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After the publication of the book, France underwent further upheaval, and Hugo returned to France only at the proclamation of the Third Republic (Kirjasto).
Hugo continued his work with the poor, the oppressed and the revolutionaries in that he fought and provided shelter where he could. His work was rewarded with his election as senator of Paris in 1876. Given his life of service to those in need, it is little wonder that his funeral was attended by two million people.
Clearly Valjean, like many other Hugo characters, share many characteristics with the author. While Hugo was not born into poverty, Valjean was helped by Monseigneur Myriel to achieve a level of wealth similar to that of Hugo. From this basis of power, both Valjean and Hugo work to uplift and empower the poor. Indeed, Hugo's sympathy with the plight of the poor does not diminish to his dying day, as his will determined that his coffin be carried on a bare carriage, the like of which was usually reserved for the funerals of the poor (Hamel 124).
Furthermore both Valjean and Hugo had ample opportunity to enjoy their wealth without further bothering with social issues. Perhaps for Valjean more than for Victor Hugo it does however make some sense to concern himself with the community of poor from which he came. Hugo on the other hand is inspired by his literary ideals to care for the social issues and be involved in changing systems where he saw the need (Kirjasto).
Another similarity is the way in which both Valjean and Hugo carried out their work in favor of the suffering masses under the guise of social position and respectability. This is what made both his literary and social efforts so effective. In literature Hugo did away with all pretense, unmasking the upper classes for their hypocrisy and cruelty, while also exposing the injustice that often is lost within the propaganda of politics. This propaganda is also criticized in Hugo's book. The Thenardier for example cater to the rich while abusing and neglecting the poor and helpless, such as Cosette. When Valjean exposes them for what they are, they do their best to keep up their pretense in their dealings with Cosette and her mother. Both the reader and Valjean however easily see through this hypocrisy.
Hugo and Valjean are contrasted however perhaps in their complexity. Whereas Valjean marks the simple progress of a man from poverty- and socially induced criminality to kindness-induced reform, Hugo as the creator of the character encompasses more than one diverse characters. Indeed, his thorough, methodical and high-principled methods of investigation match those of Javert. Hugo's character, as has been seen above, is however closer to that of Valjean in being sympathetic to the hunted instead of the hunter that Javert is. His innate humanity is the same as that of Valjean, who lifted the cart from the fallen victim despite marked danger to himself, his reputation and his hard-earned freedom.
In terms of the French Revolution, Hugo as poet somewhat romanticized the barricades (Kirjasto). This in the novel is done by means of the revolutionary soldiers. The fight at the barricades was for them an almost religious call to duty, and something for which they could die nobly. This romanticism is however soon lost when the reality of the wished-for "noble" deaths begin to actually occur. This effect is also found within the personality of Hugo himself, whose romanticized version of the barricades is tempered by his own involvement in the setting of the French Revolution in all its gory reality. This dichotomy is also found within the reality of the events as they happened in history. An often romanticized and noble goal is in reality far worse than the idealized version (Hamel 25).
This mixture of idealism and realism is then also paradoxically embodied within the writer himself. In all his work, both political and literary, Hugo displays this paradox. This is a paradox that is also present in Valjean on a more literal and smaller scale. Valjean is the victim of his circumstances. He is forced by the reality of his situation into an abusive prison situation. His innate idealism however is awakened by the idealism of a bishop, and this is his driving force throughout the rest of the novel (Hamel 80).
The events in the novel parallel this paradox. The Revolution, as seen above, is viewed as both a proud ideal and a devastating reality. So is love. Many sacrifices are made for the ideal of love, one of which is the tragic fall of Eponine. Out of her love for Marius, she devotes herself to carrying messages for him, knowing of his love for Cosette. She is one of the casualties of the Revolution, and is shot. Her sacrifice makes possible the perfect union of Marius and Cosette (Kirjasto).
One of the points the novel makes is thus that nothing good is possible without sacrifice. Cosette's and Marius's wedding is all the more beautiful because a terrible price had been paid for it. Here also Valjean shows great tenacity in his willingness to sacrifice himself. He is losing his adopted daughter to Marius, but for the sake of her happiness he is willing to let her go. Hugo is of course no stranger to parental grief, having lost his daughter and her husband in a drowning accident.
In general, the events of the Revolution, social injustice and poverty in Hugo's novel are rendered with great accuracy, having been told from a viewpoint of an author experiencing those very things. The sentimentality of which Hugo was on occasion accused is tempered with a realism that does not shy away from the grim realities often faced by the poor, prisoners and revolutionaries.
Despite this, Hugo emphasizes the fact that kindness is a force that can overcome the hardest heart, which is where Valjean begins his journey to redemption. The sentimentality and romanticism of the novel are what gives it its power. It connects the hearts of the characters with those of the readers, relating the possibility that all hardship can be overcome by positive forces such as love and kindness. This is proved in the novel by Valjean, and in life by Hugo.
Victor Hugo to this day is recognized as one of the greatest figures of literature. This is not only the result of the beauty and style of his works, but also of the power of his work to touch the hearts of readers. This power stems from the fact that Hugo, like Valjean, worked alongside the poor and the oppressed to change a system that he found to be at fault. This is the lesson that endures when all others have long expired, and this is what gives both Hugo and Valjean, as well as his other characters, their power. Hugo was thus a giant of both the literary, political and social world, according to his ideals.
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Bauer, Henri Francois. Les "Ballades" de Victor Hugo Geneve: Slatkine, 1975.
Brombert, Victor. "A novelist and his century - Victor Hugo." In UNESCO Courier, November 1985.
Hamel, Ernest. Victor Hugo. Paris: Tinterlin, 1860
Hudson, William Henry. Victor Hugo and His Poetry. London: George G. Harrap, 1918
Kirjasto. "Victor Hugo." 2001. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/vhugo.htm
Unmasking the Bourgeoisie: The Romantic Victor Marie Hugo." 2000. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/jkr/hugo.html
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. "The Jean Valjean…[continue]
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