Classic novels like Les Miserables can help us appreciate history in a deeper way, bringing it to life through memorable characters and exciting plots. As I got swept away in the stories of Valjean, Cosette, and the repulsive Thenardiers I found myself also taking interest in the historical backdrop. The back cover of my copy describes it at as “a canvas on which [Victor Hugo] portrays his criticism of the French political and judicial systems . . . ” I also see it as a book that could help a teen reader gain appreciation for the past.

Les Miserables opens in 1815, the year of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Throughout the story, we see growing frustration over the new monarchy and the attempts to create a constitutional government. Victor Hugo often breaks from the action to insert his views and write about various battles, including an entire section on Waterloo, a comparison between the uprising of 1832 and a later one, and the difference between a riot and an uprising. I’ll confess that I found these sections boring at first and started out skimming them. However, as I cared more for the characters and the world they lived in, I started paying attention. They stood as reminders that wars include and impact everyday people.

This book also provides a picture of how different the results of the French Revolution were compared to the American Revolution. Both wars began around the same time. While the American Revolution ended with a constitution, an organized government chosen by the people, and laws based on biblical principles, Les Miserables shows the French in the same sad state as before the Reign of Terror. Parents and teens who read this book together might want to discuss how godly principles (or lack of) contributed to each case.

Fantine’s story could prompt discussion about the cycle of poverty and lack of education that Hugo takes time to zoom in on. Readers who feel that the author presents Fantine as a victim rather than a woman who paid dearly for a sinful lifestyle might want to address that. Did society really force poor women into prostitution or did some simply choose to sin? When young Gavroche comes on the scene, readers see how prevalent abandoned children were in 19th-century Paris. Before introducing Gavroche, Hugo devotes several chapters to the street children known as gamin, which could trigger some intriguing dialogue about how resilient and tough children of the past must have been. Another section provides a history of the Paris sewer system, in which Hugo reveals the pros and cons of such progress. (Surprisingly, there were cons to flushing human waste.)

This is a book that can educate readers as it entertains and moves them, uncovering evidence of how far we have come in some areas and how little has changed in others. Looking at Les Miserables from so many angles—spiritual themes, character relationships and historical significance—will add to the richness of the book, making it well worth the reader’s commitment.