In essence, I'm asking about whether there are any historical inaccuracies in the movies/plays themselves. I'm pretty sure the book would have very few, due to the fact that it was written in a similar time, but what about in the movies/plays?

  • Do you have a context for your question (which would make it more answerable)? Are you concerned about particular "features" of the plays, such as the depiction of art, or the treatment of women, or are you "fishing" for historical discrepancies? I might start by checking for differences between the novels and the movies/plays?
    – Tom Au
    Jun 4, 2013 at 0:59
  • @TomAu I'm more "fishing" for discrepancies than anything... mostly curious. I actually would have checked for differences between the novel and the movie/plays, but I'm still reading the novel and it's quite thick. I fear it will be quite some time before I finish. I'm just wondering if the community here knows anything about the topic. Jun 4, 2013 at 6:57
  • 2
    It's been over a decade since I read the novel, so I won't attempt an answer, but I think it's worth mentioning that Hugo lived through the (historical) events he describes. I think Les Miserables is quite accurate for a novel.
    – yannis
    Jun 4, 2013 at 20:24
  • Related Question
    – MCW
    Jun 5, 2013 at 10:38
  • I bet they had worth teeth in the 19th century than the average Hollywood movie star of today (past surgery, etc. :) As for the novels, it may be relevant that Victor Hugo mainly belonged to the Romantic (as opposed to Naturalistic) school of French writers in the 19th century.
    – Drux
    Jun 6, 2013 at 9:08

2 Answers 2


The points that Samuel raised are all valid, books don't really attempt to present a fair and balanced depiction of events, however I still think it's a good question, and to answer your question directly:

Yes, for the most part it is pretty accurate, as long as you recognize the perspective that it's coming from. As the title suggests, the book is focused on the lowest rungs of society, so the feelings of desperation and oppression come as much from the social class as they do from the time period. Not everyone in France was that desperate or oppressed.

The uprising portrayed is the June Rebellion of 1830 and for the most part that is depicted accurately. It began after the funeral of Lamarque, and it was a mixture of the poorest people of Paris (who were almost always ready to rebel), and wealthier intellectuals from secret societies who fought for a variety of idealist causes. It never caught on and was quickly crushed by the military with moderate casualties on both sides.

As for the characters, Valjean and Javert are both pretty exaggerated (to be expected), but none of the beliefs expressed in the book would be uncommon or unlikely at the time. As far as accuracy goes, it's probably one of the most historically valid fictional works out there. It's an honest depiction of a series of events as seen and experienced by one segment of society. Granted, the harmonies in the musical version are probably much tighter than they were at the time.

  • 1
    I wouldn't suggest that this is a bad question at all, and I strongly feel our answers are necessary compliments for each other. Jun 5, 2013 at 5:00
  • This seems like a good answer that would be made awsome with actual historical references.
    – DVK
    Jun 5, 2013 at 12:43

Novels are not typically accorded a high status as a primary source by historians because they have a purpose other than the truthful representation of the past as it was, as recreated from the documentary records of the past. Novels are incapable of "accuracy" in this sense. Similarly: plays and movies are incapable of historical accuracy.

Novels may present a useful way for readers to encounter the sentiment of the past, or the sentiment of a novellist regarding the past. They may provide a complex and difficult to interpret primary source, or a jumping off point.

They're not the place to go for the social or cultural history of France in the early 19th century.

  • 4
    +1 but there is a nuance here: contemporary novels can serve as a source of information abbout a period, because they do record something of the morals and mores of the society. However, as Samuel rightly points out, this can be a rather distorted source, so we would not accord to it much importance for periods, like early 19th century France, for which we have a lot of other, more reliable sources. But for more difficult, sourcewise, periods, like ancient Rome, we often have to resort to using the scraps of information used in novels, for lack of better alternatives. Jun 5, 2013 at 12:04
  • 1
    An example of the pitfalls of such a use can be found here: history.stackexchange.com/a/7309/1569 See the paper by La Rue Van Hook which I mention there. Jun 5, 2013 at 12:05
  • Les Misérables does incorporate a good amount of <del>Author Filibuster</del> text presented as non-fiction. Jun 6, 2013 at 23:29
  • This might be true of novels, but it is also true for all of the primary source documents that we have historically. Histories were written to instruct and give moral lessons, boost careers, etc.
    – Oldcat
    May 4, 2015 at 22:45
  • Most primary sources that we use incidentally provide truthful representations of the past. From my perspective on the art of reading primary sources, the ideological intentionality in fictive accounts dominates the possibility of producing social history from the text. In contrast, the financial accounts of monasteries might seek to conceal individual graft, but represent an accurate account of what people believed they were producing and consuming. May 5, 2015 at 1:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.