The Underworld

Victor Hugo vs. Jean Valjean


The System

Famous Crime





"Sitting on the ground like the rest, he seemed to comprehend nothing of his position, except its horror: probably there was mingled with the vague ideas of a poor ignorant man a notion that there was something excessive in the penalty."

--Les Miserables, Fantine, Book 2

"Nineteen years" is a common theme of Les Miserables. It is interesting to note what this time period means for the main character of the novel, Jean Valjean, and also for the novel's author, Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean was imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and then subsequently attempting to escape from prison. Victor Hugo was exiled from Paris for nineteen years for involvement in a revolution after the coup d'etat of 1851.

Thus the question is raised? How much of Victor Hugo is in Jean Valjean? As far as the issue of imprisonment goes, it is not unreasonable to say that Jean Valjean's experience is congruent to the exile Hugo endured: "For Paris is a sum total. Paris is the ceiling of the human race." (Les Miserables, Marius, Book 1) Thus, exile to Hugo was like prison, and the cruelties bestowed on Valjean are possibly his personal outrage regarding his exile; venting his feelings towards the political system that forced him from his beloved Paris.

An image Jean Valjean from Les MisÚrables on-line text edition; first published in 1862; by Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co. Photograph of Victor Hugo from Hugoweb.
There are physical similarities between the character of Jean Valjean (shown right) and Hugo (left). Both have a rather puritanical style of dress, though these dark garbs might also be seen as very bourgeois. Besides that, they are both about the same age, have nearly the same hairstyle and the features of their faces are similar: note the shape of the nose, the length of the forehead, the shape of his mouth. Is it possible that the artist based his model of Valjean on the author himself? It seems likely, and perhaps this helps to serve the correlation between the two mentioned above, as it shows others saw a strong resemblance between author and creation.


This page was created by M. Childs