Tolstoy's Bookshelf: 'Les Miserables' by Victor Hugo
Les Misérables
By Victor Hugo

In his 1898 treatise What Is Art? Tolstoy singles out the novels of Victor Hugo, as well as those of Dickens and Dostoevsky, as rare positive models of contemporary art. Tolstoy approves of them because they promote "unity" and "brotherhood among people." Hugo stood out among his fellow French novelists for his passionate engagement in the plight of the downtrodden.

Tolstoy lists Les Misérables (published in 1862) as the only work whose influence on him was "enormous" during the middle stage of his life (from ages 35 to 50). During this period, Tolstoy was composing his masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which may include cameo appearances by wise peasants but nevertheless focus on upper class life. By contrast, Hugo was known for portraying and championing the down and out, in Les Misérables and elsewhere. Furthermore, Tolstoy's major works are known for their celebrations of family in its more traditional (biological) format, whereas Hugo's novel reaches into new frontiers of family life. Poverty and suffering have forced his heroes to form new kinds of loving family, not necessarily based on blood or marriage. Tolstoy may well have found in Les Misérables inklings of new territory that he would explore in what he wrote after the change of heart about family life that he experienced along with his religious crisis. Tolstoy's late novel Resurrection describes an upper-class hero's attempt to penetrate an environment that was Hugo's novelistic stomping grounds.