Western Philosophy


8 May 2011

Les Miserables – A Social Critique



Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, set in a tumultuous earth nineteenth century France wracked by civil unrest, chronicles the seventeen year redemption of convict Jean Valjean.  Through the multifaceted plot, character development and description of contemporary life, Hugo explores his world.  Les Miserables is in essence a criticism of nineteenth century French society, most prominently directed toward dramatic socioeconomic stratification, criminal justice and the treatment of women.


Much of Les Miserables focuses on the plight of those low on the socioeconomic sphere who are moral people driven to immoral actions by the simple need to ensure the survival of loved ones.  Writing during the revolutionary period prompted by centuries of tax exemptions for the nobles and famine following preceding rising bread prices, Hugo is sympathetic to those stricken into poverty by an uncaring society.  Hugo writes, “there is always more misery at the lower end than humanity at the top, everything was given away before it was received.”[2]  Poverty, not moral deficiency, drives Valjean to steal bread, and Fantine and Eponine into prostitution.  A highly class segregated society creates the very people and situations it condemns.  Furthermore, a recurring theme throughout Les Miserables is the detrimental effect of poverty on traditional family values.  Fantine, Valjean, Cosette, and Gavroche are either physically or essentially orphaned by lack of Franks and Sou’s[3] in the household; a trend further expanded upon in Hugo’s description of the streets of Paris teeming with begging, starving youth.  Working class families are forced to bargain “a soul for a piece of bread.  Misery makes the offer; society accepts.”[4]


In Les Miserables, Hugo examines the concept of punishment verses rehabilitation and kindness, and critiques a corrupt criminal justice system which fails to discipline true criminals while converting essentially good people into hardened criminals.  Valjean’s initial crime is one of altruism; stealing a load of bread for his sister’s children, who are starving.  For this fundamentally decent crime, he is sentenced to years of hard labor.  Hugo writes, “Jan Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and trembling; he left hardened…What had happened within the soul?”[5]  The bishop’s act of kindness, by contrast, effectively turns Valjean into a superior and selfless citizen.  Through compassion the Bishop redeems Valjean’s soul taken by the horrors of an unjust prison sentence.  Hugo decidedly chooses rehabilitation over punishment, stating “if the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed.  The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”[6]  The guilty is first and foremost the society which causes such circumstances, and then the courts which fail to meet out appropriate justice, producing only darkened souls.  Furthermore, Hugo demonstrates the corruption permeating the justice system.  In recounting Champmathieus’s trail Hugo shows the ease with which an innocent man would be convicted on unreliable and biased testimony to a lifetime of hard labor.  The Patron-Minette, by contrast, are murderers, thieves and kidnappers who escape punishment and completely manipulate the system to their own deeds.


Hugo’s critique of the treatment of women in a society reeking of hypocrisy is steady throughout the work.  Society condemns Fantine for her role as a mistress and mother of an illegitimate child, yet congratulates – indeed, even celebrates –  Tholomyes on his decision to keep a lower class lover led on by false promises.  M.Pontmercy, a decent man, exemplifies this lack of empathy when he advises his grandson Marius to make Cosette merely his own mistress and certainly never wed her no matter the consequences to Cosette’s future.  Fantine lives a hard working life attempting to support her child until she is fired for “immoral” behavior, leaving her no recourse but prostitution.  Hugo’s final stress resides in the notion that it was Fantine’s lack of education which forced her to hire the scribe which released her fatal secret, in the form of a note which was later dropped.  The author in this manner points to the fundamental lack of equality inherent to any society which fails to educate some portion of its populace.  As Hugo notes in one of his many commentaries embedded throughout his work, “free and compulsory education…from identical schools spring an equal society.”[7]


Les Miserables title may be attributed less to the narratives it relates and more to the massive flaws in society it notes so eloquently.  Hugo, although hardly a Marxist or Luddite, generally sides with those forced into generations of poverty by a greedy culture.  If a man is forced into crime because of an inability to support loved ones, even when he possesses a willingness and capability for work, is it the law or crime which is truly unjust?  Hugo critiques a corrupt criminal justice system which fails to protect from true crime and fosters greater criminality in people trapped by circumstance.  Finally, the author views all his other criticisms of a selfish, un-empathetic, ignorant and corrupt society as cumulating in its treatment of women.  Les Miserables is thus a social critique of nineteenth century France which has continued in unabated popularity perhaps because these issues continue to plague societies today.


[1] ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Anya graduated from Phoenix High School (Phoenix, Oregon USA) in June 2011.  She attended Antioch

  College (Yellowsprings, Ohio, USA) for a year before applying to transfer to one of Oregon State University, the University of California

  at Davis, Texas A and M University, Vanderbuilt University or Cornell University

[2] Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, 1862, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, isbn.978-1-59308-066-2, page 8

[3] ‘Franks’ and ‘Sou’s’ were the common currency employed at the time.

[4] Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, 1862, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, isbn.978-1-59308-066-2, page 187

[5] Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, 1862, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, isbn.978-1-59308-066-2, page 87

[6] Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, 1862, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, isbn.978-1-59308-066-2, page 14

[7] Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, 1862, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, isbn.978-1-59308-066-2, page 1190-1191