We begin this story in the area of Digne, which is where Bishop Myriel lives. Later, we move to the towns of Montfermeil and Montreuil-sur-mer. So far, so good. But Victor Hugo saves his most vivid and spirited descriptions of setting for Paris, which is the setting for the entire second half of this book. In earlier descriptions, Hugo might mention a passing detail about France's small towns and village. But once we get to Paris, we get descriptions like this:
Paris is a sum total, the ceiling of the human race. The prodigious city is an epitome of dead and living manners and customs. To observe Paris is to review the whole course of history, filling the aps with sky and stars. (184.108.40.206)
Hugo goes on like this for several chapters, giving us one of the most in-depth portraits of Paris you'll ever find in any book, except maybe Hugo's other books, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The guy even spends several chapters just outlining the Paris sewer system. Hugo's interest in Paris borders on obsession, so you can see why he would also be obsessed with the welfare of the people living in this city. He believes that Paris is the cradle of all human civilization, which is why it's so horrifying to him that most of the city's inhabitants spend their lives starving and freezing.
The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
Just as important as the physical setting is the historical setting. Hugo is writing in 1862, which is just about thirty years after the student revolution he describes in the second part of the book. That means his book takes place during the first three or so decades of the nineteenth century. Romantic notions of, well, Romanticism aside, the nineteenth century was not a great place to live if you were anything other than wealthy. If you were born on the streets, that's where you stayed—and good luck getting a full belly, much less an education.
Fair enough—but 1862 is still the nineteenth century, and things weren't that much better in Hugo's time. So why set it half a century earlier? A few reasons, we think:
- People are much more willing to hear a lecture if it's set a little bit in the past. No one likes being told, "Hey, citizens, people are starving on the streets"; it's easier to say "Hey, citizens, people used to starve on the street, and isn't that terrible, and how can we make things even better for people today?
- Writing histories of the recent past was kind of thing in the nineteenth century, in both British and French novels. Dickens set a lot of his novels thirty or forty years earlier than the present, and so did French writers like Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert. And the reason for that (according to people whose job it is to study these things) is that, unlike the present, the past can be analyzed in a way that the present can't be.
In other words, from a few decades down the road, it's possible to explain why historical events happened the way they did. You're not just narrating things as they happen; you're creating a story about why they happened—and what we can do to make them happen differently in the future.