After the launch of Les Misérables the musical in London in 1985, some irony appeared in reviews like “Victor Hugo on the Garbage Dump” and “Les Misérables reduced to the Glums.” Such critiques were suggesting that Hugo’s five-volume epic of numerous characters and subplot, with recurring breaks in the narrative for religious and political discourse, were some theatre journalist’s "favourite bedtime reading" (quoted in Edward Behr, The Complete Book of Les Misérables [Arcade Publishing Inc.: New York, 1989], 140). However, though now regarded as one of the classics, Les Misérables was not a favorite among critics in Hugo’s own day.
Published in successive volumes beginning in 1862, Victor Hugo’s historical novel was not just a best seller, but a media event much like the release of another book in the Harry Potter or Twilight sagas. Just as the musical has proved to be, Les Misérables was an instant popular success. However, to most French literary critics, including close friends of the author, the novel was sentimental, immoral, and radical. It was both banned and burned by some political and religious leaders who believed its idealism to be a threat to public order. Concisely summed up by John Caird as "basically a story of intimate human relations, paralleled by the history of France," Les Misérables is a universal commentary on material and moral destitution; the death penalty; a brutal legal and penal system; and religious, moral and social prejudices (Behr, 78). To his editor Hugo wrote, "I do not know whether [it] will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to read or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says "’open up, I am here for you"’ (quoted in Behr, 39).
The French Revolution, which commenced in 1789, was the start of a century of war and civil conflict involving violent fluctuations between Monarchy and Republic. Victor Hugo began writing Les Misérables in 1845, but was interrupted by the government overthrow of 1848—which resulted in Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, first being elected president and then later proclaiming himself emperor. The author openly condemned this new empire and was banished from France until the death of Napoleon III. Hugo resumed writing Les Misérables in exile in 1860 and completed it two years later. The book’s setting, however, takes place several decades earlier, with the bloody dénouement at the student insurrection of 1832. Hugo’s characters—Marius, Eponine, Gavroche and others—take part in the ill-fated battle in the streets, which historically counts one hundred and fifty insurgents killed. In the book as well as the musical, Marius is saved by Jean Valjean who carries Marius on his back to safety through the “foul smelling shadows,” the “horrific underworld” known as the sewers of Paris (Mario Vargas Llosa, The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables, English Translation [Princeton University Press: New Jersey], 99).
According to Philip Thomson, “it is no accident that the grotesque mode in art and literature tends to be prevalent in societies and eras marked by strife, radical changes or disorientation” (“The Grotesque,” Monash University Australia, The Critical Idiom Series [London: Methuen, 1972], 11). Victor Hugo wrote about a time period of stark opposites—order and chaos, revolution and restoration, poverty and abundant wealth, condemnation and redemption. “Immoderate behavior is the norm and ordinary the exception” (Llosa, 57). In Les Misérables there seems to be only angels or devils, predators or prey, light or darkness. Fantine, who sacrifices and sells all for her child, is an angel; the Thènardiers, who are supposed to care for her little Cosette, are devils. Jean Valjean is a sort of super human, double-sided coin of extreme attributes. As Hugo describes him, “Valjean had this peculiarity, that he might be said to carry two knapsacks; in one he ha[s] the thoughts and feelings of a saint, in the other the formidable talents of a convict. He help[s] himself from one or the other as occasion require[s]” (Book V: “A Dark Chase Requires a Silent Hound”). This description is not unlike one written about Hugo himself by biographer Hubert Juin, “A miracle, multiple, unique . . . a monster” (quoted in Complete Book of Les Misérables, 11). Both author and creation occupy a world where the sublime and the horrible “converge at the margins, the fringes—in gardens, graveyards, suburbs, sewers, and barricades” (Kathryn M. Grossman, Figuring Transcendence in Les Misérables: Hugo’s Romantic Sublime [Southern Illinois University Press, 1994], 324).
In his will, Victor Hugo instructed his heirs not to set any of his poems to music—but specified nothing of the kind about his novels. Several nineteenth century composers including Puccini considered Les Misérables for an opera or a musical. Kathryn Grossman, attributes this to the “operatic quality of the text itself which intertwines lyrical, dramatic, and narrative elements” (323). Producers of the musical desired it to be a slightly more serious “marriage of musical and classical theatres at the height of their powers” (Complete Book, 67). “Les Mis” is, after all, an often gruesome tale of survival. Living is an ongoing battle; for some, each day lived is simply one more day nearer to dying. For one day more, men swindle or steal, women “make money in their sleep,” and children beg in the streets. In fact, there is, in Les Misérables, an excess of emotional experiences; so, rather than reducing these experiences to the “garbage heap,” the combination of music only intensifies such effects on pathos—appealing not just to the audiences’ reason, but also stirring their passions and moving them to great heights of pity and feelings of humanity.
Though their stories are necessarily condensed in the musical, the cries of the poor, of those who must rage against the fates which hold them down, of those who defy the darkness and embrace the light are only magnified in the music. Their cries are hauntingly affecting and sublime because we are all stark shadows against the sun; there is both light and darkness in us all, and any one of us may fall or be consumed by the night. The challenge and the victory is to retain our humanity. In the words of Victor Hugo, “Those are rare who fall without becoming degraded; there is a point, moreover, at which the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confounded in a single word, a fatal word, Les Misérables.” (Book VIII: “The Noxious Pour”, Chapter 11).