Les Miserables and Madame Bovary

40 :  The French Novel (in Translation) in Historical Context
Spring 2020
M. Lucey


Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, translated by Christine Donougher (New York: Penguin Books, 2015). ISBN 978-0-14-310756-9

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2011). ISBN 978-0-14-310649-4


Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856-1857) and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) would probably be on a lot of people’s lists of the “Best Novels of All Time.” Published only a few years apart, they have both had a huge impact on readers and writers around the world, and have been adapted for radio, for the stage, for television, and for the cinema. The initial publication of each was a momentous event in its own way: Madame Bovary was put on trial as an offence to public decency shortly after it appeared; a huge publicity campaign surrounded the publication of Les Misérables, which appeared while its author was in political exile and was an immediate bestseller. Both novels were, in some ways, reactions of revolt by the authors against the world they saw around them. The differences between the novels are perhaps as remarkable as any similarities there might be.

Our goal will be to understand the aesthetic and social ambitions of these two great novels, to read them carefully, and to explore the ways they intervened into their contemporary world. We will spend some time understanding why Hugo was writing from exile, why Madame Bovary was put on trial. Students will have the chance to do a bit of collaborative research into one of the two authors.

We will study the two novels in parallel, reaching the end of both in the last week of classes.  Moving back and forth between the novels on a regular basis will allow us to experience in some detail all the stylistic and ideological ways in which the novels diverge from each other.  Les Misérables might be called a romantic novel of social protest, whereas Madame Bovary is often thought of as one of the earliest examples of a modernist novel. Les Misérables is prone to long digressions in which the narration stops so that the narrator can explain things (sometimes only distantly related to the novel) to us. Madame Bovary has a relatively tight narrative economy and sometimes seems almost to have no narrator at all.

The startling differences between the narrative techniques of the novels (omniscient narrator vs. free indirect discourse) will be one major concern of ours, and we will examine how the techniques used in the two novels help determine their belonging to two different literary families. We will also investigate the way these two novels deal with a number of issues that are pressing in our own time: the consequences of income disparity, prison reform and police violence, sexual violence against women, and the aspirations of women for a variety of kinds of social and sexual freedom, questions about how best to achieve social reform, questions about the place of art and literature in the world, and questions about what a more just world might look like.

Additional Information:

This course  satisfies the College of Letters and Science breadth requirement in Arts and Literature or Historical Studies.  No knowledge of French required.  Course conducted in ENGLISH

Section times and locations in the Schedule of Classes