Victor Hugo: Writer Extraordinaire at the Front Lines of Revolution

By Dane McMichael

            Passion. Love. Revolution. These are all words we associate with the global phenomenon that is the musical masterpiece Les Misérables. Since its birth in England at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, Les Miz has captivated audiences in 22 different languages, 42 countries and 319 cities. The cathartic music, captivating spectacle and soul-searching story remains fiercely relevant today. Based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel published in 1862, Les Miz the musical was created by artists who embraced Hugo’s work and the universal themes of liberty.

France was careening on a precipice of unrest when Victor Hugo was born in 1802. During the previous decade, social and political upheaval were the norm. The French people had risen up against the monarchy and stormed the famous prison-fortress, the Bastille. From the time Hugo was born to the time he died in 1885, there were public demonstrations and mass revolt for the causes of justice and liberty in France. With a pen as his sword and eloquence as his shield, Hugo was a leader in that struggle.

            A well-educated Renaissance man, Hugo grew up as the son of an officer in the army of Emperor Napoleon. Hugo travelled extensively, and was immersed in the world of politics and writing. He was a published poet by the age of 20. He would continue to write poetry, but his career as a politician and writer would soon take the lead. When his political occupation was too demanding to allow time for writing, Hugo took pleasure in sketching and doodling as an outlet, and gained recognition for his artwork. (See Hugo’s art here.)

            Hugo excelled at politics, earning his way into positions of importance where he could proclaim the needs of the French people who suffered from hunger, disease, and social injustice. He advocated for abolishing the death penalty and wrote several novels on that theme. Hugo would also fight for universal suffrage and proper education for all children.
            Hugo’s profound personal beliefs strongly influenced all of his works, including Last Day of a Condemned Man; his timeless classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and one of the most revered novels in classic literature: Les Misérables. Social unrest was the catalyst for this novel, and Hugo drew from injustices he witnessed firsthand.

            He based Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Miz,on Eugene Vidocq, a criminal who was pardoned and later praised for his philanthropy and social involvement. (Vidocq also helped Hugo do research for two of his other novels). Hugo himself was caught in the streets during the actual revolt portrayed in the story. He also witnessed a bread thief being arrested while a Duchess and her son ignored the entire situation from the comfort of their carriage, and another where he challenged the police for arresting a prostitute who was charged with assault.  

The French Constitution of 1848 led to a democratic election as part of the Second Republic. Napoleon III—the nephew and heir of Napoleon I—was elected as president.

The bloom of French democracy would be short-lived. When Napoleon III was blocked by the Constitution and Parliament from running for a second term, he organized a coup d'état in 1851, and then took the throne, imposing censorship and harsh repressive measures against his opponents.

            Hugo proclaimed Napoleon a tyrant and fled France. He sought refuge in several countries, but ultimately settled down on a small island off the coast of Normandy. Here, in the sanctity of his political exile, Hugo would craft his famous epic of mercy, justice and redemption.

Dane McMichael is a DeSales University theatre major and a member of the 2015 PSF Young Company.