Les Miserables

Les Miserables 1830s France

Everyone has heard of the French Revolution, but fewer are familiar with the armed uprisings of the early 19th century, mostly in Paris. Contrary to popular belief, Les Misérables is not actually about the French Revolution of 1789-94 - rather, it is about the aftermath of this world-shaking event, and the difficult transition from monarchy to democracy.

The French Revolution violently overthrew the French monarchy and aristocracy, establishing a democratic government based on equality, liberty, and fraternity. It also resulted in the violent deaths of hundreds of people. The French Revolution, in many ways, marked the death of the rule of kings and the beginning of democratic governance.

However, this history-altering event did not happen easily or even irreversibly. Persistent dire poverty and inequality dampened the promise of the Revolution: much of the populace did not see any chance in their lives, despite the stated goals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Additionally, Napoleon took control shortly after the Revolution and led France on a magnificent but costly series of military conquests.

After Napoleon's defeat during the invasion of Russia in 1814 resulted in his removal from power, and in this power vacuum, parties loyal to the monarchy restored Louis the XVIII (younger brother of Louis XVI, who was guillotined in the revolution). Louis the XVIII did not wield the almost unlimited powers of his predecessors, however: France was governed under a limited constitutional monarchy. However, Louis XVIII's successor, Charles X, tries to restore the former glory of the monarchy and roll back the limited number of rights and protections so hard-won by the Revolution. The populace of France rises up and drives out Charles X in an event referred to as the July Revolution, which took place in 1830. In his place, the provisional government selects Charles' much more liberal cousin Louis-Philippe as king.

But a new king isn't what the populists, democrats, and republicans want - they want a true democracy. Rampant poverty and inequality exacerbate this desire for a new order. All of these feelings come to a head in 1832, the year the barricade of the ABC Society is erected in the Rue de la Chanvrerie. The uprising of 1832 is intense but short-lived, and ultimately unsuccessful in achieving any of its stated aims.

However, it does set the stage for the Revolution of 1848, when Parisians drive out Louis-Philippe. Napoleon's nephew, Louis Napoleon, seizes power and proclaims a Second Republic (the first being that which his uncle established).