Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and a Conclusion

Part of a Series

Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes![i]

Victor Hugo published Les Miserables in 1862, and “somewhere beyond the barricade” in the pages of his novel readers pondered and reacted to his story and philosophies. For American readers living through the Civil War years, the French novel offered translation to troubles that seemed different than their own. Some readers realized the depth and push for social change that Hugo presented and either rejected, embraced, or remained aloof toward his ideals for freedom and social betterments.

Over the last two weeks, David Dixon and I have shared our research and interest in 19th Century literature in 19th Century context through this particular novel. The resulting series has been different and, perhaps for some readers, unexpected. We are grateful to our colleagues in ECW for tolerating or encouraging this exploration of Civil War society through reading material and culture. Hopefully, considering one of the popular novels read by soldiers in blue and gray, how they interacted with the story, and what was happening in American society along themes in the book gives a perspective on the thoughts and settings of the Civil War soldier and civilian. In many ways their world and culture was so remarkably different than ours that perhaps it is helpful to occasionally pause and reexamine the cultural moments and social challenges unfolding between the battles.

Including this post, the series has totaled ten articles, exploring different aspects of history, thought, and culture in war-torn America using the lens of Les Miserables:

  1. Les Miserables and the American Civil War: An Introduction
  2. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and the Future of Republican Government
  3. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Violent Revolution
  4. Lost in Translation: Les Miserables and America’s Social Question
  5. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Reading in Camp or Home
  6. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Women “When It All Went Wrong”
  7. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and The Plight of Orphans
  8. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Healing from Wounds
  9. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and War’s Scenes
  10. Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and a Conclusion (this post)

Victor Hugo probably could not have predicted the stunning success that his translated novel achieved in the warring American States. But perhaps he hoped for a social change for the land that still offered limited liberty when the book went to press. David and I have noted that Hugo wrote about slavery in his novel (see Posts 4 and 5). In the closing scenes as Hugo sent one of his characters to the United States and offered a subtle acknowledgment of the juxtaposition in a land that claimed in one of its founding documents that “all men were created equal.”

A character many readers learned to hate—Thenardier—a corpse robber, corrupt innkeeper, thief, and swindler made his fictional way to the New York in the 1830’s. He attempted to blackmail Marius and extort money from him at the end of the book, but ended revealing several important truths, prompting Marius to pay him and fulfill a debt of conscious and honor.

Let us be done with this man at once. Two days after the events we are now relating, he left, through Marius’s care, for America under a false name, with his daughter Azelma, provided with a draft on New York for twenty thousands francs. The adject moral misery of Thenardier, the broken-down bourgeois, was irremediable; in America he was the same thing he had been in Europe. The touch of a wicked man is often enough to corrupt a good dead and to make an evil result spring from it. With Marius’s money, Thenardier became a slave trader.[ii]

It is abrupt and shocking. The “Richmond Translation” of Les Miserables glossed over and mistranslated this section, which hints that the editors knew what Hugo accused. When he published his book in 1862, America still had legal racial slavery and a Confederacy fighting for its expansion. The incurably wicked character of the novel makes a new start in the United States and buys and sells human beings.

Yet the Civil War also raged in 1862, and with it came a new evaluation of liberty and change. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and the 14th and 15th Amendments protected citizens’ right on paper. Enforcement and protection of those civil rights in real life proved a difficult and complicated struggle for equality.

Beyond the barricades on the pages of a novel, a new world was rising through the bloodshed and struggle of the American Civil War. The distant drums promised a future, calling soldiers from their reading to battle again.


[i] “Finale” Les Miserables Musical, excerpt.

[ii] Victor Hugo, unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, Les Miserables (New York: New American Library/Signet Classics, 1987), Page 1451.

5 Responses to Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and a Conclusion

  1. It seems unlikely the Richmond printer would deliberately gloss over slave-trading. Even in the South at the time, slave trading was looked down on. That was one of the many hypocrisies of the time, slave owning was fine, but actually selling slaves was viewed as socially unacceptable.

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