Les Miserables - a political interpretation

 

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The acclaimed French literary classic Les Misérables contains many powerful images, particularly relating to the political views of author Victor Hugo.   The political stance of the novel can be interpreted in relation to the conclusions of theorist Karl Marx, as both have a focus on the lower classes, a concern with social and economic injustice and their effects, and both believe that revolutionary change is inevitable but must come from the working class. 

 

Norman Denny states in his introduction to Les Misérables that Hugo was always deeply concerned with the social and political developments of his time[1] and this strong political interest and awareness is reflected throughout the novel, particularly through his knowledgeable depictions of key events such as the 1832 Paris uprising.  Stuart Fernie makes the point that the novel “is based largely on historical fact … incidents lifted from Hugo’s life, and characters Hugo met in the course of his life”[2], singling out the incident where Fantine is arrested for striking a bourgeois is taken from an incident where a prostitute struck a man in self-defence and in which Hugo himself intervened.  A further example of this would be the character of Marius Pontmercy, who is, according to Denny, often supposed to be a portrait of the youthful Victor Hugo himself[3], with both having similar family circumstances and both undergoing a similar political development from royalism to Bonapartism to Republicanism.  The regular utilisation of events inspired by real life makes analysis of the political stance of the novel all the more valid, as it becomes an indirect analysis on 19th century French society.

 

The Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era details Hugo’s political views, mentioning his campaigns “on behalf of the poor, in favour of social justice, against kings and their wars, and against capital punishment”[4], a preference for “liberal democracy over imperial despotism“[5], and his move towards to the political Left[6].  Les Misérables reflects these opinions, with Duncan Heath stating that “Hugo's portrait of the Parisian underworld is essentially socialist"[7] with the novel’s Romantic style, with an emphasis on emotion and feeling, perhaps being a political choice as well as an aesthetic one, as Hugo was of the belief that “Romanticism and socialism… are the same thing”[8]

 

Many elements of Les Misérables can be analysed through the critical perspective of Marxist theory.  Literary critic Terry Eagleton defines Marxism as:

 

 “a scientific theory of human societies and of the practice of transforming them; and what that means, rather more concretely, is that the narrative Marxism has to deliver is the story of the struggles of men and women to free themselves from certain forms of exploitation and oppression”[9]

 

Les Misérables is a novel very much focused around characters fighting against their oppression and exploitation.  Some of them, like Jean Valjean, are successful in their struggle, others, such as Fantine, are not.  The main form of exploitation and oppression in the novel is that of economics, as Hugo portrays characters forced into terrible positions by poverty.  Hugo also portrays the struggle between classes, for example, Fantine is unfairly arrested for retaliating to a bourgeois who taunted her for being a prostitute and threw snow down her back[10].  Marx devotes the opening to his landmark work The Communist Manifesto to this class conflict, saying that throughout history, social classes have fought against each other as  “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight”[11] and one which Hugo revisits throughout the novel.

 

Marx and Hugo both have a strong concern with the social and economic injustice faced by the lower classes.   The Communist Manifesto has a strong focus on the proletariat, whom Marx refers to as “the suffering class”[12] and the title of Hugo’s novel translates as “the wretched ones” referring to the impoverished underclass[13] of French society.  Hugo elaborates on this concern directly in his Preface to Les Misérables, referring to “the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjection of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child by darkness”[14] problems which he goes on to portray in Les Misérables.

 

Laurence Porter explains how the novel deals with these consequences of social injustice:

Poverty dehumanizes the poor, Hugo demonstrates, leading to prostitution, child abuse and other crimes that subject the underclass to a purely punitive prison system that offers no hope of rehabilitation[15]

 

The prison system only continues the downward spiral of degradation, as the character of Valjean is left completely dehumanised by his time in prison,  leading him to cry out “I’m not even a dog!”[16] as he is shunned by the rest of society on his release.

 

This idea of dehumanisation due to economic circumstances is in line with the views of Marx, who according to Peter Singer was of the belief that “economics is the chief form of human alienation”[17]  Alienation is an effect of capitalism and involves people losing control of the objects they create through labour and of aspects of themselves.  Mark Cowling explains that changes to the modes of production,  which usually involve the introduction use of machinery and division of labour , mean that workers lose autonomy and become “a mere appendage to the machine”[18], leaving a working class who are dehumanised and alienated.  In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean reorganises the local industry and invents cheaper methods, thus revolutionising the mode of production[19]  According to Marx, “The bourgeois cannot continue to exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production[20], therefore Valjean has been continuing the bourgeois domination of society.

 

In addition to alienating the proletarians, these changes in the mode of production, according to Marx, result in a reduction in their wages: “The average price of wage labour is the minimum wage, i. e., that quantum of the means of subsistence, which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer”[21].  This is mirrored in Les Misérables at points where issues of labour are mentioned.  Though, with Valjean as a factory owner, “extreme poverty [was] forgotten”[22] even he, considered an exceptionally generous employer, offers only a “living wage”[23]  Fantine, a worker fired from Valjean’s factory, is unable to cope on the wages she earns elsewhere.  These wages are continually lowered due to bourgeois employers being “able to get the work done more cheaply”[24], and Fantine has the added strain of paying for the upkeep of her daughter, something she is unable to do without resorting to prostitution.

 

Economics also has an effect on relationships, as Marx describes:

“by the action of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”[25].  There are various examples of the breakdown in familial relationships in Les Misérables, for example the Thernardiers, while initially shown to treat their daughters well, after their down turn in fortunes, sell their two youngest sons[26], who end up homeless and starving on the streets of Paris.  While the sons are not instruments of labour to the Thernardiers, they are certainly no more than commodities.

 

Another facet of Hugos views on social injustice is that he believes there are fundamental problems with France’s legal and penal systems.  Jean Valjean is a prime example of this, as he serves a nineteen year sentence for the relatively minor initial crime of stealing bread[27].  This is another example of a character being forced into criminal action by economic circumstance, namely the extreme poverty of the large family he provided for and his inability to secure even the low paid casual labour on which they had previously subsisted.  Hugo describes his imprisonment as one of the “terrible occasions in our civilization, those when the Law decrees the wrecking of a human life”[28] showing his firm belief that the prison system does not achieve the intended rehabilitation of offenders. 

 

Hugo states in his preface “through the working of laws and customs there continues to exist a condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilisation”[29], putting forward his view that the problems of society are caused by the laws which govern it.  Indeed, Valjean’s imprisonment turns him into a man “governed by resentment, bitterness and a profound sense of injury which might vent itself even upon good and innocent people, if any such came his way”[30], showing that prison has created of him more of a criminal than he was on his sentencing.

 

These issues with France’s legal system gain personification in the character of Javert, the police Inspector who follows the letter of the law rather than its spirit and who is a ruthless defender of the social order.  Javert is certainly shown to believe social class to be inescapable, arresting Fantine despite her bourgeois taunter being the guilty party, in addition to asking to be dismissed over his suspicions that the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer could possibly by an ex-convict[31]

 

Stuart Fernie says that Javert “seeks to protect society from the criminal element”[32] but his presence as a spy during the uprising suggests that he

unfailingly chooses to defend the dominant system against any attempts to disrupt it.  This is further evidenced by Javert’s own view:

 

“To me the kind of indulgence which consists in supporting a woman of the town against a respectable citizen, or a police officer against a mayor, or in any form the lower against the higher, this is false indulgence which undermines society”[33]

 

Events at the barricade force Javert “to call into question his own judgment (and that of the whole of society)”[34], and, rather than face this dilemma, he commits suicide, suggesting that such a system as Javert represents is incapable of compromise and must be overthrown completely, just as Marx states that classless communist society requires the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions“[35]. Hugo uses a reconciliation of the social classes as his optimistic ending for Les Misérables, as “the ex-convict presides over the marriage of Cosette - the proletarian daughter of a prostitute - and Marius, the aristocrat adopted and cherished by the bourgeois Gillenormand.[36], a more passive prediction than Marx‘s famous final call to arms “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, Unite!”[37].

 

Marx predicts that such a proletarian revolution is an inevitable resolution to the class conflict, saying that what the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers.  Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable[38].  This idea of the inevitable end to the bourgeois regime of exploitation is an idea echoed by the character of Feuilly in Les Misérables, who is of the belief that “sooner or later the submerged nation rises again to the surface[39], with submerged nation referring to the oppressed proletariat.  Another character, Enjolras, leader of the ABC Society, is described as believing in the “divine right”[40] of revolution, not only suggesting that revolution is an inevitability, but showing an interesting reversal of the traditional belief in a king’s divine right to rule over a country and a people in a more traditional feudal society.

 

Hugo sums up the main standpoint of the ABC Society, noting their “real purpose was the elevation of men”[41]. Their aims were republican, evidenced by declamations such as Courfeyrac’s “A king is a parasite”[42] - one who is in the habit of “giving with one hand and taking back with the other”[43], suggesting a Marxist view of the upper classes exploiting those beneath them.  They were concerned with suffering of the lower classes, as Fernie explains that “poor living and working conditions led to the attempted uprising of June 1832”[44] which was led by idealists of the kind which constituted the ABC Society.

 

Peter Singer expresses a key part of Marx’s ideas on revolution in saying that the force necessary “to liberate humanity from its domination by economics is to be found in the working classes”[45], suggesting that any hope of overthrowing the system of economic oppression in society must have the support of the proletariat if it is to succeed.  The ABC Society is not exclusively working class, with Enjolras for example being “the only son of wealthy parents”[46].  However, the ABC Society does include in its numbers men like Feuilly whom Hugo describes as a fan-maker, orphaned of both father and mother, who laboriously earned three francs a day and whose mind was obsessed with a single thought, to liberate the world[47], an ideal example of the sort of proletarian Marx thought necessary to overthrow modern society’s economic oppression.    This revolutionary feeling is sparked into open rebellion against the government, but the defenders of the barricade manned by the ABC Society are all killed and the uprising is a failure.  Enjolras realises the reason for this failure, saying “as for the populace, they were excited enough yesterday but now they aren’t stirring.  We’ve nothing to hope for… they have failed us”[48], showing that the revolution had no hope of success without the active support of the proletariat.

 

Hugo uses many powerful images to ensure his political points remain in the mind of the reader.  He describes setting and characters in great detail, which in the case of lower class characters such as Fantine, shows the extreme and horrific circumstances into which they are forced to descend for economic reasons.  Fantine is initially described as “virtuous”[49] and Hugo spends time describing her notably beautiful hair and teeth, including the mention that “Gold and pearls were her dowry, but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth”[50],  suggesting her wealth is in her beauty and that she is materially poor.   Eventually, it is these attributes of virtue and specific beautiful features which are shown to be destroyed, as she is forced to sell her hair, teeth and, eventually, her body to make enough money to live on and to pay for her daughter’s upkeep.  Hugo contrasts the earlier images of beauty and purity with quite horrific pictures, with Fantine described as having “aged ten years overnight”[51] in order  to stress the depths into which she has been pushed.  He follows up this description with a short chapter unrelated to the plot, criticising openly a society which still tolerates slavery as he sees it, namely slavery which “applies only to women and its name is prostitution”[52], taking  the opportunity to directly convey his message to an audience still shocked from Fantine’s transformation.

 

Other images of poverty abound throughout the novel, showing that the suffering of characters like Fantine are the rule rather than the exception.  One particularly poignant image is of two homeless children fighting swans for a piece of soaked stale bread, which has been thrown to the birds[53], showing the extreme desperation even the most vulnerable people in society are forced into.  Hugo does not hesitate to use children to emphasise the horror of the positions some are forced into by economic circumstance.  Cosette,  Fantine’s daughter, lives with the Thernardiers who are paid to look after her, but the eight year old child is treated instead as a drudge.  This is a prime example of Marx’s point that Differences of age and sex no longer have any distinctive social validity for the working class.  All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use,  according to their age or sex[54].  In descriptions such as that of Cosette as, for example, “Her big eyes in their shadowed sockets seemed almost extinguished by the many tears they had shed”[55], this economic belief is given a recognisable character to highlight the human cost of social injustice.  Hugo draws similar conclusions to Marx, but conveys them to his readers in more emotive ways.

 

Hugo’s use of imagery when describing the revolutionaries clearly shows his sympathy with them.  He says that the ABC Society could almost be described as “a clique, if cliques gave birth to heroes”[56] and goes on to describe each of the members in detail, both in terms of personality and politics, as well as their physical attributes, all of which builds up a full image of the characters in the reader’s mind.  An example of this is the character of Enjolras, the leader of the ABC Society, who is described as “angelically good-looking”[57] yet completely devoted to the Revolution and, “a marble lover of Liberty”[58] creating the image of Enjolras as a statuesque hero of the Revolution and therefore something to be looked up to and admired.  Frequent comparisons to classical heroes and the nickname “Apollo” given to Enjolras by the drunk Grantaire continue to reinforce this impression throughout.  In contrast with this sympathetic and idealised portrayal of the ABC Society, Hugo does not offer such lengthy and detailed descriptions of the government forces, treating them as one mass rather than delineated characters, who, rather than being heroic, are dishonourable enough to send Javert to the barricade defenders as a spy. 

 

After familiarising us with the characters through detailed positive descriptions, Hugo portrays their deaths in the revolution, though ultimately futile, as glorious and heroic, the death of one revolutionary being described as “So tragic and noble was the spectacle that the men around cried “Hat‘s off!””[59].  The revolutionaries treat their fallen comrades with great honour, treating them as martyrs, with one particularly poignant image being the replacement of the initial red flag with the bloodstained, bullet-riddled coat of a dead revolutionary.[60]

Even in the moments before his execution, the statuesque Enjolras is described: “this young man, the only one unwounded, proud, blood-spattered, charming. and disdainful as though he were invulnerable, impelled the sinister group to kill him with respect”[61], creating the idea of some sort of divine or heroic being, despite his imminent death.  This image of Enjolras is enough to cause a reversal in status between the soldiers, who would be expected to be those issuing orders and are now described as sinister with connotations of sneaking and dishonour, while Enjolras now appears to be the one in command of the situation.

 

Hugo often restates an image in a slightly different way, for example describing Enjolras as “a Spartan and a puritan.  He would have died with Leonidas at Thermopylae or massacred the garrison of Drogheda with Cromwell”[62], where Leonidas was a King of Sparta and Cromwell and much of his army were puritans, therefore the second sentence is merely a reiteration of his original point.  This repetition of imagery shows Hugo’s attempt to make his writing accessible to a wider audience and his willingness to use different tactics to do so.  This push for accessibility in the novel suggests Hugo was certainly keen for the ideas raised in his work to be brought to the consciousness of the public.

 

In conclusion, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables has a political stance, influenced by real events and people in France, which is broadly similar to that of Karl Marx,.  Both Marx and Hugo have a concern with the social injustice faced by lower classes, particularly in relation to the effects of economic circumstance, and the works of both men express the feeling that a revolutionary reorganisation of society is inevitable.  Hugo also believes that many of these social problems are caused by the very systems put in place to solve them.  Throughout the novel, he uses powerful images and lengthy, often repetitive, descriptions to convey the horror of poverty and the glory of revolution in an emotive way.

 

Amy Hanson

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Cowling, Mark and Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto: New Intpretations, (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1998)

 

Eagleton, Terry, Marxism and Literary Criticism, (Routledge, London,2002),

 

Fernie, Stuart, Reflections on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, accessed on 04/05/08 at <http://www.geocities.com/stuartfernie>

 

Halsall, Albert W. “Hugo, Victor Marie 1802-1885” (2003). in Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850 (Routledge, Oxford, 2003), accessed 04/05/08, from <http://www.credoreference.com/entry/6778867>

 

Heath, Duncan. Introducing Romanticism, (Totem Books, Cambridge, 2000),

 

Hugo, Victor, Les Miserables, (Penguin, London, 1976)

 

Marx, Karl and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (Penguin, London, 2004)

 

Porter, Laurence, “Introduction“ in Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, (Spark Educational, Paris, 2003)

 

Singer, Peter, The Very Short Introduction to Marx, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000)

 



[1]  Denny, Norman, Introduction in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, (Penguin, London, 1976), p.7

[2] Fernie, Stuart, “Writing style and Symbolism” in Reflections on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, accessed on 04/05/08 at <http://www.geocities.com/stuartfernie>, par. 1 of 28

[3]  Denny, p.9

[4] Halsall, Albert W. “Hugo, Victor Marie 1802-1885” (2003). in Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850 (Routledge, Oxford, 2003), accessed 04/05.08, from <http://www.credoreference.com/entry/6778867>

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] Heath, Duncan. Introducing Romanticism, (Totem Books, Cambridge, 2000), p 156.

[8] Halsall, par. 1 of 8

[9] Eagleton, Terry, “Preface”, in Marxism and Literary Criticism, (Routledge, London, 2002), p.xii

[10] Hugo, p.182

[11] Marx, Karl and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (Penguin, London, 2004)p.3

[12] Marx and Engels, p.46

[13] Porter, Laurence, “Introduction“ in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, (Spark Educational, Paris, 2003), p.xxxii

[14] Hugo, Victor, “Preface” in Les Misérables, (Penguin, London, 1976), p.15

[15] Porter, p.xxxii

[16]  Hugo, p.79

[17] Singer, Peter, The Very Short Introduction to Marx, (Oxford University, Oxford, 2000), p.32

[18] Cowling Mark and Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto: New Interpretations, (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1998), p.19

[19] Hugo, p.155

[20] Marx and Engels, p.7

[21] Marx and Engels, p24

[22] Hugo, p.156

[23] ibid.

[24] Hugo, p.179

[25] Marx and Engels, p.28

[26] Hugo, p.813

[27] Valjean was initially sentenced to five years for the theft, but repeated escape attempts earned him an increased sentence.

[28] Hugo, p.93

[29] Hugo, Victor, “Preface” in Les Misérables, (Penguin, London, 1976), p.15

[30] Hugo, p.101

[31] His suspicions are correct.

[32] Fernie, “Javert and a Comparison to Valjean”, par. 4 of 12

[33] Hugo, p.200

[34] Fernie, “Javert and a Comparison to Valjean”, par. 9 of 12

[35] Marx and Engels, p.51

[36] Porter, p.xxxiv

[37] Marx and Engels, p.52

[38] Marx and Engels, p.20

[39] Hugo, p560

[40] Hugo, p.558

[41] Hugo, p.555

[42] Hugo, p.576

[43] Hugo, p.577

[44] Fernie, Stuart, “Justice and Society” in Reflections on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables,  par. 12 of 15

[45] Singer, p.32

[46] Hugo, p.556

[47] Hugo, p.560

[48] Hugo, p.997

[49] Hugo, p.124

[50] Hugo, p.125

[51] Hugo, p.178

[52] Hugo, p.180

[53] Hugo, p.1032-1033

[54] Marx and Engels, p.13

[55] Hugo, p.359

[56] Hugo, p.556

[57] Hugo, p.556

[58] Hugo, p.557

[59] Hugo, p.956

[60] Hugo, p.957

[61] Hugo, p.1056

[62] Hugo, p.929

 

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