Les Misérables is one of the great epic novels of nineteenth-century European literature, comparable in stature to such monumental works as Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Hugo began writing the novel during the 1840s under the title Les Misères. Stirred by the mounting political upheaval of the later part of that decade, Hugo eventually set the work aside so that he could participate in the political uprising of 1848. He resumed writing the novel in 1861, while living in exile on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, completing the massive work in only fourteen months. Published in 1862, Les Misérables quickly amassed a wide readership in France and was translated into English that same year.
The French word misérables literally means “wretched ones” or “contemptible ones,” although scholars of Hugo’s novel have argued that the title has far deeper connotations, associating misérables with poverty, crime, and other social issues relating to the degradation of a specific class of people. In a profound sense the novel represents Hugo’s scathing critique of class inequalities in nineteenth-century France. Stylistically the novel’s prose is rich and diverse, employing elements from a range of fictional genres. On one level the work functions as allegory: the variable fortunes of Jean Valjean, the novel’s protagonist, mirror political and social developments in France during the period between 1796 (the year of Napoléon’s ascent to a position of power in the French government) and the student insurrection of 1832. Les Misérables is also part detective novel, pitting the relentless and incorruptible Inspector Javert against the persecuted hero Valjean in a battle that reaches its legendary climax with a famous escape scene set in the Parisian sewer system. While a work of fiction, the novel also provides insight into and commentary on numerous historical, political, and philosophical subjects, ranging from Napoléon’s defeat at Waterloo to the evolving architectural landscape of nineteenth-century Paris.
The novel’s influence has been pervasive, both on the development of modern literary realism and on popular culture in general. According to many scholars, Hugo’s unsentimental portrayal of urban squalor exerted a powerful impact on the development of French naturalism in the late-nineteenth century, especially on the fiction of Emile Zola, whose social novels are deeply indebted to Hugo’s masterpiece.
Les Misérables is a sprawling and exhaustive work that weaves together several story lines, as well as numerous lengthy digressions on historical and philosophical subjects. It is the epitome of an epic in terms of plot, thematic and historical scope, and length. The work comprises five volumes, each containing several discrete books, as well as numerous smaller chapters. Each of the volumes is named after one of the novel’s central characters, with the exception of the fourth, which is titled “Saint Denis” after the third-century bishop of Paris, a Catholic saint. The novel doesn’t follow a strict chronology; Hugo frequently travels back and forth through time, temporarily abandoning one plot in order to introduce and develop another.
-- From the entry “Les Misérables, Victor Hugo” in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, eds. Russel Whitaker and Kathy D. Darrow, vol. 189 (Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008), p. 153.