumstances, and maybe even different desires and dreams.

We dare you to get all the way through Les Misérables and still feel like there's only one way of looking at the world. (Okay, TBH we dare you to get all the way through, full stop.) Yes, you can use hard work and innovation to raise yourself up in the world, just like Jean Valjean does, although it helps if some wealthy benefactor gives you a bag full of silver.

And yes, there might be some people in the world who will always be selfish and never look out for others (like Thénardier). In between these two extremes, though, are dozens of people who need one simple thing from you: the benefit of the doubt. What we're saying, in other words, is that Hugo has one simple, timeless message for us:

Be excellent to each other.

Les Misérables Resources

WEBSITES

All of Les Misérables Free Online
Yup. Complete with illustrations, Les Misérables appears on Project Gutenberg in all its glory.

The France of Victor Hugo
What was the world like in the eyes of Victor Hugo? Why not follow this link and find out?

Hugo's Life and Times
Here's the fast and furious version of Hugo's background story. Unfortunately, it doesn't include any time in prison.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Les Misérables (2012)
If you haven't had a chance to see this version (directed by the same dude who did The King's Speech) treat yourself and give it a watch. Just try to ignore Russell Crowe's singing. He's trying, guys.

Les Misérables (1998)
It needs more song and dance, but it does star Liam Neeson and a 19-year old Claire Danes (you might know her from TV's Homeland).

Les Misérables (2000 TV Mini-Series)
Hey, Gerard Depardieu is in this thing. Also, it's longer and more in-depth than the movie versions, if that's what you're into.

Les Misérables (1978 TV Movie)
Yup, it's a made-for-TV movie. But the guy who plays Javert is also the guy who played Norman Bates in Psycho, so that's pretty cool.

Les Misérables (1982 Film)
This one is French, so it's got that extra soupçon of authenticity.

Les Misérables (1935)
Of all the film versions, this is probably the oldest one you'll find.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Les Misérables: Victor Hugo's France
Planning on a trip to France anytime soon? If so, you'll want to check out this article about all the places Hugo talks about in his novel.

Stacking the Deck
This article will make a case for why the most important events in Hugo's famous novel all happen toward the end.

Deep Thoughts of Les Misérables
Here's the place to be for everybody's favorite kind of thoughts… general thoughts.

VIDEO

Les Misérables 2012 Official Movie Trailer
If you're not pumped to watch the 2012 movie yet, this trailer should get you there.

The Elephant in the Room
You can just tell all hell is going to break loose. And kudos to the director for getting in a reference to the elephant and castle statue. (If you've read the book, you'll remember it).

Les Misérables Takes to the Streets
These folks in Illinois decided to make Les Misérables come to life in a big way.

AUDIO

Spice up Your Commute
It's hard to imagine someone reading this thing out loud with getting a little hoarse, but someone did. Here's the first part of the Les Misérables audiobook, so get out your earbuds.

The Sound of Music
Experience the spirit of Les Misérables in musical form. Come on, you know you wan to.

"On My Own"
Every theatre girl's favorite song: Éponine's conflict, compressed into under three minutes.

IMAGES

Victor Hugo is Old and Sleepy
Yup, he looks like he needs a good snooze.

Still Old, Less Sleepy
It looks like someone got the poor guy a cup of coffee before posing for this one.

A Little Bit Younger Now
Since Hugo wasn't born an old bearded man, we thought we'd show you a younger one too.