The Historical Background to 'Les Miserables'

Les Miserables
Thibaut Marion/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Les Miserables, one of the most popular musicals of all time, is based on a novel of the same name by French author Victor Hugo. Published in 1862, the book referenced what were already historic events. 

Les Miserables tells the fictional story of Jean Valjean, a man who has unjustly been condemned to nearly two decades of prison for stealing a loaf of bread to save a starving child. Because the story takes place in Paris, involves the misery of the Parisian underclass, and comes to a climax during a battle, many people assume that the story is set during the French Revolution.

In fact, the story of Les Miz begins in 1815, more than two decades after the start of the French Revolution. However, it is important to know about the French Revolution so that one can understand what is going through the minds of Marius, Enjolras, and the other characters during the Paris uprising of 1832.

The French Revolution: Storming the Bastille

According to "The DK History of the World," the revolution began in 1789 and was "a deep-rooted revolt by many classes against the whole order of society." The impoverished were infuriated by their economic hardships, food shortages, and the callous attitudes of the upper classes. Who could forget Marie Antionette's infamous line about the public's lack of bread: "Let them eat cake"? However, the lower classes were not the only angry voices. The middle class, inspired by progressive ideologies and America's newly won freedom, demanded reform.

Finance Minister Jacques Necker was one of the strongest advocates of the lower classes. When the monarchy banished Necker that year, public outrage ensued throughout France. People viewed his banishment as a sign to come together and overthrow their oppressive government. This provides a striking contrast to the events in Les Miserables, in which the young rebels erroneously believe that the masses will rise up to join their cause.

On July 14, 1789, several days after Necker's banishment, revolutionaries overtook the Bastille Prison. This act launched the French Revolution. At the time of the siege, the Bastille maintained only seven prisoners. However, the old fortress held an abundance of gunpowder, making it both a strategic as well as a politically symbolic target. The prison's governor was ultimately captured and killed. His head and the heads of other guards were skewered onto pikes and paraded through the streets. The mayor of Paris was assassinated by the end of the day. While the revolutionaries barricaded themselves in streets and buildings, King Louis XVI and his military leaders decided to back off to appease the masses.

After the Revolution: The Reign of Terror

Things got messy. The French Revolution started out bloody, and it didn't take long for things to become utterly gruesome. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were dethroned in 1792 (despite his many attempts to offer reform to French citizens). In 1793 they, along with many other members of the nobility, were executed.

During the next seven years, the nation underwent a series of coups, wars, famines, and counterrevolutions. During the so-called "Reign of Terror," ironically, Maximilien de Robespierre, who was in charge of the Committee of Public Safety, sent as many as 40,000 people to the guillotine. He believed that swift and brutal justice would produce virtue among France's citizens—a belief shared by the Les Miz character of Inspector Javert.

What Happened Next: The Rule of Napoleon

While the new republic struggled through what could euphemistically be called growing pains, a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte ravaged Italy, Egypt, and other countries. When he and his forces returned to Paris, he and other leaders staged a coup, and Napoleon became First Consul of France. From 1804 until 1814 he bore the title of Emperor of France. After losing in the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the island of St. Helena. Although he was a fierce tyrant, many citizens (as well as many of the characters in Les Miserables) viewed the general/dictator as a liberator of France.

The monarchy was then reestablished and King Louis XVIII assumed the throne. Les Miserables's opening year of 1815 is near the beginning of the new king's reign.

The Historical Setting of 'Les Miserables'

Les Miserables timeframe is one of economic strife, famine, and disease. Despite all of the revolutions and changing political parties, the lower classes still have little voice in society.

The story reveals their harsh life, as exemplified by the tragedy of Fantine, a young woman who is fired from her factory job after it is discovered that she bore a child (Cosette) out of wedlock. After losing her position, Fantine is forced to sell her personal belongings, her hair, and even her teeth, so that she can send money to her daughter. Ultimately, Fantine becomes a prostitute, falling to the lowest rung of society.

The July Monarchy

Character Jean Valjean promises the dying Fantine that he will protect her daughter. He adopts Cosette, paying off her greedy, cruel caretakers, Monsieur and Madame Thenadier. Fifteen years pass peacefully for Valjean and Cosette as they hide in an abbey. During this time, King Louis dies and King Charles X takes over briefly. The new king is soon exiled in 1830 during the July Revolution, also known as the Second French Revolution. Louis Philippe d'Orléans assumes the throne, beginning a reign known as the July Monarchy.

In the story of Les Miserables, Valjean's relatively tranquil existence becomes imperiled when Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young member of "Friends of the ABC," a fictional organization created by author Hugo that mirrors many of the small revolutionary groups of the time. Valjean risks his life by joining the rebellion in order to save Marius.

The June Rebellion

Marius and his friends represent the sentiments expressed by many freethinkers in Paris. They wanted to reject the monarchy and return France to a republic once more. The Friends of the ABC strongly support a liberal-minded politician named Jean Lamarque. (Unlike the Friends of the ABC, Lamarque was real. He was a general under Napoleon who became a member of France's parliament. He was also sympathetic to the republican ideologies.) When Lamarque lay dying of cholera, many people believed that the government had poisoned public wells, resulting in the deaths of popular political figures.

Enjolras, the leader of The Friends of the ABC, knows that Lamarque's death may serve as an important catalyst to their revolution.

MARIUS: Only one man—and that's Lamarque/Speaks for the people here below....Lamarque is ill and fading fast!/Won't last the week out, so they say.
ENJOLRAS: With all the anger in the land/How long before the judgment day?/Before we cut the fat ones down to size?/Before the barricades arise?

The End of the Uprising

As depicted in the novel and musical, the June Rebellion did not end well for the rebels. They expected that the people would support their cause; however, they soon realized that no reinforcements would be joining them.

According to historian Matt Boughton, both sides suffered casualties: "166 killed and 635 wounded on both sides during the course of the struggle." Of those 166, 93 were members of the rebellion. As Marius describes it, "Empty chairs at empty tables, where my friends sing no more..."