Les Miserables

Les Miserables Study Guide

Published in 1862, Les Misérables is considered a classic of world literature. A sprawling epics that focuses on the social outcasts of early 19th century France, it is both an homage to the French culture and a compendium of timeless observations of human nature.

Spanning over 1200 pages, the novel took Victor Hugo 17 years to complete. It is deeply informed by his revolutionary, democratic ideas, and by his spiritual views. Hugo intended the novel to have universal appeal: he wrote to his Italian publisher, "I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. [...] Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: "'open up, I am here for you.'"

Les Misérables was a highly anticipated novel; when the first chapters of the book (now composing the Fantine section) were published as a serial, they sold out almost immediately. A humorous (and perhaps apocryphal) exchange between Hugo and his publisher perhaps best captures the explosive success of the book. Hugo was on vacation during the publication of the novel, and he sent a very short telegram to his publisher inquiring about the commercial success of the manuscript. Hugo's letter consisted only of the symbol "?" To which his publisher replied "!", indicating its success. This tale originally appeared in an 1892 manuscript entitled “Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities” and may not be historically accurate, but it is a testament to the instant popularity of the novel in France.

While the book was immensely popular at the time of its publication, critics panned it. Charles Baudelaire, a leading contemporary poet, called it tasteless and inept. Others criticized the novel for its long-winded political diatribes, its sentimentality, and its unrealistic events. None of this stopped Les Misérables from becoming a massive bestseller and being translated into dozens of languages.

Les Misérables has been adapted into a number of screenplays and was the source material for an enormously successful musical. The 2012 version of this musical stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.