I first saw Les Miserables on Broadway in 1995. I fell in love with this story, cried all the way through it and even chased Jean Valjean through the streets of NY after the play trying to get his autograph (He just kept running!!!). True story!
Consequently, the first thing I did when I moved to Paris was to start reading Les Miserables , noting the boulevards, houses, monuments that Hugo details in the story and walking through them recreating this incredible homage to Paris. To my surprise and fortune, I walk down these same streets every day to class, through the jardins, boulevards and houses of Les Mis. I am still chasing Jean Valjean!
Victor Hugo’s famous novel, Les Misérables, chronicles the history of France from 1815 through 1832. This 1500+ page tome examines the harsh consequences of breaking the law tempered with divine grace of redemption. Weaved into this story of romantic and familial love is Hugo’s view of politics, philosophy, religion, war and justice. He also includes a descriptive detail of Paris during this time period including the architecture, parks, boulevards, and monuments.
Hugo refers to himself as the author,“who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself, but has been absent from Paris for many years”. He continues,
“It (Paris)was a time of peace. The Parisian is to the Frenchman what the Athenian was to the Greek. No one sleeps more soundly than he. Paris has a sovereign joviality…her books, her theatre, her art, her science, her philosophy; these are the manuals of the human race-Pascal, Corneille, Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Moliere for every century”.
In Part III, “Ecce Paris, ecce homo” Hugo says Paris is”the ceiling of the human race. Paris is the world in miniature- Athens, Rome, Sybaris, Jerusalem, Pantin-all the civilizations, and all the barbarisms as well. She would be grieved if she had no guillotine”.
Fantine is introduced into the story as she crosses the Seine from Passy to meet with her friends at the L’Etoile of the Champs Elysees. Hugo writes, “she takes refuge in illusions, sings and prays, a dreamer, thoughtful, pensive, her eyes are fixed on heaven.” She falls in love with Tholomyess and becomes pregnant with Cosette. However, he soon abandons her to raise Cosette alone.
One of the turning points in the life of Jean Valjean is when he experiences forgiveness from Monseigneur Bienvenu, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy back from you…I give it to God”. Jean Valjean becomes a new man and spends each day in prayer at L’Eglise Saint Medard.
As Fantine lay dying, she asks Jean Valjean to raise Cosette for her. When Valjean rescues Cosette from the horrible family where she had been living, Hugo explains that ,”something new had come into his soul. Jean Valjean had never loved anything…He protected her and she strengthened him. Thanks to him, she could walk through life. Oh unfathomable and divine mystery of the balances of destiny”.
Through this story, we experience first-hand through Marius the events which followed the Revolution in Paris up to the uprising on 5-6 June, 1832 on the steps of the Pantheon following the death of General Lamarque. Fifty three years later, Victor Hugo would be buried in the Pantheon with a funeral procession of more than 2 million people.
We also experience Marius’falling in love with Cosette in the Luxembourg Gardens as she and her Papa would sit on a bench each day by a gladiator statue.
Les Miserables ends with a scene from the famous Père Lachaise cemetery where Jean Valjean has just been buried. On his tomb, someone chalked these lines: He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,He lived; and when his dear love left him, died. It happened of itself, in the calm way, That in the evening night-time follows day.
Hugo loved his Paris. He was a member of the National Assembly and raised money to preserve the Arenes de Lutece, a Roman arena built in 1100, and to repair the Notre Dame Cathedral. He spent his last years living at the Place des Voges in the Marais section of Paris as a National Hero.
Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)