Set in France during the first decades of the 19th century, this is a story of the struggles of the lower classes — the miserable, the dispossessed, and the dissatisfied.
While many people in the 21st century know the story because of the highly popular and quite magnificent musical theatre show, most have never read the book. It is a large novel: epic in its scope, powerful in its storytelling and heartbreaking in its story and drama.
Many of the key events of the novel were based on events and circumstances that Hugo witnessed personally, adding a depth of detail and authenticity that immerses the reader in the settings and makes them feel as they are right there, watching the events and listening to the characters’ conversations.
Admittedly, there are some passages that are moral reflections rather than narrative, but they do add depth of understanding to the social issues and conflicts experienced by the French people of the time, and cause the reader to reflect on the responsibility of those with wealth and power to ensure that those under their rule are able to live without despair. Given that it is not possible to separate a work of literature from the society and environment in which it was written, Hugo’s thought-provoking digressions remain relevant to the story overall.
One can simply watch the musical or a film adaptation, but they will not deliver the full impact of the story as it is told in the book. It’s a magnificent, wide-reaching story with themes of social justice, equality and personal redemption that are still really powerful and resonate with readers today.