What five social problems does Victor Hugo present in Les Misérables?

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kjtracy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The five major social problems found in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables include:

1) Labor conditions: When Fantine is forced to take a job at the factory run by Jean Valjean to support herself and her infant daughter, Cosette, it is clear the factory is a stark contrast to others in the area. Fantine and the other female workers are impressed by Valjean's respectful treatment of them and the fair wages he offers.

2) Class inequality: From Valjean's lengthy prison sentence to the starvation of the French peasants who work constantly while the lazy aristocracy thrive, Les Misérables addresses the social inequalities found in nineteenth century France on multiple levels.

3) Sex-based oppression: Hugo uses Fantine's tragic life as an exemplar of the disparate treatment of men and women. While Cosette's father returned to his respectable life without any negative ramifications from his affair or the child it produced, Fantine's life is thrown into chaos. While she was once young and beautiful, she is ultimately brought to shame, having to go as far as selling her hair and becoming a prostitute simply to care for herself and her daughter. Hugo emphasizes the fact that women in this environment faced the social consequences for their own choices as well as those of the men in their lives.

4) Child abuse: The cruel Thénardiers illustrate the problem of child abuse in the working class. They take Cosette in under the guise of looking after her until her mother can return for her, but they use her as a servant and treat her unkindly until she is rescued. Later on in the novel it is revealed the Thénardiers also mistreated their own daughter, Eponine, forcing her into prostitution to support them.

5) Imperfect justice: While Javert is motivated by almost admirable determination to find the escaped criminal Jean Valjean, his earnestness is contrasted to the unreasonable sentence imposed on Valjean by the arbitrary nature of the justice system. While Valjean was sentenced to prison for nearly two decades for committing a petty crime to feed his nieces, the Patron-Minette crime ring receives lenient sentencing for committing far worse crimes.

skc2911 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are many social and political issues at work in Hugo's novel, but five of the most notable are as follows:

1. Unfair treatment of women: This applies mainly to women of the lower classes, with Fantine and Eponine being the two main examples. Fantine is fired from her factory job when it is discovered that she has a child she is caring for. Because of this, she must turn to prostitution, and she is then arrested for earning money in such a desperate way. Eponine is treated cruelly by her parents and abused by them throughout the novel.

2. Miserable conditions for those in poverty: Throughout the book, Hugo shows us the poverty of these characters by describing how they live and manage to scratch out an existence. It's no coincidence that the title of the book has been translated as "The Miserable" or "The Wretched."

3. A justice system that mistreats criminals: Valjean is arrested for stealing one loaf of bread to feed his family. He is imprisoned, and his sentence is lengthened every time he tries to escape. Upon his release, he is forced to show his work papers at every town he visits, which often results in him being mistreated. There is a huge stigma around criminals, as nobody wants an ex-convict staying in their inn or working in their fields.

4. Inequalities between social classes: The whole novel tracks the revolutionary movements of characters like Enjolras and Marius, who are enraged with how the upper classes thrive while so many of the common people are forced to live in squalor.

5. Treatment of children and orphans: While Cosette is not an orphan at the beginning of the novel, she is taken advantage of by the Thenardiers. They use her to steal money from Fantine, and they mistreat Cosette in the bargain. She is rescued by Valjean, who shows us the charitable way to treat orphans. However, her rescue only shows how deep the mistreatment of children goes when Eponine is left behind with her abusive family.

Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Five social problems that can be found in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables are: 1) The government implements unfair and unjust punishment punishment. For example, Jean Valjean was imprisoned for 19 years for merely stealing a loaf of bread to feed his eight starving nieces and nephews.  2) There exists a lack of legal rights for the bottom rung of society.  For example, Fantine is arrested for being a prostitute.  3) The government implements unfair treatment of women.  For example, Fantine was fired from working in the factory when it became known that she was caring for her daughter that was born out of wedlock.  Of course, being fired led to Fantine becoming a prostitute in order to provide for her daughter.  4) The government mistreats the working class.  5) The government does not care and provide for the poor.