Let Them Eat Bread: The Theft That Helped Inspire 'Les Miserables'

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On a bitterly cold day in February 1846, the French writer Victor Hugo was on his way to work when he saw something that affected him profoundly. A thin young man with a loaf of bread under his arm was being led away by police. Bystanders said he was being arrested for stealing the loaf. He was dressed in mud-spattered clothes, his bare feet thrust into clogs, his ankles wrapped in bloodied rags in lieu of stockings. "It made me think," wrote Hugo. "The man was no longer a man in my eyes but the specter of la misère , of poverty." Anyone who has read or watched Les Misérables will recognize that wretched scene immediately. It is retold in The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables , a new book out this month by...

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