Last time we looked at the history of 19th century France, in an attempt to become acquainted with the backstory behind Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. We saw that it was an extremely volatile period marked with tremendous political instability. The French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the restoration of the monarchy, the July Revolution of 1830 and the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the Revolution of 1848 and the Second Republic, Louis-Napoleon, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Third Republic were all current events, fresh in the minds of anyone living in France in Victor Hugo’s day.
Politics was a huge deal in Victor Hugo’s France. Everyone was either a Royalist or a Republican, in much the same way that everyone in America today either loves Bush or hates him, is for the Iraq war or against it, is pro-life or pro-abortion. Except that in Hugo’s France, the stakes were much much higher. Families were divided, often irreconcilably, over politics; we will see this in the story with Marius’s family. A slip of the tongue in the wrong context could be deadly; we will see a couple of instances of this in the story where Valjean complicates his situation through slips of the tongue which cause him to inadvertently peg himself as a Bonapartist to the wrong people.The Royalists (sometimes called monarchists) were those who supported the French monarchy. Generally they were arch-conservatives who supported a return to aristocratic privilege and the Divine Right, the belief that the French monarchs were commissioned by God, accountable only to God, and that opposing them was tantamount to opposing the will of God.
The Republicans (sometimes called Democrats–nothing whatsoever to do with the Democrats and Republicans of present-day American politics, this is something completely different) were a much more progressive lot. They supported the French Revolution and the Republic, and the ideas and principles which those things represented. Most Republicans were of the Bonapartist variety, that is, they believed that Napoleon was commissioned by God to take the principles of the Revolution and the Republic outside of France and on to the rest of Europe.
There were other issues in French society that Hugo sought to address in Les Miserables. The French penal system was a mess; the penal code came down hardest upon the poorest of the poor who were often forced into crime by the desperateness of their circumstances, while it was thoroughly ineffective in dealing with the most serious criminal offenders. We see this in the story with Valjean, who served what would add up to nineteen years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to provide for his sister and her children during hard times, and in the peasant Champmathieu, who is wrongly identified as Jean Valjean and all but sentenced to life in prison because he is too ignorant to mount an effective defense, and who is only saved because the real Jean Valjean shows up at the last minute and presents himself to the court. We will also see this in the sections of the story relating to the Thenardiers and the criminal gang Patron-Minette, who spend their lives in and out of prison because they are able to get themselves sent to places where security is problematic and then bribe the guards to look the other way while they pull off their escapes.
The lot of women in French society, especially working-class women, was another issue of concern to Victor Hugo. We see this in the sequence related to Fantine and her downfall. Every step in her downfall is precipitated by the actions of others and society against her–Tholomyes impregnates her and then abandons her, the prejudice of French society against single mothers forces her to leave her daughter with the Thenardiers before she attempts to find work in her hometown, her coworkers and supervisor have her fired for indecency when they learn that she has an illegitimate child, the exorbitance and fraudulence of the Thenardiers tightens the noose around her right at the point when she loses her job, forcing her to sell her hair and her front teeth and ultimately to descend into prostitution in order to provide for Cosette. But Fantine is held fully accountable by society for everything that society has done to her.
The plight of children in the lower classes was another issue of concern. We see this in the character of Cosette, especially in the years when she is forced to live with the Thenardiers under horrific conditions. The social prejudices which victimized Fantine by forcing her to give up Cosette so that she could find work in her hometown, also had an adverse impact on Cosette as well because she was deprived of her mother and left in the power of the corrupt Thenardiers.
Family structures were another problematic issue; in much of the lower classes there was little or no family structure, and this made people susceptible to a whole host of social ills. Fantine grew up an orphan, as did Cosette. Cosette’s situation improves dramatically when Jean Valjean rescues her, but as we read we will see that there are some respects in which her upbringing is lacking because she never knew her mother. Even when family structures do exist in the lower classes, they are extremely fragile and can be shattered by the slightest disruption, political, economic, or otherwise. We see this with Jean Valjean’s family, his sister and her children whom he provided for by working as a tree pruner. They were all dispersed when he was first arrested, and then never seen or heard from again. We will see this when we meet the Thenardiers’ two youngest children. Gavroche is the only orphan in the entire story who is happy, and that is only because his home situation is so bad that he is better off living on the streets.
Class structures were quite rigid in 19th century France; we will see several instances of this in the story. There was a wide separation between the lower classes and the middle and upper classes, and those who lived in the middle and upper classes believed that the lower classes were consistently evil and good for nothing. But Victor Hugo shows us characters from all classes of society and forces us to know them as real people. In the process we see that virtue is not a function of class standing; there are noble people and corrupt people in the lower classes, there are noble people and corrupt people in the middle and upper classes as well.
Victor Hugo was passionate about universal suffrage and free public education for all; he believed that these two things would solve everything that ailed French society in his day. We in 21st century America live in a society that has had both universal suffrage and free public education for all for several decades; we might take issue with Hugo on this.
In Les Miserables we see that French society in Victor Hugo’s day was an edifice built upon the backs of its lowest ranking members; they bore the heaviest burden and received nothing in return, society kicked them to the curb and then held them accountable for everything that it did to them. The plight of the lowest, most vulnerable members of French society was something very near and dear to Victor Hugo’s heart, yet he does not just sit back and preach about it. Instead he presents us with very real and believable characters from that world and forces us to know them as real people, and to respect them as such.