Teaching ‘Les Misérables’ In Prison

I spent the last four months teaching Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Misérables” at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey. My students—like Hugo’s main character, Jean Valjean, who served 19 years in prison—struggle with shame, guilt, injustice, poverty and discrimination, and yearn for redemption and transformation. The novel gave them a lens to view their lives and a ruling system every bit as cruel as Hugo’s 19th-century France. “Les Misérables” was wildly successful when it was published, including among Civil War soldiers in the United States, although Hugo’s condemnation of slavery was censored from Confederate copies. It was American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs’ favorite book—he read it in French. The socialist British Prime Minister Lloyd George said “Les Misérables” taught him more about poverty and the human condition than anything else he had ever read and instilled in him a lifelong ambition “to alleviate the distress and the suffering of the poor.”

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