Sophie Stricker[i]

29 November 2012

Mr. Cornet

Western Philosophy, Period 1

Les Miserables Essay I



Social Responsibility v. Irresponsibility


Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”, a novel spanning some seventeen years and following the lives of over half a dozen major characters, is one of those rare novels which has maintained its popularity after one hundred and fifty years. Most of this is due to the phenomenal and epic storyline, as well as its message and glimpses into the social structure of the time, most of which are still applicable today.  One of these themes stem from a contrast between social responsibility and irresponsibility, particularly surrounding the life of a young child. Hugo offers a lovely view on this in how different the character’s reactions under their circumstances are.


Hugo’s most glaringly apparent instance of irresponsibility is characterized in Félix Tholomyès, Cosette’s biological father. This twenty-something leaves Fantine and her daughter Cosette as part of a joke involving he and his friends. While it was actually quite common for these students to leave their lovers and any children possibly born from the affairs, most men had the discretion to set these women in a house somewhere and send them a bit of money to support the child from time to time. However Tholomyès either doesn’t think of this or, more likely, just doesn’t care. It’s quite likely he knew about Cosette, seeing as she was around the age of two when he left. He had a fair idea of what he was doing, and chose to do something of repulsive character, regardless.


After Tholomyès had left, Fantine continued to put everything she could into Cosette. She had chose to leave her with the Thénardiers (which was a poor choice, although she hadn’t seen them as they truly are) and went on to find a job in Montreuil-sur-Mer. The Thénardiers go on to repeatedly drain Fantine’s resources of every sou[ii] she owns, fabricating lies of Cosette’s sickness and need of new clothes. Fantine ends up losing her one job in the village. This forces her to sell all her worldly possessions, including her hair and teeth. She eventually turns to prostitution in despair, all in the name of her daughter. She became a saint through martyrdom.


As Fantine hits rock bottom, the torch of responsibility is passed on to Jean Valjean – or “Monsieur Madeline”, his assumed identity at the time – after he had saved her from imprisonment and learned of Fantine’s problem with Cosette and the Thénardiers. He begins to take care of Fantine, believing it to be his responsibility after her losing the job at his factory. He also sends money to the Thénardiers, paying Fantine’s debts and adding extra, trying to get Cosette sent to Montreuil-sur-Mer. At the same time, Jean Valjean is faced with the fact that someone is accused of being him, and may face a life of hard labor for Valjean’s own unsettled criminal record. His thoughts go from one possibility to the other.  If he speaks out and admits who he is, everyone who works under him, as well as Fantine, will lose the livelihood they may have. On the other hand, he risks spiritual damnation in silence. His obligation towards all his citizens again shows his sense of responsibility for others.


Jean Valjean continues to anxiously await the Thénardiers acceptance to send Cosette. After admitting publically to his background, he rushes back to Montreuil-sur-Mer to see Fantine, who is in poor condition. He plans to go to Montfermeil for to get Cosette himself in hopes he can get her there before Fantine inevitably passes, bringing a note signed by Fantine. Before he can go, Javert comes to capture him, having been doggedly chasing Javert for years. Fantine dies of shock after Javert barges into her room, intending to arrest Valjean.


Jean Valjean manages to escape Javert’s grasp once again, and takes off toward Montfermeil. He first finds Cosette alone in the woods, and follows her to the Thénardier establishment, where he sees just how poorly they treat Cosette. He inquires about her to Thénardier multiple times before paying the man 1,500 francs to take Cosette the next day. He leaves with her that Christmas morning on his way to Paris. He is pursued by Thénardier, who intends to swindle more money from Valjean. He agrees with Thénardiers claim that he couldn’t give her up without consent of Fantine. Valjean hands Thénardier the note and leaves to bring Cosette a happier life. Throughout the rest of their time together, Valjean, in a sense, becomes Cosette’s true father, even being referred to as “Papa”.


Through just this portion of the book, revolving around the adolescence of Cosette, Hugo provides a stark contrast between Cosette’s biological father and the Thénardiers, who both had a blatant disregard towards a small child and her well-being, and Fantine and Valjean, the martyr of a mother and the “adoptive father” of Cosette. Hugo’s ability to both compare and contrast these responsibilities to the child, a small part in their social structure, is amiable and fantastic.




[i] Sophie is a freshman at Phoenix High School, Ore.

[ii] A sou was the common currency in use at the time for this region.