Friday, October 7, 2016

Les Miserables and the June Rebellion

Have you ever examined the actual historical context within Les Mis?  Contrary to popular belief, it isn't set during the French Revolution (which began with the Storming of the Bastille in 1789).  Rather, the fighting in Les Miserables lasted only two days during the little known June Rebellion of 1832.  So many small rebellions cropped up all over France in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century that it's likely the June Rebellion would not even be remembered today if it wasn't for Victor Hugo's work.

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What is the June Rebellion, you ask?

Up to 1832, Paris had been devastated by a terrible outbreak of cholera.  The revolution was over, their city was trying to settle back in after great upheaval, Bonapartists were lamenting the loss of their empire, and perhaps most devastating for the people, a king (Louis-Philippe) was back in power.

Economic problems were intensified by famines due to harvest failure, and increased cost of living which incensed the growing anger.  

Two recent rebellions, December 1831 and February 1832, kept the people in a revolutionary state of mind.

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The actual barricade-building itself was inspired by the death of "people's man" General Jean Maximilien Lamarque.  During the funeral march, discontent commoners and those with political agendas swarmed the streets and formed an angry mob--some reports say the numbers rose to 100,000.

Mark Traugott writes 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."
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Most commoners who had joined the aforementioned angry mob were reluctant to join in the actual fighting, leaving the barricaders stranded with no support.  This is probably the main reason that 800 causalities on the side of the insurgents were inflicted.

Victor Hugo was 30 years old at the time and lived in Paris.  He allegedly heard the commotion and actually ventured out to see what was happening.

So was this the heroic battle Les Miserables paints it to be?  Where do you draw the line between violence for change being acceptable, and respecting human life?  Were the characters in Les Miserables wholly in the right by instigating this attack?  Was Victor Hugo romancing the real history?  Is it acceptable for an author to twist history in order to create a more compelling tale?  The events of Les Miserables are more of open ended questions than some people take it to be.

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When reading historical fiction, it's important to pay attention to the direct story, but also to look back at what events were influencing the tale.  What do you think of the June Rebellion?  Were the real life rebels in the right to cause the violence?  Read up on the story and let me know your thoughts.


  1. I read about the June Rebellion (also known as the student rebellion) while I was reading Les Miserables out of a desire to understand more about the conflict. It was really interesting! I've never felt, even when reading the romanticized version in the book, that it was entirely justified. It seemed like mad chaos resulting from understandable and valid concerns and discontent, but it was a sad and pointless waste of life for most who were involved. The desire to right wrongs and bring justice is admirable, but it must be done in a careful and considerate way. War is inevitable and sometimes very necessary, but from what I have read, the June Rebellion was not the proper time for it.

    1. Interesting; thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think I tend to agree with you. Usually I don't support instigating war at all unless the circumstances are REALLY dire. In my opinion, there were other ways this could have been resolved without violence. I think it's possible that these students--who had all grown up in the time shortly proceeding the Revolution--were just used to thinking of violent revolution as a way of solving their problems. They were just at the right age where the French Revolution was hailed as heroic and just, but also far enough removed from it to not pick up on the true violence and horror it contained. Unfortunately, I think they learned their lesson the hard way through this failed rebellion.