Tolstoy once suggested that Les Misérables was one of the world’s greatest novels. It’s not difficult to see why. Victor Hugo’s tale of redemption and revolution has captured adoration since its first publication in 1862, and has subsequently been adapted countless times.
One of the novel’s most famous episodes revolves around the fall of a barricade in June 1832. I have discussed the June Rebellion here, but I thought it would be interesting to more closely examine the novel’s depiction of events.
Curiously, Victor Hugo disapproved of the June Rebellion. He feared that the violent scenes of 5-6 June 1832 would discredit republicanism in France, and stated that the republic would arise by itself. However, he would later come to romanticise the June Rebellion in Les Misérables.
It is important to note that Hugo’s political beliefs changed dramatically throughout his life. He was first a royalist, then a Bonapartist, before ending firmly on the left-wing of politics. This shift in ideology is dramatised in the life of Marius Pontmercy, one of the novel’s protagonists.
Hugo was mostly raised by his mother, a monarchist. His father, meanwhile, had been a soldier under Napoleon, and ended his career as a count. After the death of his mother, Hugo rediscovered his estranged father and the family’s title. As a result, he deeply admired Napoleon, and helped contribute to the legend of the Emperor through his poetry. All of this appears in Les Misérables: Marius is estranged from his father due to his grandfather, and later takes the title of Baron Pontmercy to honour him.
However, Hugo eventually left his Bonapartist ideals. Whilst he had upheld the importance of order against mob rebellions in 1848, he became a staunch defender of Republicanism during the Second Empire, which was led by Napoleon’s nephew. He opposed Napoleon III, viewing him as a tyrant, and it was this that drove him into exile, and towards the left wing of politics.
Most of the barricade scenes in Les Misérables are grounded in the reality of the June Rebellion, though his revolutionaries and their barricade are of his own invention. This is particularly notable with the Friends of the ABC, who are middle-class students, whereas the true participants were mostly working-class. Even so, it is still possible to see the echoes of the real June Rebellion in the novel.
They declared themselves the Friends of the A.B.C. The abased were the people. They wished to raise them up.Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Volume III; Book IV
Hugo utilised the Friends of the ABC to represent a wide range of republican beliefs. In Enjolras, for example, he described the more extreme side of the republicans; those who insisted upon the right to revolt. The Friends of the ABC is a secret society, clearly based on the Société des Amis du Peuple and the Société des droits de l’homme, who both played a significant role in organising the demonstration. As noted earlier, the novel’s revolutionaries are mostly students. University students did play a part in the June Rebellion, and the appearance of 60 polytechniciens was cheered as they escaped over the walls of their institution.
He snatched the flag from Enjolras, who drew back petrified, and then, nobody daring to stop him, or to aid him, this old man of eighty, with shaking head but firm foot, began to climb slowly up the stairway of paving stones built into the barricade.Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Volume IV; Book XIV
One of the most emotive scenes in Les Misérables is the death of M. Mabeuf, who is shot on the barricade as he attempted to replace the fallen flag. This moment holds many similarities with a true account of the June Rebellion:
An old man, with a bald head and grey beard, fell dead just within the barricade, at the moment when, elevating a tricoloured flag, he was calling upon his comrades to make some grand, desperate effort.Histoire de dix ans, by Louis Blanc.
Louis Blanc was a French politician and writer. His Histoire de dix ans, first published in 1841, included a narrative of the June Rebellion. In this, Blanc heavily criticised the July Monarchy. He is mentioned by Hugo in Les Misérables, and it may easily be argued that many of the details and events of the June Rebellion were drawn from Blanc’s account.
They heard the tocsin of Saint Merry, which had not been silent a moment since the evening; a proof that the other barricade, the great one, that of Jeanne, still held out.Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Volume V; Book I
Jeanne’s barricade was, of course, the final one of the June Rebellion to fall. Charles Jeanne was a member of the National Guard, but had switched to the side of the insurgents following the tragic charge of the dragoons. He had been convinced that the government was sending troops purposefully against its opponents. He then rushed to build barricades in self-defence, as he had done during the July Revolution of 1830. After his trial, in which he argued for the honour of those he had fought alongside, he became the symbolic hero of the June Rebellion.
Les Misérables built the myth of the barricades, to the point that they are now synonymous with revolution. It is a novel that embodies the spirit of revolution in the 19th century, and speaks to the human principles of redemption and compassion. I heartily recommend it to all.
- Harsin, Jill. 2015. Barricades : The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris 1830-1848. Harsin, J. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Lough, John, and Muriel Lough. 1978. An Introduction to Nineteenth Century France /. Longman.
- Tombs, Robert. 2013. Introduction to Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Penguin.
- Traugott, Mark. 2010. The Insurgent Barricade. Traugott, Mark. University of California Press.
- Washington, Peter. 1998. Introduction to Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Everyman’s Library