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Literary Analysis of Les Miserables
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is a renowned French classic of the nineteenth century which follows the life and times of Jean Valjean and the fascinating cast of characters with whom he interacts. Though a riveting story that is both heart-rending and eye-opening, the purpose of the novel stretches far beyond the narration of an escaped convict’s adventures: It is a study in human misery and an account of the desperation that led the impoverished citizens of France to revolt against an oppressive government. History and philosophy are woven into the chapters as the reader becomes more and more immersed in the heartache-filled world of the lower class, and with each passing volume, the themes Hugo presents become clearer and more poignant. Specifically, the author uses the characters Jean Valjean, Fantine and her daughter Cosette in this work to enlighten readers of the struggles faced by men, women and children living in poverty during the years leading up to the French Revolution.
Through the character Jean Valjean, Hugo shows the consequences suffered by a man unable to provide for his family in this time period. From dawn until dusk, Valjean worked tirelessly as a pruner in order to support a meager lifestyle for his widowed sister and her children. Unfortunately, conditions steadily worsened within the household after the sole breadwinner found himself without work in the winter months. The man was left with no choice left but to procure food through stealing. He was caught, and sentenced to five years in the galleys, but five failed attempts at escape ultimately cost him fourteen more. It says in the text, “This penalty... had ended in becoming a crime of society against the individual, a crime which was being committed afresh every day, a crime which had lasted nineteen years.” Sadly, this vicious cycle was all too common among poverty-stricken men in the days before the French Revolution. Those without work resorted to crime to meet the basic needs of their family, were arrested, unfairly punished, and when finally let out, doomed to be haunted forever by their past conviction. One analyst described the process as, “ a corrupt criminal justice system which fails to discipline true criminals while converting essentially good people into hardened criminals” (stuartfernie.org). While men endured all of the above and more in Les Misérables, the novel also illustrates trials of an entirely different nature dealt with by women of the same social class.
These trials can be observed primarily through Fantine, a young woman upon whom many troubles befell during a tragically short life. When her character is first introduced, she is seen leading a fairly easy, uneventful life with the man she assumes to be her lover, Félix Tholomyès. He is a wealthy, care-free student who never valued his relationship with Fantine, and showed this through unexpectedly leaving her at an inn one day never to be seen or heard from again. Alone and pregnant with his child, Fantine set off to make a living for herself and the unborn baby with a broken heart. She managed to secure a factory job for a few years, but was abruptly let go when word got out about her illegitimate three-year-old. The two began to sink lower and lower into complete destitution, until finally, Fantine made the difficult decision to entrust her only pride and joy to a perceivably kind innkeeper’s wife in hope that her daughter might enjoy a brighter future than she could offer. Finding herself alone and heartbroken once again, she trudged on, eventually resorting to prostitution in order to survive. This quote is said by Fantine as she begs the inkeeper to take her baby, and encompasses the situation faced by many women in this time: "You see I cannot take my child into the country. Work forbids it. With a child I could not find a place there...it will not be long before I come back. Will you keep my child for me?" One source explained the situation of women such as Fantine, saying, “Countless young girls found themselves pregnant, in which case firing was imminent, leaving them penniless and desperate. Negotiating their options- child abandonment, dangerous and crude abortions, or complicating their lives by keeping the infant- proved a difficult task.” (mtholyoke.edu) As Fantine bore her solitude and poverty, her daughter Cosette experienced a third type of misery that affected the young people of pre-Revolution France.
Cosette's position was similar to the many other orphans of her time in that she was mercilessly abused without intervention from the law. After she was deposited with the family of innkeepers by the name of Thènardier, her mother was assured that she was in good hands, but this was far from the truth. The Thènardiers used the little girl as a virtual slave from the time she was barely five years old and able to hold a broomstick. They never let her forget that she was permanently indebted to them for saving her from a bleak life of poverty. A passage from the second volume reads, “Cosette was between them (the Thènardiers), subjected to their double pressure, like a creature who is at the same time being ground up in a mill and pulled to pieces with pincers…. There was no mercy for her; a fierce mistress and a venomous master. The Thènardier holstery was like a spider’s web in which Cosette had been caught and where she lay trembling.” Through these descriptions of her childhood, it is shown that the ordeals which Cosette and orphans like her encountered on a daily basis were largely due to an absence of laws concerning child abuse and labor. According to one source, “For many working class children, work was a major part of life, and the work was exploitative. They worked in unsafe conditions, for long hours… (rmschwartz.wordpress.com). In short, because of the French society’s negligence, children suffered at the hand of abusive adults and grew up to be caught in the same or similar dilemmas as either of the aforementioned adults. In fact, research says, “when the (abandoned) children were released...they were often illiterate and unskilled. They commonly became prostitutes, vagabonds, or criminals in order to survive. The professions were the worst fear of the bourgeoisie who believed the children inherited their mother’s immoral and sinful values, and thus the cycle continued.” (mtholyoke.edu)
In narrating the troubled stories of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cossette, Victor Hugo leads us to see the desperate plight of the needy that ultimately led to the Revolution. Scores of men were given overly harsh, ruinous sentences for crimes committed so that their families could eat, and many women were faced with seemingly impossible family situations and suffered at the workplace because of it. Meanwhile, children went completely unprotected from the wrath of cruel adults. The following quote from the first volume, in which Jean Valjean agonizes over the many injustices that have been served to him and his peers, is representative of the call to action that Hugo incites in writing his masterpiece, Les Misérables: “He asked himself... whether it was not outrageous for society to treat thus precisely those of its members who were the least well endowed in the division of goods made by chance, and consequently the most deserving of consideration.”
"Child Abandonment in 19th Century France." Child Abandonment in 19th Century France. Web. 28 Feb. 2015
"Template without Comments." Template without Comments. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
"Les Miserables - a Social Critique." Les Miserables - a Social Critique. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
Hugo, Victor, and Charles E. Wilbour. Les Misérables. Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.
"Child Labor and Education." France in the Age of Les Misrables. 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.