- Approaches to Teaching Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ ed. by Michal P. Ginsburg and Bradley Stephens
As Victor Hugo’s works, and Les Misérables in particular, continue to find new life in stage and screen productions, this collection of twenty-two essays about ways to teach this epic is timely. Michal P. Ginsberg and Bradley Stephens’s Introduction gives a very quick but clear overview of Hugo’s work and the importance of Les Misérables within his corpus and in the world. The volume contains a rich compendium of relevant background materials, including a guide to the novel’s varied editions, audiovisual and digital resources, and recommendations for readings about its historical and literary context, Hugo’s life, and critical studies of the novel. Also useful to the teacher and always of interest to students are the three different Paris maps of Les Misérables locations and the characters’ major itineraries, which are also available on the freely accessible companion website, ‘Visualizing Les Misérables’ (<https://lesmiserables.mla.hcommons.org> [accessed 6 June 2019]); here teachers can find intriguing but complicated tables and graphs of all the novel’s characters and their encounters. The essays are divided into three categories. As the editors tell us, the essays in the section entitled ‘Contexts’ ‘explain how the historical context, the context of production and reception, and the afterlives of Hugo’s most famous work can be used to illuminate aspects of the novel’ (p. ix). Even though authors describe their specific courses in the second section, the editors point out that these can be easily modified to fit the teacher’s and students’ needs. Yet because the topics and goals of the described courses range widely — from studying criminality in the popular press, for example, to looking at childhood in nineteenth-century France, to reading the entire novel with undergraduates — it would have been even more helpful to have a brief overview specifying the course’s focus, language used, disciplinary focus (historical, literary, ethical), and so on. The section ‘Critical Perspectives’ presents essays about courses highlighting theories that colleagues have found pertinent to the novel, such as gender, the moral individual, adaptation, narrative motivation, and character-making. Given the depth and breadth of the references and resources cited, this book should also be helpful to readers and scholars who aim to explore Hugo’s masterpiece in new ways, whether or not they are teaching it. Since the richness and density of the information included might seem a bit daunting to a neophyte teacher, I will add that, in my nearly ten years’ experience teaching Les Misérables to American undergraduates in French (an abridged edition) and in English (the complete novel), students have dependably brought a tenacious energy to Hugo’s work, whether from their love of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical or their desire to read a great classic. Thus I echo the recommendation implicit in Ginsberg and Stephens’s generous offering of possibilities: take from this volume what works for you, and plunge joyfully with your students into Hugo’s poetic prose!