Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Bristol's online course, Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Few stories have worked their way into our popular consciousness as readily or as extensively as Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables. Beginning nearly 25 years after the French Revolution of 1789, it is the story of an ex-convict called Jean Valjean.Valjean spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family and for attempting to escape thereafter. He is full of hatred understandably towards society when he is released until the unfailing kindness of a Bishop he meets called Myriel resurrects his soul.

Skip to 0 minutes and 41 seconds Skipping his parole and reinventing himself as a ‘Good Samaritan’, Valjean sets out to help others caught in the trap of poverty, all the while pursued by the self-righteous police inspector Javert against the backdrop of a country on the brink of further revolution. Valjean’s quest for redemption has demonstrated an enduring and widespread popularity, from its publication in 1862 - when the novel became a global publishing sensation - to its recent incarnation as the world’s longest-running musical, which has now been seen by 65 million people in 42 different countries, and which had its own Hollywood movie in 2012.

Skip to 1 minute and 14 seconds To be sure, the novel is indeed one of the most adapted in history and has inspired an enormous range of different versions from the Americas

Skip to 1 minute and 22 seconds to the Far East across numerous media: on screen, on stage, on radio, in print, and now of course online.

Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds Such popularity begs the question: how has a very very long nineteenth-century French novel managed to connect with audiences across different borders and eras for over 150 years? The various adaptations help to account for this ongoing connection, but at the same time they point us back to where it all

Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds started: namely, the novel itself and its stirringly dramatic tale of social injustice and personal salvation. Les Miserables is a vast mix of well-known literary genres that its author knew would lend it wide-ranging appeal, such as classical epic, Shakespearean tragic-comedy, and historical and urban fiction. Given his success as a playwright and his interest in painting, Victor Hugo’s deftness at entertaining his readers and giving them vivid scenes to imagine is no surprise. Whether it is the fighting between the revolutionaries and the National Guard across the barricades of Paris, or Valjean’s famous escape through the sewers underneath them, the novel delivers many episodes of high excitement.

Skip to 2 minutes and 26 seconds But Hugo himself was also a principled writer who had things to say about life at large, as his many famous narrative digressions confirm.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds The title signalled the breadth of his project: Les Miserables - literally, ‘the miserable ones’ or ‘the ‘wretched ones’ - plays on the ambiguity of the word misere in French, which means, on the one hand, poverty, and on the other wretchedness or misery. Hugo therefore understood human suffering in both social and moral terms, and believed that we are all defined as much by our hearts as by our history. One of the key ways in which he makes this point is by way of juxtaposing Valjean with both the formidable Inspector Javert and the villainous criminal Thenardier. Like Valjean, they were both born into society’s underclass

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds but they choose different paths in response: Javert dedicates his life to a rigid moral law that brands everyone as either saints or sinners, thereby redeeming himself in his own eyes for the crime of his birth; whereas Thenardier increasingly embraces crime, demanding vengeance on a world that has given him nothing. But unlike either man, Valjean understands that we cannot see

Skip to 3 minutes and 33 seconds the world in solely black and white terms: the key to a better life for ourselves and for our communities is neither absolute morality nor strict self-interest, but compassion and selflessness, as shown to him by the Bishop.

Skip to 3 minutes and 46 seconds In turn, Hugo saw his novel as a sweeping philosophical poem: a book about everything for everyone, in which the social drama of inequality and immorality would be understood through the tragedies and triumphs of the human spirit. Where the French Revolution had believed in universal values of freedom, equality, and brotherhood for all peoples, Hugo likewise felt that he needed to reach as broad an audience as possible with his reaffirmation of these key democratic values.

Skip to 4 minutes and 13 seconds As he told his publisher: ‘This book is a great mirror reflecting humankind in action at one given moment in its vast history’. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy concurred, believing that Les Miserables conveys ‘feelings accessible to all’, not least our need for acceptance and our desire for a just world. The novel’s immediate focus may be on the social inequality of nineteenth-century France, but its heart lies in understanding humanity in general and, ultimately, what makes us better human beings. As our own generation faces the so-called ‘age of the 99%’, rife with political conflict, economic hardship, and social unease, Les Miserables continues to present itself as a story for all people in all times.

'Les Misérables' with Dr Bradley Stephens

This video will tell you about the book ‘Les Misérables’.

It’s OK to pause the video or to watch it as many times as you like. The video subtitles do not show the accented characters, unfortunately. To see them you might like to refer to the transcript that is available below in the section ‘downloads’ - click ‘English Transcript pdf’.

(After you watch the video and click the pink circle ‘mark as complete’, move on to the next step and read the article ‘More about the book’.)

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction

University of Bristol