Les Misérables. The book written by Victor Hugo. One of the longest-running musicals, written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. The movies based off the musical. This tragic story will have you at the edge of your seat, but, please, get the story correctly.
Many people are to believe that this story takes place during the French Revolution. This, however, is incorrect. The French Revolution began in 1789 with the storming in Bastille, while most of Les Misérables takes place in 1832. Two different centuries.
In the morning of June 5, 1832, workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris. The death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, who was a friend to the poor and downtrodden, was the trigger of the events that occurred that night.
Victor Hugo-who was at the age of 30-was sitting nearby writing a play. It was then when he heard a gunfire coming from Les Halles (Paris’ central fresh food market). Hugo-instead of heading back home-followed the sound of the gunshots. According to Wikipedia, Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde (World’s End Street).He was soon surrounded by barricades and had flung himself against a wall. Decades later, Hugo wrote about the experience at the barricades, Les Misérables.
When a shot rang out from somewhere, the crowd began throwing stones at the military. The cry “To the barricades!” was heard throughout the streets. But did that have a different meaning?
According to Mark Trauggot in his book The Insurgent Barricade:
“Insurgents began uprooting the saplings planted to replace the larger trees cut down during the July Days. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These classic raw materials were natural choices because they added mass, helped knit the structure together, and were usually found in abundance right at the site of the barricade construction. Between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were initially reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the Seine. Individual structures took as little as fifteen minutes to erect.
“Even as the first barricades were going up, a frantic search for arms began. Some rebels had to be content with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were the weapons of choice, and bands of insurgents boldly seized them from small patrols of soldiers encountered in the streets. Others joined in pillaging the premises of Lepage frères, the largest of several Paris gunsmiths whose establishments were looted.”
The Insurgents had pleaded for help, but no one came. The citizens of Paris weren’t as quick to join the revolution compared to the funeral procession. In the theatrical production of Les Miz, the army officer warns the Insurgents:
You at the barricade listen to this!
No one is coming to help you to fight
You’re on your own
You have no friends
Give up your guns – or die!
And-according to Traugott- it was true. “The casualty toll among the insurgents, mounting as high as 800 dead and wounded, was particularly heavy because the people of Paris withheld their support, leaving most of the committed insurgents of June 1832 to pay for their rebellion with their lives.”
In the French Revolution, the revolutionaries had won. Remember the beheadings of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, etc? This was different. Traugott wrote, “The last guns were silenced a barely twenty-four hours after hostilities had begun.”
Many people wonder if the elephant statue from the book/movie actually existed, and why. The Elephant of Bastille was a monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846. Created in 1808 by Napoleon, the statue was meant to be made out of bronze and placed in the Place De La Bastille. However, only a full-scale model was built. The 78ft high model became a recognizable construction and become more well-known due to Victor Hugo in his novel, Les Misérables(1862), in which it is used as a shelter for the street urchin known as Gavroche.
The elephant statue was described negatively by Victor Hugo:
"It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,” as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker." —Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862