Les Misérables: Victor Hugo’s famous novel and this year’s Oscar Nominee

Victor Hugo


With the theater release of the quasi-operatic Les Misérables last Christmas, the classic story of redemption by VIctor Hugo receives yet another incarnation, this time based on the successful stage musical.

Jean Valjean during the crossing of Paris in the sewers

Les Misérables (The Wretched, The Miserable Ones) is a French historical, social and philosophical novel on an epic scale, filled with tragic characters such as the ex-convict Jean Valjean and his protégée, the lovely but victimized Cosette. Set in early 19th-century France, the story is painted against the background of important events like the Bataille de Waterloo and the Paris Uprising of 1832, an unsuccessful anti-monarchist insurrection.

Hugo, a member of the prestigious Académie française, was not only a prominent figure in the world of French arts and letters, but also increasingly involved in French politics. After publicly accusing Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) for establishing an anti-parliamentary constitution, the writer was eventually forced into exile on the island of Guernsey. There, he would live from 1855 until 1870, composing some of his best work, including Les Misérables.


For the author, the novel embodied the ideals of romanticism and his views on human nature. At its publication in 1862, Victor Hugo wrote to his editor: « Ma conviction est que ce livre sera un des principaux sommets, sinon le principal, de mon œuvre.” (“My conviction is that this book will become one of the main summits, if not the main summit of my body of work.”)

Despite critical reviews, the novel quickly became an international commercial success, and one of the most popular of French literature. Today, it retains its captivating power, with its universal themes of social justice, romantic and familial love.