In the 18th century, the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau paved the way for the French Revolution to take place. Most of these ideas had to do with the “social contract”, the belief that government was given its power by the consent of the people, who voluntarily gave up some of their intrinsic rights in order to achieve harmony and protection. Rousseau’s ideas were based on the belief that people were basically good and would do good if left in a natural state. He wrote that society was better off without religion, or better still with a pseudo-religion with the government as its object of devotion. Many of his beliefs were used and exploited by French revolutionaries to serve the authors of the Reign of Terror.
The biggest difference between the beliefs of revolutionaries and traditional French philosophies was the introduction of inequality as a vice to be remedied. Prior to Montesquieu and Rousseau, inequality was seen as something that was innate in society, an amoral state where some were born with more or achieved more than others. However, just before the time of the Revolution, thinkers and political philosophers had begun to question this belief. Many began to see inequality as a source of most of the problems of poverty and destitution, and to propose solutions to remedy this evil. The French Revolution was the natural consequence of these ideas.
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo delved deeply into the politics of 19th-century France, after the French Revolution, depicting mainly lower-class characters crushed under poverty. He seemed to believe some of the same ideas as Rousseau, with some notable differences. A major theme of the book is the evil of inequality and oppression, keeping the common people down. Hugo demonstrated this in the storylines of Jean Valjean, who stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and spent twenty years in prison for it, and Fantine, a young single mother who was forced into prostitution to provide for her daughter. However, through his book, Hugo proposed that the solution to the problem of inequality was the power of love, compassion, and Christian morality.
Another major theme of Les Miserables is the failure of the French Revolution to end the evils of oppression and poverty. The revolution of 1789 was a bloodbath, a revenge killing of noblemen and their families for years of perceived oppression. Although the revolutionaries drafted a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens,” this document was more a statement of beliefs than an actionable plan for achieving their goals. In the end, not much in government changed but the names of the men who ran it. Hugo criticized the Revolution for its failure to change the lives of poor people for the better.
Hugo seemed to take hope when writing about Napoleon and the students at the barricade, since their ideals were more honest and closer to Hugo’s own political stance. However, both these attempts at reformation failed. In the end, Hugo admitted that violence and bloodshed could never solve France’s desperate problems. The true solution shone purely through his writing: Christian love and compassion.
In his preface to Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote: “As long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, a social damnation artificially creating hells in the midst of civilization… while the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjection of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child by darkness, continue unresolved… while ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books like this cannot fail to be of value.” He illustrated these three problems through several storylines in the book.
Both Jean Valjean and Monsieur Thenardier perfectly depicted the plight of the degraded proletariat man, starving and poor, but they took different actions from their common problem. Monsieur Thenardier resorted to a life of theft and cruelty, forsaking morality for money, but Jean Valjean rose above his early crimes and became a changed man who, through honest labor and hard work, was eventually a successful businessman.
The “subjection of women through hunger” was illustrated by Fantine and Eponine. Fantine, after her rich lover abandoned her with their illegitimate daughter, tried desperately to feed herself and her daughter. Even when she was forced to give up Cosette and become a prostitute, she cared for her daughter and tried to make the best possible life for her. Eponine was the neglected daughter of the horrible Monsieur Thenardier. She and her brother, Gavroche, were thrown out onto the streets because their family could not afford to feed them. Eponine was a thief at first, but after falling in love with Marius, an honorable man, she changed her ways and saved Cosette and Marius several times.
Cosette and Gavroche show the “atrophy of the child by darkness,” in similar but different ways. Cosette went to live with the Thenardiers after her mother could no longer afford to feed her, becoming yet another neglected child in their household. She lived in her head for years since she had no friends, but when Jean Valjean adopted her, she became loved and cared for. Gavroche, the oldest Thenardier son, was thrown out onto the street, like Eponine, when his family could no longer feed him. He remained a thief to the very end, yet tried to redeem himself by fighting at the barricade alongside Marius and the other students.
The lesson of the French Revolution and Les Miserables is that often a common problem can be addressed in many ways, and it matters which way people choose to address it. The problems of inequality, poverty, and neglect were all very real, but Hugo tried to show that the solution to these problems was not violent protest, but kindness.