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Les misérables
Victor Hugo
publisher: Rouff, Paris, 1862

translated as:
Les misérables
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1987
translation: Norman MacAfee

refered to by:
Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Gustave Flaubert

War and Peace
Leo N. Tolstoy

Chapel Road
Louis Paul Boon

Bleak House
Charles Dickens

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky

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Twenty years in the conception and execution, Les Misérables was first published in France and Belgium in 1862, a year which found Victor Hugo in exile from his beloved France. Enemies and admirers throughout the world devoured his works - poetry, political tracts, and fiction - and the effect of these works upon the public was always sensational. On the morning of 15 May, a mob filled the streets around Pagnerre's book shop, eyeing the stacks of copies of Les Misérables that stretched between floor and ceiling. A few hours later, they had all - thousands of books - been sold. Hugo's critics were quick to condemn him for making money by dramatizing the misery of the poor, while the poor themselves bought, read, and discussed his book in unprecedented numbers. True to Hugo's political stance, he had written a book about the people that was for the people, a book that demanded a change in society's judgement of its citizens.

The story is set between 1815 and 1832, the years of Hugo's youth. The descriptions of Paris, the characterizations of Gavroche and other Parisian stock characters, and such statements as, 'To err is human, to stroll is Parisian' all attest to Hugo's unswerving adoration of his home city. Exile no doubt encouraged the romantic meanderings of Hugo's prose. The protagonist of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, is also in exile from the world of men because of the desperate crime he committed in his youth. Liberated from prison, Valjean hides his identity and becomes a successful man, as charitable as he is rich and powerful. His altruism leads him to promise Fantine, a dying prostitute, that he will seek out her exploited young daughter Cosette after her death. The ensuing love between 'father' and 'daughter' (Cosette) is miraculous, redeeming Valjean and bestowing happiness on his otherwise grim life. To some extent, Hugo also was seeking redemption, having, for much of his youth, ignored the populist concerns of Republican France. He sacrificed his lifestyle in Paris for justice, and Les Misérables, 'the Magna Carta of the human race', is a testament of this humanitarian awakening.

The Revolution and Republic of France had failed to redress the unconscionable social conditions in which many French citizens languished. Les Misérables became an expression of and an inspiration for that attempt. Hugo initially entitled his work, Le Misère ('the poverty'), but changed it to Les Misérables, which, in Hugo's time, denoted everyone from the poor to the outcasts
and insurrectionists. In Hugo's lifetime, the schism between 'haves' and 'have-nots' was vast; an unbalanced economy made jobs scarce for those who earned their living by work. This was an era without a welfare system, unemployment benefits, or worker's compensation. The closest thing to a homeless shelter was prison, a macabre dungeon where inmates slept on bare planks and ate rancid food. To this place the disabled, insane, hungry, or desperate citizens of France eventually found their way. The one hope of the poor for relief was charity from those who were, if not indifferent to their plight, outright hostile to it.

Les Misérables vindicates those members of society forced by unemployment and starvation to commit crimes - in Jean Valjean's case, the theft of a loaf of bread - who are thereafter outcast from society. It is fairly common parlance today to suggest that prison creates more hardened criminals than it reforms, but the idea was radical to Hugo's contemporaries. 'Perrot de Chezelles, in an "Examination of Les Misérables", defended the excellence of a State which persecuted convicts even after their release, and derided the notion that poverty and ignorance had anything to do with crime. Criminals were evil'. Jean Valjean morally surpasses characters working on behalf of this excellent State. The poor and the disenfranchised understood Hugo's message, accepted the affirmation he gave them, and worshipped him as their spokesman. Workers pooled their money to buy the book not one of them could afford on their own. The struggling people of France had found an articulate illustration of the unjust forces arrayed against them.

Hugo's gift to the people simultaneously affirms that every citizen is important to the health of the nation and emphasizes how that fact gives each individual responsibility for the conditions we all share. Hugo sees the world as a convoluted pattern: 'Nothing is truly small... within that inexhaustible compass, from the sun to the grub, there is no room for disdain; each thing needs every other thing'. He illustrates a system full of injustice, but in that same sphere, a single gesture of kindness redeems the world; he shows us a civilization based on self-interest and profit, but in one generous act the possibilities of a better world become manifest; he portrays people who regard their neighbors with suspicion and contempt, but with one vow of love, humanity's faith is born anew. Les Misérables is one of history's greatest manifestos of hope for humankind.



Les misérables
France in the first quarter of the 19th century: Jean Valjean, a poor man, steals a loaf of bread and then spends years trying to escape his reputation as a criminal. In later years he rises to become a respectable member of society; but policeman Javert will not allow him to forget his past.

King Richard II
William Shakespeare, 1595
To Shakespeare's contemporaries, Richard II was a balanced dramatisation of the central political and constitutional issue of the time, how to cope with an unjust ruler. But over the last century or so, the play came to be regarded as the poetic fall of a tragic hero.

The Talisman
Sir Walter Scott, 1825
This adventure, set in the Holy Land of Crusader fame, is a tale of Richard the Lionheart, of his noble knight Sir Kenneth of the Leopard (the prince royal of Scotland in disguise) and of the great Saracen ruler Saladin who fought the historical Richard to a standstill in Palestine.

Sir Walter Scott, 1820
Ivanhoe, son of Cedric, of Saxon birth, loves Rowena, who traces her descent to King Alfred, and who returns his love. Cedric, who is devoted to the restoration of the Saxon line to the throne of England sees the chance of effecting this in the marriage of Rowena to Athelstane and banishes Ivanhoe.

Atala / René
Chateaubriand, 1801 / 1805
Two tales: 'Atala' (a Christian girl takes a vow to remain a virgin, but falls in love with a Natchez Indian) and 'René' (a young woman enters a convent rather than surrender to her passion for her brother).

Quentin Durward
Sir Walter Scott, 1823
Quentin Durward is a young Scotsman seeking fame and fortune in the France of Louis XI in the 14th century. Walter Scott represents his ignorance and naivete as useful to 'the most sagacious prince of Europe' who needs servants motivated solely by the desire for coin and credit.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre-Dame in Paris is mocked and shunned for his appearance. Esmeralda is the beautiful gypsy dancer who has pity upon him. This old tale mourns the passing of the medieval Paris that the author loved.

Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë, 1847
This saga of two Yorkshire families in the remote Pennine Hills has been interpreted as a historical romance, a ghostly thriller, a psychological love-story, a religious allegory and a nature poem.

[Terug naar Ina Damman]
S. Vestdijk, 1934
Autobiographical story about a timid high school student's first love.

The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco, 1980
In 1327, Brother William of Baskerville is sent to investigate charges of heresy against Franciscan monks at a wealthy Italian abbey but finds his mission overshadowed by seven bizarre murders.

In a Dark Wood Wandering
Hella S. Haasse, 1949
Charles d'Orleans (1394-1465), shy nephew of mad French king Charles VI, is the focus of this historical novel, first published in the Netherlands in 1949.

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