Who Weeps Not, Sees Not: Celebrating Victor Hugo's Les Misérables


Illustration of the dramatic journey carrying Marius through the sewers.

For a break from the current squalor, we pay tribute to Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who on this date in 1862 published the last chapter of Les Misérables, his extraordinary, riveting, timeless, 1,500 page paean to the wretched of the earth that gave voice to the long-suffering voiceless. The well-known, bare-bones plot of Hugo's masterwork tells the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant and tree pruner who steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children, is imprisoned for 19 years, and goes on to transform his life and many others' through the political upheaval of revolutionary France even as he is pursued by the vengeful Inspector Javert.

As much activist and legislator as artist, Hugo's own politics evolved over the 20 years he spent writing his masterwork - years spanning the 1848 French Revolution. What began as a furious cry against poverty, brutal police, economic injustice and an inhumane prison system came to explore revolution, class struggle, spiritual and moral growth, and the redeeming power of love. Hugo writes about life and death and everything between: He calls for compassion, equality, solidarity, dignity for women, free education - "the right to the alphabet" - while embarking on long, dense, oddly fascinating digressions about Waterloo - okay we skipped it - and the Paris sewer system, which is pretty cool. He is funny, moving, full of rage and grace, deeply human, always.

At his funeral in 1885 - he asked to be buried in a pauper's casket - over two million people, more than the population of Paris, came to celebrate Hugo's enduring legacy in "a festival of the oppressed." Their fervor affirmed Hugo's longtime claim to the universality of his themes: In a letter to his Italian publishers, he insisted, "Misery concerns us all...In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: 'Open to me, I come for you.'"

Alas, many of the millions who know Les Misérables as a movie/musical/Disney cartoon have failed to read the book; we just got around to it last year. A word from the newly wise: Read it. It's astonishing, and will enrich your life. It's also stunningly, sorrowfully relevant, now more than ever. So is the final missive Hugo reportedly wrote, days before his death: "To love is to act."


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