Brotherly love in the classroom, or how to teach Les Misérables


This summer I wrote an article on how to keep the “unfamiliar light” aflame in the teaching of Les Misérables. What follows are my favorite parts:

VI. Problems and opportunities

This last point reveals the main problem of studying Hugo’s commitment to revolutionary ideals in Les Misérables: it is inconsistent. Despite the militant preface and the moments where people help each other, Les Misérables ends with a comforting vision of Christian death en famille. Parts of Valjean’s dying speech sound like the words of a wealthy industrialist, not a repentant ex-convict: he dies happy, knowing that his son-in-law now owns not only his fortune, but also the manufacturing secrets that made the Montreuil-sur-mer factory such a success. Through their tears, the Baron Pontmercy and wife Cosette embrace the bourgeois happiness this will bring. As Brombert notes, “not a word is said about social conditions, while private property is justified, indeed sanctified.”*

Faced with this disappointing ending, the teacher has some choices. One can explain it as a result of Hugo’s socio-spiritual milieu (Brombert), side-step it by labeling Hugo a “divided person” (Ewing), or turn it into a discussion of privilege. Although economic privilege is at stake here rather than race, the basic principles could easily be extended to the American case. Consider Kristof’s bleak article on the working class in the American west. It concludes on a decidedly Hugolien note: “the essential starting point is empathy.” For a more political discussion, consider the explosive revelations found in White Privilege: “The economic power system is not invisible—everyone knows that money brings privilege. But the myth persists that all have access to that power through individual resourcefulness. This myth of potential economic equality supports the invisibility of the other power systems that prevent fulfillment of that ideal” (Wildman and Davis). By narrowing his vision to one exceptional person, Hugo brushes the unfairness of capitalism and privilege under the rug.

The author seems to have lost his nerve by the end of the novel, and the recent adaptations have done even more to muffle the political potential of Les Misérables. Critiqued for its “push-button emotionalism” and “lurid melodrama” on opening night, Les Miz has nevertheless been packing theaters around the globe since 1985 (Nightingale and Palmer). Can one blame Tom Hooper, director of the 2012 film, for following such a lucrative lead?

Faced with this media onslaught, students might be invited to rewrite the end of Les Misérables. Maybe they could make it answer to the preface. Perhaps Marius might remember his father’s sacrifice, or see the ghosts of Enjolras or Éponine lighting a path forward? Using creativity may be the best way to restore urgency to Les Misérables. It might allow some students to feel brotherly love, if only in the classroom. What happens next will be up to them.


Did you hear the one about Joséphine the fish monger?

The  Progress of Empress Josephine VERY close-up
Those of you interested in the poissard tradition will be intrigued to learn (as I was) that Empress Joséphine had a certain connection to the humble women of the marketplace. As seen in this English engraving, not only was she depicted as a child of the land (“A planter’s daughter”), but even when she ascends the social hierarchy she is still labeled a “Loose Fish” (bottom left). Another print of 1805 by Gilray represents an obese Joséphine as having “ci-devant poissardes” as her bridesmaids.
This tantalizing print and excellent background material are found in Joséphine, exposition présentée au Musée du Luxembourg du 12 mars au 29 juin 2014 (Paris: Musées nationaux, 2014), 20-21.

Anybody else out there interested in the history of the Directory period (1795-99)?
I have posted calls for papers at the ASECS conference in Los Angeles (March 19-21, 2015), and the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Seattle (March 26-29, 2015), and I’m open to proposals!

Who are you? and why are you reading this?


I have noticed a lot of you are “following” this site all of a sudden: 370 at last count.

(editor’s note of 8/7/14: I will update this figure regularly to track the growing population of readers. The number was 235 when I originally wrote this article.) I’ll add new book reviews as they come to my attention as well; three more have emerged via internet searches since early August 2014.

I am curious.

Who you are?


Why does this interest you?

Maybe it’s the pictures, the style stuff?

Or are you a hard-core history buff?

Maybe it’s the cool music…

Some of you are Haitians, right? Maybe you know my friend Père Fritz Louis? (bonjour!)

Is there a class at an Australian university following this website?

You can stop reading here, if you’re tired.

Since you’re still reading, I figured I might as well say hello and assume you’re really interested. And take the opportunity to do a bit of flagrant self-promotion and tell you what has just been published by yours truly. After much toil and heartache it is a joy to see this stuff finally get into print.

Book Chapters

“Martyrdom, Terrorism, and the Rhetoric of Sacrifice: The Cases of Marat, Robespierre, and Loiserolles,” in Terrorism, Martyrdom, and Religion: European Perspectives, ed. Dominic Janes and Alex Houen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 109-130.

“Les martyres de Marat et de Sebastião: Une légende révolutionnaire mise à jour,” in La Révolution française et le monde d’aujourd’hui. Mythologies contemporaines, ed. Martial Poirson. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014, 451-63.

Book Reviews

“On Being Revolutionary,” review essay of Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror; Sanja Perovic, The Calendar in Revolutionary France; and Richard Taws, The Politics of the Provisional. In Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 47, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 435-438. All three are excellent books.

Chapter in progress

“Teaching Les Misérables and the French Revolution, or How to Keep the ‘Unfamiliar Light’ Aflame,” essay under way for MLA book, Approaches to Teaching Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables‘, ed. Michal Ginsburg and Bradley Stephens.

Edited books in progress

Art in the Service of Humanity: Rousseau and DIGNITY. Volume under review at University of Notre Dame Press (1/17/14). With 42 contributors, age 7 to 92, and including some big and up-and-coming names in Rousseau studies, and the photographs of the Amnesty International DIGNITY exhibit! Making progress towards production.

Teaching Representations of the French Revolution. Volume to be published in the MLA “Options for Teaching” series. Lead editor with the wonderful Catriona Seth (Université de Lorraine) and Antoinette Sol (University of Texas at Arlington). In progress and with great contributors!

Other work: articles, one that has already been rejected twice. But I remain ever hopeful, like a loyal dog, and keep revising until they arrive somewhere.

Book Review in progress: Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas : An Intellectual History of the French Revolution, for The Review of Politics. More on that in the fall.

Also of note:


Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, in Modern Philology (2014): E001-E004.
Mary McAlpin, in XVIII: New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century Vol. 11, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 93.
Michael Wiley, in Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 44, no. 4 (Autumn 2013):193.

Jean-Clément Martin, in Annales Historiques de la Révolution française, 376 (2014): 224-25.

Laura Mason, in the American Historical Review 118, 5 (December 2013): 1612-1613.

Jean-Louis Trudel, in ReS Futurae 3 (2013)

Sanja Perovic, in French Studies 67, 4 (October 2013): 565-566.

Nanette LeCoat, on H-France Review Vol. 13 (July 2013), No. 103

James P. Gilroy, in Histoire sociale/Social history 46, Number 91 (May 2013): 231-233.

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, in Journal of European Studies 43 (June 2013): 175-77.

David Coward, in The Times Literary Supplement (London) (May 10, 2013).

Daniel Sullivan, in The Ernest Becker Foundation Newsletter 20, 1 (March 2013): 2.

Allan Pasco, in Choice (February 2013)

(Thank you, reviewers!)

Thank you too, readers.

see you around.

44. July 28. THE DAY KNOWN AS THERMIDOR! Answers to Thermidor Fun Facts game

Answers to Thermidor Fun Facts game (June 14 – July 28, 2014)

minus 1-5: excellent!
minus 6-10: good job
minus 11-20: not bad
minus 21-43: keep reading!

1. d. Adultery. Although guilty of many other acts, Robespierre Sr. seems to have been a faithful husband. The misdeeds of Maximilien-Barthélémy-François de Robespierre (1732-77) are recounted in Max Gallo, Robespierre: Histoire d’une solitude (repr. 1994), pp. 29-31.

2. b. Pillow (because he was prone to nose bleeds). Robespierre’s biographer Ruth Scurr notes a servant’s claim that “every night he bathed his pillow in blood” and explains: “Perhaps Robespierre had nosebleeds (people with high blood pressure and fiery tempers often do). These certainly would have left him anemic and contributed to the unusual pallor of his skin that many contemporaries noted” (Scurr, Fatal Purity, 2006), p. 112.

3. c. Sister Charlotte Robespierre (1760-1834) was author of Mémoires de Charlotte Robespierre sur ses deux frères (1835).

4. True. His concerns were outnumbered by colleagues in the Convention; his proposal did not make it into the law.

5. d. Snake, as in La Queue de Robespierre (1794). See Baczko, Comment sortir de la Terreur or Douthwaite, Frankenstein of 1790, ch. 4.

6. b. Mme de Genlis, author of Adèle et Théodore and many other edifying tales, dramaturgy, novels, and memoirs. See Lesley Walker, A Mother’s Love.

7. a. A mob invaded the Tuileries palace on June 20, 1792.

8. d. The orator Georges-Jacques Danton does not feature in La Nuit de Varennes. He is played by Gérard Depardieu in the 1983 film, Danton, by Andrzej Wajda.

9. b. The two “reigns of Terror” in religious history were 1792-94 and 1797-98, as detailed in Aston’s book and Victor Pierre, La Terreur sous le Directoire. Histoire de la persécution politique et religieuse après le coup d’état du 18 fructidor (7 septembre 1797). (Retaux-Bray, 1887). Other historians, however, speak of the “White Terror” (Terreur blanche) which erupted in spring 1795, especially in the South-East, and which incited royalist gangs to attack Jacobins or those associated with Jacobinism.

10. b. It is Charles-Henri Sanson, the Royal Executioner of France during the reign of King Louis XVI and High Executioner of the First French Republic, and he seeks atonement for regicide in Balzac’s story.

11. d. All of the above. The Constitution was the ushered through the legislative process by the Montagnards and by popular referendum under the First Republic.

12. b. Lobster Thermidor, a dish consisting of a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks, and brandy (often cognac), stuffed into a lobster shell. Lobster Thermidor was created in 1894 by Marie’s, a Parisian restaurant near the Theatre Comédie Française, to honor the opening of the play Thermidor by Victorien Sardou. Due to the expensive and extensive preparation involved, Lobster Thermidor is usually considered a recipe primarily for special occasions (or the 1%).

13. c. Georges-Jacques Danton spoke those words.

14. c. Fructidor is the twelfth month of the republican calendar; it means “fruit” and “present or gift.”

15. b. General Napoléon Bonaparte pulled off a successful coup d’état on the day known as Brumaire. Brumaire is the second month of the republican calendar; it comes from the French word brume or fog.

16. a. In February 1793, the revolutionary government declared war against England and Holland; in March 1793 the war was also directed against Spain. (War had already been declared against Austria in April 1792).

17. d. hot. The earth was too hot to tread upon, according to Wordsworth in Book Nine of The Prelude (1804).

18. c. Thomas Paine (born English, naturalized American). A decree was passed at the end of 1793 excluding foreigners from their places in the Convention; Paine was thus arrested and imprisoned in December 1793. A chalk mark, supposed to be left by the jailer to denote that the prisoner in this cell was to be collected for execution, was left on the inside of his door, rather than the outside, as the door happened to be open. But for this quirk of fate, he would have died the following morning. He was finally released in November 1794.

19. a. The marquis de Sade, Justine, was allegedly a favorite book of the Committee members, due to its graphic portrayal of violence against innocent victims.

20. a. In May 1794, a young woman named Cécile Renault was caught near Robespierre’s dwelling with two knives in her possession. She was executed a month later.

21. e. all of the above. Vive l’amitié franco-américaine!

22. d. “Les cheveux à la Titus. Women who were wore this style were considered quite bold. Source: L’Art et les artifices de la beauté, 6 ed. (Paris: Uzanne, Octave, 1902), 88.

23. b. D. W. Griffith in Orphans of the Storm (1921). Two thumbs up for that film!

24. a. started hugging and kissing each other, thus Le baiser Lamourette, featured in Robert Darnton’s classic book, Kiss of Lamourette (1989).

25. d. Madame Roland said those famous words.

26. d. poisoning their bodies with intravenous injections of chemicals. To be technical, b. is also correct: chopping off their heads with repeated blows of an ax. I confused French with English methods here. As Susanne Alleyn notes in her comment, the executioner in France had victims kneel and sliced off their heads with a sword, instead of using axes as in England. (Bungling did happen, however, with both methods.) Thanks to Susanne for the keen attention to detail that makes A Revolution in Fiction so much fun! “Thermidor Fun Fact Day Twenty-Six: The Humanity of the Guillotine” (7/09/14).

27. e. all of the above

28. b. great anxiety and concern. This was outrageous, and dangerous for the country! Necker’s dismissal on 11 July 1789–provoked by his decision not to attend Louis XVI’s speech to the Estates-General–made the people of France very angry. Soon rumors spread that the king meant to attack Paris or arrest the deputies. This tumult eventually provoked the storming of the Bastille on 14 July. The king recalled Necker on 19 July.

29. c. Toussaint Louverture

30. d. absent; Charlotte Corday is not seen in David’s painting.

American trivia Bastille Day quiz. Answers published at the bottom of the quiz on July 14, 2014.

31. a. Victor Hugo in Les Misérables (1862). The quote is by Bertrand Barère (de Vieuzac), presented on 23 messidor An II (July 11, 1794).

32. b. the king’s confessor, the Irish non-juror priest Abbé Edgeworth, is one of the co-narrators of Le Cimetière de la Madeleine.

33. c. the Chapelle Expiatoire is on the site of the original Madeleine Cemetery.

34. d. 1832 is the date of the revolution in Hugo’s Les Misérables; he witnessed the killing in person and called it “a folly drowned in blood.” 800 people died or were wounded during the June uprising.

35. a. Leïla Sebbar, Le Pays de ma mère: Voyage en Frances [sic](Bleu autour, 2013); illus. Sébastien Pignon. This is in Sebbar’s chapter on “La République,” pp. 16-21. It is a bewildering (or uncoherent) chapter. On the one hand, Sebbar takes a militant stance about women’s rights; on the other hand her book features pen and ink drawings of nude women wearing the bonnet rouge of the Republic but displayed with legs wide open, in ways that utterly lack dignity. What was she thinking?! Sebbar is describing the life of young Muslim girls in France here, and she ends on an equivocal point:
“Les grandes sœurs sont musulmanes, elles le disent, elles ne sont ni putes ni soumises, elles sont françaises, elles défendent la République laïque française.
Que diront les héritières aux jeunes filles au hijab?
Elles diront que la liberté n’est pas négociable,” 20.

36. b. “Oublier n’est pas pardonner.” Not intended to suggest that Baudelaire was royalist, just an interesting echo of an emotion in the air.

37. d. At Quiberon, along the Côte sauvage of Brittany.

38.. b. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. This image is found in Book II, Cosette, 1, Waterloo, chapter XVII.”Faut-il trouver bon Waterloo? / Should We Approve of Waterloo?”

39. c. Marie-Thérèse (born 1778), who became la Duchesse d’Angoulême by marrying her cousin who was the son of le Comte d’Artois. For twenty minutes in 1830, she was Queen of France, and her tombstone reflects that fact by calling her “Reine douairière.”

40. a. they were the same person. The Comtesse allegedly replaced Marie-Thérèse, who suffered from nerves, at the public life in the court of King Louis XVIII.

41. c. Jules Michelet (1798-1874). Michelet was born in the disused chapel formerly owned by the sisters (religieuses) de Saint-Chaumont, on the rue de Tracy near Saint-Denis (Paris 1e-2e).

42. d. Shades (les mânes) are not usually seen to wear a pointed beard, a black beret, or to be smoking a Gauloise. That would be existentialists.
* See Schechter’s essay in Martyrdom and Terrorism, ed. Dominic Janes and Alex Houen (Oxford, 2014), pp. 152-178.

43. a. Robespierre was born on May 6, 1758, and so in July 1794 he was 36 years old at death.

44. July 28. THE DAY KNOWN AS THERMIDOR! Answer to Thermidor Fun Facts! END OF ARTICLE. (whew! what was I thinking?!)

Hope you enjoyed it!
à bientôt,
Julia D.

Thermidor Fun Fact Day Forty-Three: The Newspaper announces Robespierre’s Death

The announcement of Robespierre’s execution in the Journal de Paris national on Tuesday, 11 Thermidor, listed the once-powerful man as “Maximilien Robespierre, 35 years old, born at Arras, deputy of the National Convention.” This listing is incorrect because:

a. Robespierre was actually 36 years old.
b. Robespierre was never elected to the National Convention.
c. Robespierre was born in Amiens, not Arras.
d. His correct name was Maximilien du Robespierre.

Thermidor Fun Fact Day Forty-One: A child of the Revolution becomes its Historian

What nineteenth-century historian had a special connection to the Revolution, due to the fact that he was born in a disused church (une église désaffectée) in Paris, and grew up in the building housing a printing press where his folks worked making assignats among other things. [A hint: He expresses sympathy for the ordinary working man in Le Peuple (1846).]
a. Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869)
b. Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877)
c. Jules Michelet (1798-1874)
d. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Thermidor Fun Fact Day Thirty-Nine: Royal Survivors

Which member of the royal family survived the Terror? What was that person’s later name?
a. Le Dauphin Louis Charles, who became King Charles X.
b. Madame Élisabeth, who became la Marquise de la Rochejaquelein.
c. Marie-Thérèse, who became la Duchesse d’Angoulême.
d. Le Comte d’Artois, who became King Louis XVIII.


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