Outstanding Essay: 2013

The Young Miserable Ones: Victimized Children and Hugo’s Emphasis on the Maternal

by Aidan Kirkpatrick

Standing far beyond the central action and sweeping, redemptive trials of conscience of Victor Hugo’s character Jean Valjean are the children of the distinguished novel Les Miserables. Within these pages, Valjean seeks to redeem his soul and rediscover his humanity from the malevolent memory of his morally impoverished past on account of the guidance of one caring priest from the French city of Digne. And yet, there are countless others who crisscross the jagged and neglected streets of Paris and thereby enter into the main character’s own circuitous path within this narrative. On behalf of this multitude, both real and fictional, Victor Hugo offers a prominent nod in recognition, introducing his grand, literary epic with the words: “so long as the three problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night – are not solved…books like this cannot be useless” (Preface, v). For the benefit of the latter, Hugo acknowledges their sufferings in a time of endless revolution and social upheaval, and he does not fail to mention their own unique plight even if Jean Valjean must necessarily control the main focus of the drama. In fact, it is Valjean himself who owes much in gratitude to the young gamin, or street urchin, that pass in and out of his life, since they all force his conversion back along more amicable lines whenever the ills of society dishearten him. Their innocence and enduring spirit transcend the dark, ignominious elements of their surroundings and provide a stark contrast to the poor state of Valjean’s own soul when consumed at its very depths with a toxic hatred. Each child that Hugo portrays, nevertheless, suffers from his or her own past, as Jean Valjean does, and provides for the story a matchless commentary on what is not only missing from their lives, but also from the very fabric of French society. From the story of Cosette and Marius to the brief interlude of Petit Gervais as well as of Eponine and Azelma, each child lacks the proper environment conducive to their future well-being, since they have all been deprived of the selfless, parental devotion of some unconditional presence in their lives. Had the tigers and the dark evils of poverty been caged by a more maternal and just society, as Hugo might have demanded in his time, mother and daughter, or mother and son, would not have to be separated to satisfy the greed of others or the cold brutality of the judicial system.

Those who are miserable within nineteenth century France number in the countless millions, but among this faceless crowd Hugo expressly chooses specific characterizations – those of man, woman, and children – to most effectively convey the pathos of their impoverished situation. Jean Valjean remains central to the narrative since he is the man with whom many can identify. He arose from the gloomy clutches of the galleys with a seemingly irrevocable anger that he directed at his oppressors and the system which engendered this malevolence. As Hugo describes, “never, since his infancy, since his mother, since his sister, never had he been greeted with a friendly word or a kind regard. Through suffering on suffering he came little by little to the conviction, that life was a war; and that in that war…he had no weapon but his hate” (76). His hatred would redouble over time, intensifying no doubt beyond his control, had this weapon not retained a significant design flaw, which spectacularly misfired at that very moment amiability had returned to his life. Through the bishop, he had been presented at last with what human beings by their nature arguably seek: an unrequited and unmerited act of kindness that forever changes one’s outlook on humanity. It is this nurturing act of selflessness which all mothers or fathers could relate with, for at the heart of all benevolence rests a sense of security on the part of the receiver, whose own faults and imperfections are seen to be ignored for the sake of an unprejudiced love. Before such a conversion, being the incomplete man that he was at having lost his family,

[Valjean] vaguely felt that a monstrous weight was over him, [for] in that pallid and sullen shadow in which he crawled, whenever he turned his head and endeavored to raise his eyes, he saw, with mingled rage and terror, … a kind of frightful accumulation of things, of laws, of prejudices, of men, and of acts, the outlines of which escaped him, the weight of which appalled him, and which was no other than that prodigious pyramid that we call civilization. (79)

Within the galleys, Valjean had been face to face with his soul’s very abyss, becoming more and more as it were the brutish beast made feral by the sheer, terrifying weight of the structure of society above him. The indifference of that perfunctory edifice, from the inhumane jailer to the distant archbishop and the resplendent Emperor on high (79), crushed what love had remained within such a place where every man would lose all that they had once been. For Valjean, especially, it could be said that “there was no sun, no beautiful summer days, no radiant sky, no fresh April dawn [only] some dim window light…that shone in his soul” (79). Nineteen years had transformed the man from harmless thief, who stole bread to simply stave off that night’s hunger for his family, into a true menace with hardened, vindictive motives and an amoral, anti-theistic sensibility. With no stability in thought, his poverty has flung him overboard and beyond the borders of a society which had falsely provided comfort and security to him as a member of that community. Instead of guiding him to moral safety, society has banished Valjean, abandoning him and mirroring his moral descent though the efforts of Hugo’s unknown man who has plunged literally off the ship and into the watery abyss (80-1). For, having fallen off of one of the galleys while at full speed, the man is left to defend himself against the forces of nature, struggling as Valjean himself shall do against the forces of man, civilization, and the specter of God’s own abandonment. Confronted with this miserable void beneath and the moral depravity within, one’s only option when abandoned as such is to surrender to the pull of those horrid depths, or continue in vain to face the “darkness, storm, solitude, wild and unconscious tumult, the ceaseless tumbling of the fierce waters” (81). Like the unidentified man – Hugo’s own Palinurus – Valjean risks becoming tossed by the indifference of society into the infinite tumult of his soul, and, therefore, simply cannot continue to subsist as this ethical child without the moral guidance of some truly caring, parental figure.

Jean Valjean, the man, might appear on the surface far from the traditional impression of a child, but before his conversion and his confrontation with the bishop from Digne, he remains exactly so in all forms but his outward appearance. In order to save that ever tumultuous soul when the memory of the bishop begins to fade, Hugo effectively paints a very similar portrait of his character to remind Valjean of the once child-like innocence he himself had at one time. That characterized portrait morphs first into the form of the Savoyard boy, Petit Gervais, whom Valjean meets as he flees the spiritual confusion associated with Digne and its bishop. Children not only occupy a notable place within Les Miserables, but they also strike through their undeniably innocent natures a tender note within Jean Valjean’s very soul. Nearly two decades had been spent separated from the nearest thing Valjean could call to a family, namely his sister and her seven children. To behold a child victimized by his or her own poverty, as he had done for most of his early life, must no doubt elicit an indescribable sorrow in Valjean, knowing that in front of him is just another child whose future is uncertain and all the more bleak. That child would take on all of the misery in Valjean’s life since it was his family and his adopted children that he had failed to protect on that night ‘Justice’ had sentenced him into the galleys on the trumped up charge of “burglary at night, in an inhabited house” (72). Petty thievery had earned Valjean five years, while his four attempts at escape gave him fourteen more. While imprisoned, as Hugo relates, he could only weep as the guards fastened the bolt of his iron collar. As he did so, “he raised his right hand and lowered it seven times, as if he was touching seven heads of unequal height, and at this gesture one could guess that whatever he had done, had been to feed and clothe seven little children” (72). It is evident that Valjean’s past is much more than just a collection of sinful acts and impious thoughts, but a fundamental shame forever reminding him of his inability to support, to guide, and to provide asylum for his errant children. After years of continued hardship, however, in place of that “wound, there was a scar; that was all” (73). Upon his heart remained a long forgotten but still ever present reminder of that pain, and it is within this context that Petit Gervais completes the bishop’s work, bursting open this emotional gash once more. The bishop from Digne, in truth, had done more than simply hand over a pair of silver candlesticks to the pitiable Jean Valjean. His efforts had awakened the memories of his forgotten childhood, unleashing a new perceptivity to the odors and colors of the world for the singing youth from Savoy at once to overwhelm (91). This last act of thievery – stealing the forty-sous piece – had condemned the innocent life of the child to further poverty in Valjean’s eyes, much as he himself had done to the lives of his now lost family. For, after Petit Gervais had run off into the void, dimmed as such by the setting of the sun, Valjean glimpsed that forty-sous, which to him was as if “the thing that glistened there in the obscurity had been an eye fixed upon him” (92). That judgment penetrated deep into his soul much as the biting, wintry wind was simultaneously piercing through his rags. This wind was blowing as the sun set and the child hurried into the gloom, all of which “gave a kind of dismal life to everything about him. The bushes shook their little thin arms with an incredible fury. One would have said that they were threatening and pursuing somebody” (93). Having lost the child somewhere within this miserable desolation and bleak tumult, Valjean falls to his knees in despair, knocked down “as if an invisible power overwhelmed him at a blow, with the weight of his bad conscience” (94). The resulting introspection that occurs, formed by both man and nature, effectively generates the benign character of Father Madeleine, whose unfailing generosity comes implicitly from an effort to ease the financial burdens of all the Petit Gervais’s of the world.

However, given Valjean’s apparent forgetfulness at staying true to the bishop’s magnanimous message, Victor Hugo provides a second self-portrait of his central character to remind him once more of the power of unconditional love. This new manifestation is of young Cosette whose own parental force has, to her limited knowledge, abandoned her all the same. Her mother, Fantine, is just another victim of society’s malicious devices, having been compelled both out of necessity and societal prejudice to leave her infant child, the center of all her love’s attention, under the care of the contemptible Thénardiers. Cosette, whose name was a doting contraction of the original Euphrasie, typified innocence during her first few years, since her gaiety had been fostered and etched in by nothing less than “the goodness of [her] mother” (127). And yet, this benevolent nature also came with a certain naïveté mixed no less with the hopelessness of a desperate situation. Fantine is compelled to relinquish her child or face an inevitable poverty bearing the social stigma of an unmarried mother. Madame Thénardier – another mother with two apparently joyous children – stands, moreover, as a stark contrast to the blameless Fantine. She plays well into the social system and has even the sense to exploit it, capitalizing on Fantine’s hopelessness. For, she was a “red-haired, brawny, angular woman, of the soldier’s wife type in all its horror, and [had] a masculine lackadaisicalness” (126), which had been conducive to a life of leisure at the expense of others. Fantine, however, had been “sprung from the most unfathomable depths of social darkness, [bearing] on her brow the mark of the anonymous and the unknown” (103) that developed somewhat into the ignorance of an outsider. As a result of these orphaned beginnings, Fantine belonged to no specific class in society and, arguably, retained that incorruptibility and matronly purity whereas Madame Thénardier decided rather to embrace the greed and lethargy associated with societal corruption. One came from “that bastard class formed of low people who have risen, and intelligent people who have fallen…and which unites some of the faults of the latter with nearly all of the vices of the former” (129). The other knew the life of the workman, having worked since the age of ten (103), but had nevertheless lost all at having gained a child. These two mothers, no matter the extent of their presence in these children’s lives, differ dramatically in their motives towards those whom they nurture. Madame Thénardier provides not what is necessary for her children but instead indulges in a kind of destructive, yet selective hedonism in which the mother in essence brutishly feeds off of the lethargic beauty she herself fosters in her two daughters. By spoiling Eponine and Azelma, and then playing off the contrast seen in her son Gavroche and the adopted Cosette, she stratifies her household. This thereby creates a miniaturized class structure where the poor and wretched further exemplify the beauty and nobility of the two bourgeois girls. For, as Hugo explains of this woman, “there are certain natures which cannot have love on one side without hatred on the other”, and so with the introduction of this foreign child, Cosette, it seemed to her that “the little one lessened the air hers breathed” (131). The misery felt by one in fact aids the happiness felt by another, since the former’s envy could be fed upon even when there remains in this home very little one should desire. Fantine, on the other hand, truly embodies the selflessness of the ideal mother, but, just as for Jean Valjean, that self-sacrifice can be easily exploited by society at large. Through her devotion for her lonely child, Fantine deprives herself of any financial security by sending the majority of her income to the Thénardiers after landing a position at a manufacturing business in her hometown of Montreuil-sur-mer. All in the name of her little Cosette, she sacrifices her happiness, her hair, her teeth, and finally her body. Society wholeheartedly buys this slave, for even with the noble appearance of civilized life which it hides behind, civilization marches on and abandons whoever fails to stay onboard.

The destiny of mankind, as Hugo admits through Fantine, can never be free from sacrifice, those whose fate it is to fall while all others press on in their march towards enlightenment and a more hospitable age. The failure of the French Revolution, needless to mention the casualties and social upheaval brought on by this grand leap forward, no doubt greatly disillusioned this author of Les Miserables. For, as he exclaims no less tragically, “Alas! What are all these destinies thus driven pell-mell? Whither go they? Why are they so? He who knows that, sees all the shadow. He is alone. He is God” (158). His questions strike at the very heart of his own society and indeed at every effort conducted in the name of revolution, for only God can know all the instances when the shadow of vice fell upon mankind’s endeavors. From the struggles of conscience in Jean Valjean to the grotesque, almost barbaric conditions of those countless young lives affected by the wars and their own impoverishment, there appeared to be no real future or promise as a result of this experiment in French democracy. Napoleon, whom all had placed their trust and affection, had led French armies astray deep into that frozen, Russian abyss and then finished by destroying all remaining hope on the plains of Waterloo. The characters of Hugo’s novel very similarly suffered at the hands of a society designed to shelter with modern reason but whose true, ulterior motives had been far more egotistical than philanthropic. As a result, these young children, either in mind or in body, had been surrendered to the elements and compelled to fight a losing battle with forces far beyond their control. The paths chosen by society’s grand designers, whether they are Monarchists or Republicans, took little heed of the needs of all their children, and those who were the future grew up like Valjean with only hatred in their hearts. This angelic trust peculiar to an infant such as Cosette should exacerbate whatever humanity remains in society when that cherub of a child is seen to be victimized and exposed to the world’s miseries far before her time. When it is not – when human sympathy no longer has any role – society and the notions of justice and reason exist only to serve the barbarous instincts of hate and revenge. Within all is the capacity for love, this gender-neutral, maternal instinct to care for others: from Jean Valjean who assumes the role of the father for the now sheltered Cosette to miserable Fantine whose selfless sacrifice had committed body and soul to the thought of her daughter. Society, however, lacks these powerful sentiments since it has tossed aside all feeling, replacing it rather with the rigid institutions of the Monarchial past or the sweeping attempts at modernization of the revolution. Feeling secure in that future is, furthermore, no different than that desire felt as a child for their mother’s arms. Hope is tied up inextricably with the vague happiness that arises when comfort brings silence to each threat from the outside world. In truth, that little, unnamed child, who has been separated from his or her mother only to be abandoned and abused by all of society’s injustices, controls civilization’s destiny, especially at its most bleak hour. Before such a time, however, when politics may no longer divide men and mothers may all live content with their children, it is best to simply absorb the plea of the enigmatic Monsieur G: “I will weep for the children of kings with you, if you will weep with me for the little ones of the people” (36).

Works Cited

Hugo, Victor. "Les Miserables." Trans. Charles E. Wilbour. New York, NR: Random House, Inc., 1980. Print.