HUMS 366, Interpretations - Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”

Meeting Time: 
T 1:30pm-3:20pm

Considered one of the greatest novels of all time, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) offers more than a thrilling story, unforgettable characters, and powerful writing. It offers a window into history. Working from a new translation, this seminar studies Hugo’s epic masterpiece in all its unabridged glory, but also uses it as a lens to explore the world of nineteenth-century France—including issues such as the criminal justice system, religion, poverty, social welfare, war, prostitution, industrialization, and revolution. Students gain the tools to work both as close readers and as cultural historians in order to illuminate the ways in which Hugo’s text intersects with its context. Attention is also paid to famous stage and screen adaptations of the novel: what do they get right and what do they get wrong? Taught in English, no knowledge of French is required. 


Led by:

Maurice Samuels | Department of French

Professor Maurice Samuels

Professor Maurice Samuels specializes in the literature and culture of nineteenth-century France and in Jewish Studies. He is the author of four books. The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France (Cornell, 2004), examines new forms of historical representation — including panoramas, boulevard theater, and the novel — in post-Revolutionary France. Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France (Stanford, 2010), brings to light the first Jewish fiction writers in French. It won the Scaglione Prize, given by the Modern Language Association for the best book in French studies, and was translated into French (Hermann, 2017). The Right to Difference: French Universalism and the Jews (Chicago, 2016) studies the way French writers and thinkers have conceived of the place of Jews within the nation from the French Revolution to the present. It also won the MLA’s Scaglione Prize for the best book in French Studies. His new book, The Betrayal of the Duchess, a study of France’s first antisemitic affair, was published in 2020 by Basic Books. He also co-edited a Nineteenth-Century Jewish Literature Reader (Stanford, 2013) and edited Les grands auteurs de la littérature juive au XIXe siècle (Éditions Hermann, 2015). A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, he has published articles on diverse topics, including romanticism and realism, aesthetic theory, representations of the Crimean War, boulevard culture, and writers from Balzac to Zola. He has directed the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism since 2011, and is currently also serving as the chair of Yale’s Judaic Studies Program.