In order to gain a full understanding of the backstory behind Les Miserables, it is important to consider the spiritual element. Victor Hugo was actively involved in politics, and Les Miserables was an outgrowth of his political convictions and the obligation which he felt to speak for those who had no voice in French society. But if we look at it from that standpoint alone, we will miss an awful lot.
The reason is that Victor Hugo was Christian, and Les Miserables grew out of his Christian convictions. There is a lot of tragedy in Les Miserables; almost all of the characters die during the story, and even the ones who survive are impacted by the loss of the ones who die. Because of that, Les Miserables would be nothing more than a sad story if you try to read it without the Christian understanding that this world is NOT all there is, that death is not the end of everything but rather the entrance to another world that we can scarcely begin to imagine or to understand.
Let us start by taking a look at the spiritual climate of Victor Hugo’s France. In summary, it was deeply divided, and those divisions fell predominantly along political lines.
France was officially a Catholic nation, which meant that the French monarchs swore for themselves and their subjects unwavering allegiance to the Catholic Church. In return, the Catholic Church legitimized and undergirded the authority of the French monarchs. Thus, support for the French monarchs implied and necessitated support for the Catholic Church, and vice versa. Devout Catholicism was part and parcel of Royalist convictions, and the Catholic Church in France was married to the Royalist position (at the official, institutional level, at least).
And then on the other side, you had the Republicans.
The French Revolution was a predominantly atheistic movement, rooted in and fueled by a profound hostility toward the French monarchy and all things related to it, including the Catholic Church. Supporters of the Revolution had as their philosophical basis the ideas of Voltaire, who was a Deist and an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church in France. These ideas, along with the ideas of Hobbes and Locke, served to inform the Republican political position through much of the 19th century.
Support for the Revolution and for Republicanism did not necessitate atheism, but there was a definite gravitational pull in that direction. The Jacobins and the Directory were strongly atheistic, and they pretty much shut down the Catholic Church in France during the years that they were in power. (We will see a reference to this in the story when we meet Fantine.) Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated the Catholic Church during his reign (we know this because Monsigneur Bienvenu, the bishop of Digne whom we meet at the beginning of the story, was installed by Napoleon). Many Republicans of the Bonapartist variety were Catholic (nominally at least), but the more progressive they became, the more atheistic they became as well.
Early on in his literary career Victor Hugo came under the influence of Felicite de Lamennais, a well-known cleric and writer who preached a very progressive and socially conscious form of Christianity and whose ideas were considered subversive by the established church. Lamennais preached, among other things, that the church should not align itself with the state, but instead with the people.
This influence shows through strongly in Les Miserables, which is informed by Hugo’s Christian belief that we are responsible for how the least and the lowest among us fare in our society. I have already laid out how Les Miserables illustrates Victor Hugo’s concern for the least and the lowest among us, so I will not belabor that point here. I will merely state that this concern for the least and the lowest among us is one of the fundamental elements of Christian belief, and that its appearance as one of the prominent themes of Les Miserables is a product of Victor Hugo’s Christianity just as much as it is a product of his political beliefs.
It is clear from any serious reading of the Gospels that Jesus made it a priority to devote the bulk of his time and attention to those who were at the margins of first-century Jewish society: the poor, the sick, the notorious sinners, and anyone else who was excluded for whatever reason from full participation in Jewish religious life. Jesus took this so far that he actually said “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). I will not belabor this point any further.
Another aspect of Les Miserables which is worthy of attention is the fact that several of the main characters are like Christ in some form or fashion. The clearest example of Christlikeness is the bishop Monsigneur Bienvenu whom we meet in the opening chapters. Next we have Jean Valjean, whom we first meet as a hardened convict, but who undergoes a complete transformation over the course of the story and by the end he is just as much an example of Christlikeness as Monsigneur Bienvenu. Even the character Gavroche displays Christlike traits through his ability to find joy in his lowly position in life, and in his ability to be generous with the next to nothing that he has in the way of material goods. We will look at all of these in more detail as we go through the story.
As we read this story, we will find that Victor Hugo was not particularly fond of the Catholic Church as a social institution. Nevertheless, his work is infused with the key ideals of Christianity: a concern for the least and lowest among us, living a life which is focused upon another world which we have not yet seen and cannot begin to understand, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by the character of Christ and broadcasting that influence ourselves to transform other people and the world around us.