Books / Classic of the Month

Classic of the Month: Les Miserables in Historical Context

The book Les Miserables was first published in France in 1862. Written by famed poet and social activist Victor Hugo, Les Miserables is considered by literary scholars as one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. I first read Les Miserables in one of my French literature classes in college, and if you thought the new movie Les Miserables was long, you haven’t read the book yet!

The history behind Les Miserables, however, is often misunderstood despite the widespread popularity of the musical and now the movie in present day America. Given the epic scale of the story and its rousing nature, one of the most common misconceptions about Les Miserables is that it takes place during the French Revolution of 1789, known for figures such as Robespierre and Marie-Antoinette.

In reality, however, Les Miserables is set against the backdrop of the June Rebellion of 1832–a small Parisian uprising not even considered a revolution. The June Rebellion lasted two days. The confusion is, in a sense, understandable. In both cases, people, often led by republicans, rose up against monarchies which oppressed them.

France’s political structure also underwent a barrage of changes between 1789 and 1900. After the revolutionaries beheaded Bourbon King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in 1793 and the First French Republic began, Napoleon Bonaparte swept in and established an empire in 1804. When he became too powerful, the monarchies and empires of Europe banded together and defeated Napoleon, sending him into exile. These states re-established the monarchy in France, sitting Louis XVIII on the throne. Napoleon escaped, chased Louis XVIII off the throne, and ruled France again as emperor for about one hundred days. Europe ganged up on Napoleon once again and took him down at the Battle of Waterloo. He was then exiled a second time.

Louis XVIII returned to the throne and ruled as a constitutional monarch. His younger brother Charles X took over after him. Charles X was not so keen on the idea of a constitutional monarchy and tried to restore the Bourbon monarchy to its former, less democratic glory. Needless to say, he was not very popular.  The people rebelled in another revolution, the July Revolution of 1830. This revolution deposed Charles X. Rather than allowing the next descendent of the Bourbon family to become king, the Chamber of Deputies (a democratic body like the American House of Representatives) named a king from another, related family, the Orleans, Louis Philippe I. This new monarchy was a constitutional, more democratic monarchy–in a symbolic gesture, Louis Philippe I was named “king of the French” instead of “king of France” like his predecessors.

Eugène Delacroix's famous painting "Liberty Guiding the People" depicts the July Revolution of 1830, not the barricades of "Les Miserables"

Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting “Liberty Guiding the People” depicts the July Revolution of 1830, not the barricades of “Les Miserables” from 1832, public domain.

Many idealistic students and republicans, however, felt the Chamber of Deputies had betrayed them, only trading one king for another. So, they rebelled again in the June Uprising of 1832, as seen in Les Miserables.

They lost miserably and another revolution would not happen until 1848, when the monarchy would fall to the Second Republic. This republic, however, only lasted four years before its first real president named himself emperor. He would rule France until 1870, when the country finally established a durable Third Republic which lasted until the Nazi’s overtook France in World War II.


So why did Victor Hugo decide to base his tale around the uprising of 1832, when there were other, bigger revolutions he could have chosen?

Although Victor Hugo did not take part in the June Rebellion, he spent his entire life advocating for republican government and social change, taking on many causes which the general public chose to ignore. He used his fame and popularity to bring attention to the issues about which he felt strongly and to sway the opinions of his readers. Loose parallels can be drawn between famous American novelist Upton Sinclair, who wrote the well-known muckraking book The Jungle, and Victor Hugo.

One example of Hugo’s tendency to imbed issues in his books can be seen in his earlier work Notre-Dame-de-Paris, or as it’s more commonly referred to in the United States The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Revolutionaries heavily vandalized Notre Dame Cathedral in keeping with their vision of a secular society during the French Revolution of 1789. The Church, the aristocracy, and the monarchy formed the triumvirate of oppression in the republican imagination. By the 1820s, the Cathedral was in such disrepair that many Parisians argued it should be demolished rather than refurbished. Moved by the beauty of the building and its religious and historic significance, Victor Hugo joined the effort to restore Notre Dame Cathedral. His book The Hunchback of Notre Dame popularized this movement and was critical for ensuring the support necessary to save the building.

One can surmise that Hugo had similar motives in mind when he wrote Les Miserables. In a general sense, Hugo likely hoped that his book would paint republican revolutionaries in a more positive light and help garner new support for the movement. Republicanism triggered mixed opinions in early nineteenth-century France. After the carnage and violence of the late French Revolution of 1789–think guillotine–many French men and women associated republicanism with death and bloodshed.

At the same time, by 1862, thirty years after the June uprisings, Hugo likely worried that the sacrifices of his young republican acquaintances would be forgotten in the face of other, larger revolutions. Committing their ideals to paper in his book ensured that they would live on in popular imagination. With a novel, Hugo turned this almost forgotten street riot into a rebellion of widespread interest, even today on the other side of the Atlantic.


~ Michelle


9 thoughts on “Classic of the Month: Les Miserables in Historical Context

  1. Brilliant post and summary of the history in review, I’m keen to read the book this year and it’s always good to have the historical context clear.

    I saw the play Ninety Three based on the book by Victor Hugo a couple of years ago and as the play was in French, I made sure to read the book in English beforehand, which I am glad I did as there were only 5 actors and they played multiple roles with few props and I doubt I would have been able to follow it otherwise.

    Have just downloaded the book to my e-reader, thanks, I’ll be coming back here to remind me of the course of historical events.

  2. Thanks for this helpful historical background! I’m reading Les Mis now (and still haven’t left the bishop’s perspective, though it’s interesting getting to know his character more). One of the things I appreciated about the recent film version is that they really highlighted the dates by putting them up on the screen in big bold letters (starting with 1815 or thereabouts). I don’t know if this gave most people the correct context, but for those who have studied European history and had the date 1789 drilled into our heads in association with the French Revolution, you realized the story took place decades later and that helped. 🙂

  3. I had a little advantage–I went to graduate school in French history. Seeing the confusion of friends and family as we went to see Les Mis recently inspired this post.

    Glad to help out some fellow readers! Hope you both enjoy Les Mis–if you have any history questions as you read, shoot me a message again!

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  7. I’m watching the movie tonight on DVR. I saw the production in London a few years ago. Looking forward to it. I would’ve loved to see it on the big screen, but am a full-timing RVer and work a 24/7 gate job in the outbacks of S. Texas. Theatre of any kind is not an option right now. Thank you for the background. My friend sent me this link so I’d be informed. Nice blog!

  8. Thanks for your amazing post! My husband majored in French and Political Science in undergrad then in European Studies in Graduate School. He even finds this time period crazy and hard to explain, you have done it very well. I’m just starting the novel. And just yesterday we were looking into Louis the XVIII and the time he was in power. I made a timeline, that helps me to see it all better.

    I’m trying to get some dialog going while I read it on my blog. If you get a chance, check it out. I’d love to hear some thoughts on my questions. I don’t know much about the history of France and am a mom of two young kids, so I have very little time to go out and find some good answers for my questions myself. I just finished A Tale of Two Cities and became fascinated with that time period. I have many questions and I’m only on page 120! Thanks.

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