Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables book cover
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How do the indications of social injustice in Les Misérables relate to the book's title?

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To draw another analogy, Victor Hugo is the French version of the English Charles Dickens.  Contemporaries in time, both men perceived the tremendous gap between the upper classes and those in the lower.  While Dickens described society as a "prison" in which few, if any, could rise above their position in society, Hugo writes of Jean Valjean, condemned unjustly to prison, who escapes the physical prison, but is unable to escape the "prison" of always having been a criminal. 

For one thing, he must carry a yellow card identifying himself as a criminal.  As a result, he cannot find work, and, in desperation--a state which precipitated his first crime--he steals the candle stands from the bishop.  It is only because of the charity of the bishop who tells the gendarmes that Valjean was given these valuables by him that Valjean, a "miserable," a chance in life.  And, with this chance, Valjean redeems himself in many ways, practicing the same charity towards other "miserables" such as Fantine and Collette. Nevertheless, he remains condemned by society and is constantly pursued by Inspector Javert until the end of Javert's life.

Similarly, in Dickens's "Great Expectations" in which Magwitch, an unfortunate "wretch"--a "miserable" who also has stolen to keep from starving--escapes from the prison ship on which he has been sentenced after his complicity with a gentleman who has taken advantage of him and strives to redeem himself in New South Wales.  After he becomes a wealthy sheep farmer, he acts as Pip's benefactor, but he is still condemned by the "prison" of society, and cannot escape the fate of England's laws.  Thus, both Dickens and Hugo write of the miserable fate of the poor, who albeit good in soul, cannot redeem themselves in society.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The English translation of Les Miserables is "the miserable." Victor Hugo identifies "the...

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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mkcapen1 | Student

The book "Les Miserables" begins with a man, Valjean, who is a violent criminal. Through the love of his adopted daughter and the acceptance with unconditional regard by the Bishop of Digne, Valjean, undergoes a transformation into a good person of deep moral conscience.  He is followed throughout his life by another man of good moral conscience, a detective who needs to capture him.  The question of social injustice is a conflict between the detective and Valjean.  Valjean saves the detective which makes the detective question is own understanding of what is justice.  Should he arrest the changed Valjean or should he let him go?  There is no longer a clear line between what is just and what is unjust.

Jean Valjean was initially put into prison where he became hardened because he was trying to obtain food for his sister's hungry children and stole a loaf of bread.  The theme of social injustice is evident because he is of a lower class and poor and the penalty is extremely stiff for his crime.  His misery has caused him to break the law.  He is still targeted after his release because he must show a card telling others he is a criminal, so he can not get work.

The classes are significantly divided.  When the woman dies, who is Collette's mother, because she is the poor child of a prostitute she will be sent to an orphanage where she will be mistreated and worked as if she is slave labor.  Valjean takes the child as his own to prevent her from having a life of misery as a pauper and ward of the state. The prostitute, Fantine, because of her low social status is offered no protection by law after she is badly beaten.  She would never have become a prostitute had her husband lived and there was no alternative way for her to make a living.

There is a class uprising in the book in which the detective is taken as a prisoner.  The population is exhausted by lack of human rights and dignity as they demandchange from the government.  Many of them are killed during the uprising.

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