Les Miserables and the American Civil War: An Introduction

Over the next couple of weeks, ECW authors David T. Dixon and Sarah Kay Bierle will be sharing some emerging research that they’ve been working on. What does a novel, a Broadway musical, and European history have to do with the American Civil War? A lot more than you might guess at first glance.

Published in 1862, quickly translated into English, and an edition published in America, the classic novel Les Miserables found its way into the hands, knapsacks, and hospital pillows of Civil War soldiers. The backstories of the class French novel, its settings, and Hugo’s commentary on society resonated with readers of the Civil War era in surprising ways and also offer a 19th Century lens to consider ideals and ills of society. 

As an introduction to this cultural “Ties to the War” series, Sarah and David offer their initial thoughts and look forward to sharing some provocative history of military and cultural significance.

Sarah Kay Bierle

My first introduction to Les Miserables was through the novel. I had bragging rights among my high school and college-age friends since I had read the translated, unabridged version. Of course, the film adaptations came next, then the musical soundtrack playlist which became my go-to when I needed to stay awake on long drives home from Civil War reenactments, and finally, I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway musical on stage for my birthday this past spring. 

For years, I’ve been dreaming of an opportunity to use Les Miserables as a “tie to the Civil War” and an opportunity to look at some of the hard topics it addresses. Afterall, Civil War soldiers and civilians had been reading the book and remarking on those subjects, too. When David and I realized we had shared passion for the story and, of course, 19th Century history, it seemed like a perfect opportunity. 

Les Miserables is a story of redemption, justice, and unforgiveness—providing a way for Hugo to give commentary on a variety of social difficulties as he tried to imagine a different world where liberty, love, and light could reign. His cast of characters in the novel is extensive and, in typical 19th Century literary style, essays on minute details create a vast setting for the story. The story was divided in five volumes titled: Fantine, Cosette, Marius, The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic in the Rue St. Denis, and Jean Valjean.

(Spoilers ahead)

Jean Valjean is a criminal, condemned to labor in a French prison chain-gang for 19 years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry nieces and nephews. At the end of his imprisonment, he is put on parole and thrust into society which rejects him and refuses to give him honest work. A vagrant, Valjean meets a kind bishop who gives him lodging for the night, but Valjean robs the cleric and flees. The town constables arrest Valjean and drag him back to the bishop who intervenes, insisting that he gifted the stolen silver to Valjean. The bishop tells Valjean he must live his life for God and do good to repay the debt. Valjean enters middle class society under a new name, does not honor the terms of his parole, and eventually becomes a respectable, aloof businessman, mayor, and factory owner…hiding from the law because he broke his parole to build a new life.

Employed in Valjean’s factory is Fantine, a young woman, who had an affair, was abandoned by her wealthy lover, and had a child out of wedlock. Spitefully, the other women in the factory create a scene and Valjean fires Fantine, turning her out into the streets and unable to provide for her little girl whom she had left with an innkeeper in another town. Fantine sells her meager possessions and her hair in an effort to make money to send to her sick child. Finally, unable to find other work, she is forced into prostitution. Valjean encounters dying Fantine as she is being arrested by the police, and he intervenes to take her to a hospital. Around the same time, Valjean’s true identity as a former criminal is discovered by the police inspector, Javert. Valjean escapes Javert, makes a promise to Fantine to find and care for her little girl in penance for his wrong of firing her from the factory, and disappears to create another alias and another life.

Fantine’s child – Cosette – lives in an abusive home with Innkeeper and Mrs. Thenardier. Valjean finds her and rescues her, promising to take her far away where she will be safe and he will raise her as his daughter. Eventually, Valjean and Cosette arrive in Paris where they live quietly; Valjean finds work and Cosette attends a convent school, becoming a sweet and well-educated teenager.

Ideas of liberty surge through Paris, and university students seek an opportunity to restore liberty to the people. A club of students including characters Enjolras, Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Marius, Grantaire, and Lesgle, dream of sparking a revolution that will bring back the freedom they think existed during the 1790s and the glory days of Napoleon. One of the students, Marius, sees Cosette when she takes a stroll through a public garden with Valjean and begins to dreamily stalk her, creating his own fantasy about the mysterious, beautiful girl. Marius meets Gavorche (a street urchin with his gang of pickpockets) and Eponine (one of the Thenardiers’ daughters) who is often involved in robbery crimes. Marius finally meets Cosette through the assistance of Eponine, and Cosette falls in love with him. 

Meanwhile, the students plan an uprising, using the death of a populous leader as their inspiration and hoping to evoke his memory to demand liberty and equality for the common people. They build barricades in the streets, and Javert spies on the revolutionaries. Valjean wants to leave, but is drawn into combat in an effort to find Marius since he has realized Cosette loves the boy. Valjean and Javert meet again and recognize each other as paroled prisoner and policeman, and Valjean allows the police inspector to go free, instead of killing him. In the preliminary fighting, Eponine and Gavorche are killed, causing the students to reflect soberly on the price for freedom. The barricades are stormed by French soldiers and the majority of the young students are killed. Valjean finds Marius badly wounded and carries him into the sewers of Paris to escape the battle scene. Javert finds Valjean again, and then breaks the law in letting the escaped paroled prisoner go free; unable to reconcile Valjean’s goodness with the judgement of the law, Javert commits suicide. 

Marius recovers slowly and repairs his relationship with his estranged grandfather, though he is plagued by memories of his friends and survivor’s guilt. Eventually, Marius and Cosette plan to get married. Valjean confesses his crime, his escape from his parole, and his decades of aliases to Marius, deciding to disappear again since he does not want to bring shame to Cosette. At the wedding, Marius learns that Valjean saved him from death at the barricades and goes to find the old man. Valjean dies shortly after Marius and Cosette’s wedding, but he lives long enough to explain his life’s story. 

Themes throughout the novel illustrate that life stories are not always what they seem at first appearances. Justice vs. mercy, liberty vs. society, and hatred vs. redemption are some of the conflicting themes throughout the story. Author Victor Hugo wrote about themes that he felt were universal to the human experience, even as he offered a diatribe on 19th Century European society. The story captivated American readers, and they brought their own social observations and experiences into their exploration of the story, sometimes grasping Hugo’s intent and sometimes reading new ideas into their interpretations.

My portions of the series will focus on the American reactions and contrasts to Civil War experiences. For example, how did readers (North and South, military and civilian) to the French novel and how did the book make its way into publication on the western side of the pond? How does the fictional story of Fantine present an opportunity to explore 19th Century women in desperate situations caused by economic hardship or war? Cosette’s tale as an orphan resonates with the accounts of orphans during the American Civil War; who would protect them and what would their lives look like? What does the story say about war and separations? And, finally, Marius’s wounds and recovery offer a chance to ponder loss and recovery – physical, mental, and emotional, leading to the question: how did this story read to soldiers who encountered these pages on their own hospital cots? 

A French novel brought these themes into dialogue in a literary sense and opened a vast tunnel of commentary on challenges that Americans faced in different and same ways to the fictional characters of Victor Hugo’s novel. 

David T. Dixon

I first attended Les Misérables when it premiered on Broadway in 1987. My obsession with nineteenth century world history had not yet bloomed and I was more interested in historical fiction. Les Mis had many elements of great storytelling: suspense, romance, heroism, pathos, and compelling characters. Before Victor Hugo’s epic ended its off-Broadway run, I saw it five times in five different cities. Fearing disappointment, I never watched the film versions. I knew little about French history before attending graduate school and had never read Victor Hugo. Nevertheless, I was hooked. Les Misérables remains my favorite stage adaptation.

Neck deep in the transnational aspects of the American Civil War, I recently returned to this masterpiece of nineteenth century pop culture for the insight it gives historians of our greatest national tragedy. One cannot fully understand any significant event without examining the cultural milieu of its time. Literature, theater, music, and other fine arts have long existed alongside political cartoons and journalism to reflect and influence public opinion, particularly in times of social and political turmoil. By the mid-nineteenth century, authors like Dickens and Hugo enjoyed worldwide fame, opera performers toured throughout Europe and the U.S., and scientists frequently crossed oceans to lecture in the great metropolitan assembly halls. Like social media figures of today, these celebrities had a wide reach and a large platform for their art, which often contained subtle or overt political messaging. 

Hugo was a controversial figure in his day and remains so today. His social and political views changed dramatically over the course of his long life. “At his best, he espoused a form of left-wing bourgeois republicanism,” one writer commented, “a hodgepodge of humanism and pacifism with a little socialist mysticism thrown in. At other times, he was a royalist, an imperialist, and a counterrevolutionary. At 655,478 pages, Les Misérables is one of the longest novels ever written. A third of the work is devoted to discursive essays on subjects like Paris’s sewer system, the battle of Waterloo, and morality.

Hugo describes his novel as useful in illuminating “the three great problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night.” But Hugo’s storyline takes readers much further into geopolitics at the precise time that the American Civil War raged. Publishers and politicians attempted to balance their praise of the author as a literary genius with their contempt for his themes of righteous, violent political revolution and the evils of capitalism.” A Boston newspaper editor, announcing the 1862 debut of the English language translation of Les Misérables, predicted it would become the greatest novel of the day and possibly of the century. In the same breath, he cautioned his readers that they “may not agree with all or any of the author’s theories, deductions, or inferences…, may despise much of the writer’s sentiment and morality…, and although the book is painful, baneful, and unwholesome, you cannot lay it down.”

My posts will focus on Les Misérables as an instrument of political and social reform. Issues like the survival of republican government, human slavery and freedom, and worker exploitation resound throughout the novel at a time when Americans were grappling with these same challenges; their own civil war being played out in front of the entire western world. 

We invite you to join us on a journey to shift through these historical themes and consider the Civil War in a new light…“Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men? This is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!”

4 Responses to Les Miserables and the American Civil War: An Introduction

  1. Great idea for a commentary.
    And you might want to check out Les Miserables in my recent book “The Greatest Escape, a True Civil War Adventure” (Lyons Press)
    It’s the story of the greatest prison escape in America’s history—and the escapes were definitely inspired by the famous French novel. They passed a copy around right when they really needed some inspiration!
    I also relate the story of a previous “great escape” by Confederate General Morgan and four others, who broke out of the Ohio Penitentiary and made it back South. One of them read the book in the original French while planning their breakout!

    So check out my book (it just came out in paperback), and I’m looking forward to more of your article.

    Douglas Miller

    1. Interesting! It’s really surprising how often Civil War officers or soldiers were reading the novel. More on that coming up in the series.

  2. Nice intro, Sarah. Even more interesting is how Les Miserables became “Lee’s Miserables”. John Esten Cooke apparently popularized this notion.

  3. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

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