What is the historical context of “Les Misérables”?

How does the historical background during which Victor Hugo wrote "Les Misérables" influence the plot and themes of the novel?

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"Les Misérables," written by Victor Hugo and published in 1862, is a novel deeply rooted in the historical context of 19th-century France, which significantly influenced its plot and themes. France during the 19th century was a time of political unrest and social upheaval. The country underwent a series of political transformations, moving from the turbulent years of the French Revolution (1789-1799) to the Napoleonic era (1804-1815), followed by the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, the July Monarchy (1830-1848), the establishment of the Second Republic, and eventually the Second Empire under Napoleon III. The key historical events that most directly influence "Les Misérables" are: 1. **The French Revolution**: Though the main story takes place years after the revolution, the impact of this event permeates the lives of the characters. The revolution's ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity set the stage for the various conflicts and struggles depicted in the novel. Characters like Fantine and Valjean are victims of the harsh social and economic conditions that persisted after the revolution. 2. **The Battle of Waterloo (1815)**: Hugo devotes an entire chapter to the Battle of Waterloo, where the character Thénardier is introduced as a looter of corpses on the battlefield. This battle signified the end of the Napoleonic Wars and marked the beginning of a long period of peace in Europe, which affected the social and economic landscape of France. 3. **The July Revolution (1830)**: This event is reflected in the characters' backstories, such as Colonel Georges Pontmercy. It set the stage for the Republic, ultimately hinting at the rise of the July Monarchy, which disappointed many who hoped for a more democratic regime. 4. **The June Rebellion (1832)**: This is a centerpiece of the novel. The insurrection, which was an unsuccessful, anti-monarchist uprising of young Parisians, mostly students, is where a significant portion of the narrative revolves, especially in the barricade scenes. Marius Pontmercy, a main character, becomes deeply involved in these events, reflecting the sentiments of many young people of the period who were disillusioned with the government. The historical background enriches the novel, giving the reader a sense of the deep and complex political and social currents of the time. The pervasive themes of justice, human misery, the law, mercy, and the nature of revolution are all examined against this backdrop. Victor Hugo himself was a political figure and social thinker who experienced exile due to his political beliefs. His personal experiences and sympathies for the poor and disenfranchised are reflected in the novel's plot and themes. Consequently, "Les Misérables" is not only a personal drama but also a social commentary on the conditions and political landscape of France during this tumultuous period. In effect, the novel is a bridge between the past and Hugo's present, transcending the specifics of its era to address timeless questions about society, humanity, and justice, which is why it remains relevant and powerful to this day.
Answered on June 19, 2024.
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