Marxism in Les Miserables: Victor Hugo’s Critique of Parisian Societal Structures

March 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

Karl Marx’s ideas regarding the constructions of an unequal society were already prominent when Victor Hugo published the first book of Les Miserables’s in 1862, with the release of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. In it, Marx states “The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggle.” In 1800s, society was undergoing serious changes – the population was expanding faster than the economy, rural poverty was driving people to the cities, and from the French Revolution to the June Rebellion of 1832 Hugo depicts in his novel, France saw four different monarchs on the throne within forty years. As a result of these great changes, the people suffered, and those who suffered the most were, naturally, the proletariat. The characters within Les Miserables reflect the society, and its challenges, in the 1800s in France. Although the national proverb of France became “liberty, equality, and fraternity”, for the people of Parisian society, this was not the reality. Hugo was concerned with portraying the struggles between social classes in Parisian society, and goes so far as to even state this in the preface to the novel. “So long as the three problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night.” Hugo, much like Marx, wanted to eradicate these societal issues, and stated “so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Hugo uses the novel to critique the societal structures of Parisian society and their rigidity, and in doing so presents some key Marxist ideas.

In his novel Les Miserables, Hugo presents a need for a social equality in Parisian society. He presents ideas of Marxism through his presentation of the character of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict. When Valjean is released from prison, he is turned away at every door because he is a convict even though he has money to pay. He exclaims, “I am not even a dog!” This exclamation shows Valjean as being entirely dehumanised by his time in prison, by his conviction and becomes even lower than the base structure of society – he is left dehumanised and rejected by a society for being a convict (he is convicted for stealing bread, and then more years are added to his sentence for attempting to escape). To further this, Hugo states, “Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave the galleys but not his condemnation.” Once again displaying that a convict is no longer seen as a person after leaving prison, adding to the idea of dehumanisation through the class system. Through Hugo’s narration, he gives the base structure a voice and in turn offers a non-conformist stance against the super structure. In his introduction to Les Miserables, Laurence Porter states “poverty dehumanises the poor […] leading to […] crimes that subject the underclass to a purely punitive prison system that offers no hope of rehabilitation.” Valjean is forced to steal because of poverty, (poverty being one of the three main issues Hugo outlines in his preface), and he is sent to prison for a minor crime and is dehumanised because of it. This idea of dehumanisation is in line with Marx’s belief that, according to critic Peter Singer, Marx believed that “economics is the chief form of human alienation,” presenting the idea that poverty leads to the loss of self, as is shown through the character of Jean Valjean. In giving a voice to the marginalised of society, however, Hugo could inadvertently be going against the proletariat, as Hugo is a middle class writer, so through his narration he provides the poor with a sense of false hope rather than the voice they need.

Hugo also addresses the need for equality through his presentation of women and children in Parisian society. The character of Fantine, for example, is forced into prostitution in order to make money to support herself and her daughter, Cosette. Hugo writes, “[slavery] still exists, but it weighs now only upon woman, and it is called prostitution”. The comparison of prostitution to slavery emphasises the awful circumstances women are forced into due to economic reasons. Hugo outlined in his preface to the novel that the suffering of women in society is also one of the three great problems of the age, “the ruin of women by starvation” – in early 1800s France, many women turned to prostitution for survival. Fantine is a representation of all these women forced into prostitution because they have no other choice. In a capitalist society her body becomes her means of ‘capital’, of profit and in doing so she becomes a commodity and objectifies herself. He also goes so far as to say that Fantine has “aged ten years over night” in order to emphasise the horror of her degradation and exploitation. Marx stated that, “Difference 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.” However, through his presentation, it could be argued that Hugo sees a division within the proletariat – he supports Marx’s idea that the working class are all instruments of labour, but he presents the idea that to be a proletariat woman is worse than simply being proletariat, since he goes so far as to compare prostitution to slavery. She becomes the ultimate instrument of labour as she becomes nothing more than an object to use and sell. Hugo also portrays the degradation of children in society through the unnamed sons of the Thenardiers, who are sold, and eventually end up homeless on the streets of Paris. Their objectification and dehumanisation is emphasised when the children enter a public garden and a bourgeois man states, “Anarchy is entering the garden.” They are no longer seen as children anymore, but a nuance when they aren’t being used as a commodity. Through the entire novel, they go unnamed, which could make them the representation of any child who became an instrument of a labour, and in their case, end up homeless at the hands of society.

Elsewhere in the novel, Hugo confronts ideas of revolution through the views of those of the ABC Society, whose aims are “republic”. He sides with these students immediately by stating, “they were a coterie, if coteries created heroes”, glorifying them with the modifier “heroes” and presenting their desire for revolution positively, thus supporting the need for change. The character Courfeyrac expresses the point, “I desire no kings … a king is a parasite.” In early 1800s France, the country saw many monarchs being put and taken off of the throne, while the people had no vote in this – the revolution of 1789 was intended to remove the monarchy. The metaphor of a king being a “parasite” expresses the idea of the upper class feeding off the proletariat, which expresses a key Marxist idea of the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariats beneath them. At the time, the gap between the rich and the poor was monumental – the aristocracy often enjoyed a quite carefree lifestyle, while the poor suffered. For example, in the late 1700s, climate and agriculture problems caused an increase in poverty, and in the early 1800s, Napoleon raised taxes in order to fund his wars, draining the money of not only the wealthy but the poor too. Hugo goes into great detail to present the reality of this poverty – how Jean Valjean is forced to become a criminal to survive, how Fantine has to become a prostitute in order to support herself and her daughter, and how the Thenardiers’ two unnamed sons are sold in order for them to have money to live. Hugo also writes of a member of the ABC Society, of revolution, “Enjolras expressed its divine right” – a metaphor presenting the divine right of revolution, in contrast with the king’s divine right to rule. By 1832, when this particular scene is set, France was ruled by the ‘citizen king’ Louis-Philippe, and the people had grown tired of having one monarch being replaced by another – the people wanted a “republic”, rather than the reality of the bourgeoisie gaining while the proletariat lost out. Within his novel Ninety-Three, the narrative focuses on the Royalist counter-revolts during the French revolution, but the Hugo questions the Royalist need for a class hierarchy the character of Gauvain’s questioning of a Royalist’s belief. Through this, Hugo expresses his agreement with the right to rebel, which agrees with Marx’s idea of the necessary overthrow of the old system for a communist society.

Hugo then presents the need of the proletariat’s support for change in society. When the character Enjolras, during Hugo’s depiction of the June Revolt of 1832, realises their revolt has failed, he states, “As for the people, they were boiling yesterday, but this morning they do not stir. Nothing to expect, nothing to hope […] you are abandoned.” The repetition of “nothing” emphasises how the rebels at the barricade have no hope of succeeding. Enjolras realises that the reason their revolt will not succeed is because they no longer have the mass support of the proletariat behind their revolt. Critic Peter Singer, in his book titled Marx, expresses a part of Marx’s ideas on revolution: the force needed “to liberate humanity from its domination by economics is to be found in the working classes”. Therefore, Hugo presents the idea that the proletariat are needed in order to have any hope of changing society, but also considers how all classes have been repressed by society. Hugo writes, “Javert […] sprang up, and fell straight into the darkness […] disappeared under the water.” The use of the words “sprang up” is symbolic of Javert’s high position in society – as a police inspector. The verb “fell” is symbolic of Javert falling from his position of high status and below the base structure of society, to his death. Javert begins questioning his judgement and that of society’s when Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who Javert condemns, spares his life, and instead of facing this questioning he commits suicide. Through this Hugo also presents the idea that in order for there to be an equal society, the old order has to be overthrown – through Javert’s death, him symbolising the ‘old order’, then there is opportunity for social change. Similarly, within his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the ‘gypsy’ Esmerelda refuses to submit to the power of a religious figure, Frollo, and choses death – in doing so, she subverts the power of the superstructure and creates an opportunity for social change.

By presenting the struggles of proletariat characters such as Valjean, an ex-convict, Fantine, a woman forced into prostitution by poverty, and children such as the Thenardiers’ unnamed sons, who are given away to be used as a commodity and are no longer seen as children, he goes far in critiquing the societal structures of Parisian society. However, he neglects to critique the role of religion within these social structures, disagreeing with Marx’s point of “religion is the opium of the people”, Hugo being a religious man himself, although he critiques the power of religion in The Hunchback of Notre Dame through his presentation of Frollo. He portrays the need for revolution for an equal society, through his positive portrayal of those of the ABC Society, and a more so negative presentation of those with power, such as police inspector Javert. Through these portrayals and his social critique of Parisian societal structures, Hugo presents many significant Marxist ideas in Les Miserables.

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