Reading Les Misérables

Reading Les Misérables (FREN 4250/6250) is a course that examines Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables within its artistic and social environments looking at Paris’s history and social conflicts, art, film adaptations, etc.

I teach this seminar at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Manuscrit des Misérables, exergue. 1er janvier 1862

“Tant qu’il existera, par le fait des lois et des mœurs, une damnation sociale créant artificiellement, en pleine civilisation, des enfers, et compliquant d’une fatalité humaine la destinée qui est divine ; tant que les trois problèmes du siècle, la dégradation de l’homme par le prolétariat, la déchéance de la femme par la faim, l’atrophie de l’enfant par la nuit, ne seront pas résolus ; tant que, dans de certaines régions, l’asphyxie sociale sera possible ; en d’autres termes, et à un point de vue plus étendu encore, tant qu’il y aura sur la terre ignorance et misère, des livres de la nature de celui-ci pourront ne pas être inutiles.”

Hauteville-House, 1er janvier 1862.
Victor Hugo.


French version

English translation

Edition used in class

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Présentation et notes de Guy Rosa. Commentaires de Nicole Savy. Le Livre de Poche, 2016 (2 volumes) [ISBN: 978-2253096337 + 978-2253096344].
This edition has helpful notes and documents to help you in your reading.

Q & A

If I want to read Les Misérables in English, which translation of Les Misérables should I choose?

Manuscrit des Misérables, f° 856 v° (chapitre III, 8, 6)

Translation matters. It affects the reader’s response to a literary piece. One of the biggest challenges in this arena of literary translation is the balance to remain true to the original work while creating an entirely unique piece that evokes the same responses as the original piece. Victor Hugo, as any author, has chosen a particular word for a particular reason, so it’s up to the translator to ensure it is rightfully delivered in the target language.

  • Isabel F. Hapgood, translator. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1887.
    • The translation of the Gutenberg project. Unabridged; a handful of typos throughout.
  • Christine Donougher, translator. London & New York: Penguin Books, 2015.
    • A modern and engaging translation. The book has detailed notes that greatly help readers understand Hugo’s many references.
  • Julie Rose, translator. New York: Modern Library, 2009.
    • Can be too “modernized” as her intention was to “come up with a Hugo for our time.” This edition includes a lot of additional background information and helpful historical notes by Adam Gopnik.
  • Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, translators. New York: Signet Classics / Penguin Random House, 2013.
    • Based on Wilbour’s 1862 translation. Contains a few errors of translation and has no informational notes.
  • Charles Wilbour, translator. London: Everyman’s Library, 1998.
    • This is the first American 1862 translation: uses an old style of English and may sound a bit dated. “This edition is the classic English translation of Hugo’s friend Charles Wilbour, which appeared the same year the novel was published in France.” Available for free (no longer under copyright.)

Should I read an abridged version of Les Miserables?

Lee Fahnestock, in his introduction to the 1987 unabridged Signet Classics edition, naturally advises against it: “While several abridged editions exist in English, that expedient seems a mistake. It is almost impossible to predict the individual detail, the flashing image or human quirk precisely observed, that will burn its way into a reader’s mind for good. The sound solution is to honor the author’s wishes.” (xii).

What are the differences between Les Mis the novel and Les mis the musical?

The musical differs in that it’s extremely condensed compared to a 1,000-page book. Its duration is about 3 hours. An unabridged audiobook is 58 to 68 hours!