Les Miserables Critical Analysis (Literary Criticism: Marxism)
Leyte Normal University
“A Literary Criticism Academic Essay”
March 19, 2013 – Tuesday
Vanessa Anne Z. Oliva
BSEd 2 – 2 (English)
Mr. Dominador L. Pagliawan
TFri 7:30 – 9:00 a.m.
Les Miserables is a celebrated French literary classic that encompasses many influential
images relating to the radical views of author Victor Hugo in the society during his time. The
political perspectives of the novel could be interpreted in relation to the conclusions of the
eminent theorist Karl Marx. Both sides of the author and the origin of his ideologies, Karl Marx,
focus most of their social passions with the lower classes. They are concerned with the social
and economic injustice and their effects, and both believe that revolutionary change is inevitable
but must come from the working class. (Amy Hanson)
Hugo’s Les Miserables, whose central character is Jean Valjean – a former convict who
is unsatisfied with the imprudent treatment that plagues his ex-convict’s papers, dodges parole
and becomes a fugitive. However, a sudden turn of events (in the form of the incident with the
generous priest who helped him instead of condemning him) makes him a good man – to the
point that he opens his own factory and even becomes the mayor of a French town due to his indepth kindness. But then, his identity is exposed and is forced to flee from the novel’s equally
prominent antagonist, the single-minded policeman Javert. Nonetheless, Valjean is not alone in
his journey. Discovering that one of his former workers, Fantine, has fallen into a very dire and
bad condition: doing every means she could to feed her child – even falling to prostitution and
selling off her lustrous hair and a couple of her teeth – he promises at her deathbed to take care
of her daughter Cosette. Years later, Cosette falls in love with the young revolutionary Marius,
and Valjean’s story becomes entwined with the June Rebellion in Paris.
The novel’s plot is intriguing itself, but the most scrumptious and essential part belongs
to its hidden context. Though mostly, it is usually disregarded as just a portion of the novel’s
garnishing dishes. The reader’s eye, if not a critical and expert one, would just look at them as
mere portraits to decorate and add sensuality and earthiness within the story’s revolutionary wall.
Nevertheless, behind these lovelorn and life-changing turn of events comes the whole theme of
showing to the world the whole vicinity of the realm of the oppressed.
For his setting, Hugo chose the least well-known and least successful of the French
revolutions: In 1830 the Bourbon king, Charles X, was overthrown by a popular uprising.
Republican aspirations among the workers and students who had barricaded the streets were
betrayed when the Chamber of Deputies installed the Orléanist Louis-Philippe to become the
new king. The outcome of this July Revolution, so memorably commemorated by Delacroix in
his painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’, was merely to replace one monarch with another. The
liberal Louis-Philippe was initially popular, but two years into his reign, the living conditions of
the working class were driven down by failed harvests and rising prices. In this context of
economic failure, a cholera epidemic and disappointment in the July Revolution surged the
climactic event of Les Misérables: the June Rebellion of 1832. The trigger was the death of
General Lamarque, a republican and a figurehead for the poor. Early on 5 June, the streets filled
with people following his hearse on its procession through Paris. Swelled by students and
workers, the crowd raised barricades and, for one night, took over half of Paris. Victor Hugo
himself was an eyewitness, dodging bullets as the rebels exchanged fire with soldiers. But the
rebellion would fail. Unlike in 1830, the Parisian masses failed to mobilise in support of the
rebels, leaving them isolated against state power. On the second day, the rebels made a last stand
at the Église Saint-Merri, a church in the thick of the fighting in the Rue Saint Martin, until the
evening of June 6. As the smoke cleared, nearly a thousand people lay dead. (Eugene
The title, Les Miserables refers and portrays not only the failed revolutionaries of the
1830s but also the despicable lower class during Hugo’s contemporary time. This theme of
poverty openly exposes the suffrage that covers up all classes but grinds the lower class people
deeper down into misery and filth. This was a society where the poor are criminalized and the
rich ones roam free – free both from police hounds like Inspector Javert and free from all guilts
one may perceive as technical innocence. Jean Valjean was thrown into prison for a committed
robbery of a single loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family.
In his introduction to Les Misérables, Norman Danny states that “Hugo was
always …deeply concerned with the social and political developments of his time” and this
strong passion was clearly seen all throughout the story – from Jean Valjean’s theft to Fantine’s
sufferings, till Cosette’s sad child life and up to the death of the young and old rebels during the
Paris revolution. The explicit descriptions of every scene are not wholly a product of the
author’s imagination, but instead, a product of his life experiences; a product of his work as a
living being surviving in a human society. Stuart Fernie makes the point that the novel “is based
largely on historical fact … incidents lifted from Hugo’s life, and characters Hugo met in the
course of his life”, like in the case where Fantine (who is then acting as a low class prostitute) is
arrested for striking a bourgeois that is literally taken from the same type of incident in which
Hugo himself intervened. Furthermore, the very character of Marius Pontmercy, who is,
according to Denny, supposed to be “a portrait of the youthful Victor Hugo himself”, both
having similar family circumstances and both undergoing a similar political development from
royalism to Bonapartism to Republicanism. The events written within Les Miserables that
mostly are originated from the real life 19th century French society, validates the political stance
of the novel within language and literature.
Victor Hugo’s noble campaigns “on behalf of the poor, in favour of social justice,
against kings and their wars, and against capital punishment”, is thoroughly specified in the
Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era. Alongside with Duncan Heath, they both agree that “Hugo's
portrait of the Parisian underworld is essentially socialist”.
Les Misérables contain many elements that are in favor with the Marxist theory that is
why (I believe) that most literary critics such as I, attack this literary work with much gusto using
Marxism. Literary critic Terry Eagleton defines Marxism as:
“A scientific theory of human societies and of the practice of transforming them; and what that
means, rather more concretely, is that the narrative Marxism has to deliver is the story of the
struggles of men and women to free themselves from certain forms of exploitation and
As aforementioned (directly and indirectly), Mr. Hugo’s novel is very much intent around
the characters’ lives: their fight against oppression and exploitation... whether they win or
not. Like for example, Jean Valjean who is one of the characters within the story who are
granted by the author – Hugo’s mind to be successful in his social, psychological, emotional, and
physical struggle; others, such as Fantine, are not. The chief form of exploitation and oppression
in the novel is that of the financial side: economics. Hugo sees to it that the poor characters are
forced into terrible situations by poverty and the “survival of the fittest” struggle and
discrimination between classes due to the abuse of powers in the part of the government: Fantine
is falsely arrested for striking back a bourgeois who taunted her for being a prostitute and threw
snow down her back – a complete violation of the rights of a person to sue another person who
defames him or her either written or oral.
In Karl Marx’s revolutionary work, The Communist Manifesto, this class conflict is given
much importance. It is stated there that throughout history, social classes have fought against
each other as the “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried
on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight” in which Mr. Hugo openly revisits all over his
Les Miserables novel.
Marx and Hugo both have strong concerns with the social and economic injustice faced
by the lower classes. From the very title of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables which when
translated means, “the wretched ones”, he is boldly introducing to the readers that the story
before them refers to the “impoverished underclass” society of the French society. Hugo
subsequently goes into detail regarding this concern, directly in his Preface to Les Misérables,
denoting to “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” problems which
he goes on portraying in Les Misérables.
Economics also has its negative effects on relationships, such as Marx describes: “By the action
of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children
transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour”. In Les Misérables,
there are a lot of familial relationships that turned from a happy one to a common “divorce-like”
separation situation. Like for example the Thernardiers which are shown at the first half part of
the story to treat their daughters well but then when their fortunes got down, they resolved to sell
their two youngest sons, who ended up homeless and starving on the streets of Paris. The
Thernardier sons became not as instruments of labor but instead, they were treated as just
merchandises to be sold like mundane sale items in order to gain profits.
Hugo does not hesitate to use children to emphasize the horror of the consequences that
always accompanies the lower class. Like for example, Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, lives with
the Thernardiers who are paid to look after her, but then is treated instead like a wretched family
pet who, in my opinion, is much less fortunate than the dogs in the street slums. This presents
the key point in Karl Marx’s view, that “Differences of age and sex no longer have any
distinctive social validity for the working class.” Hugo tends to make similar judgments of the
society with Marx but as a literary artist and writer at heart, he conveys it to the readers through a
bedtime-story-like-way – much like drawing in more of the reader’s emotions and captivating
them straight to the heart through his literary texts.
In conclusion, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is wholly influenced by real events
occurring during his time and the working people in the French society who, even in their leisure
time, gains conflict with each other’s classes – though mostly the lower class is shown in a better
light and the upper ones in a much dimmer sight than the latter. It may be inferred that most of
Hugo’s ideologies came from the well-known theorist Karl Marx and that they are both
concerned and deep-seated with passion to question those with power and authority as to why all
the poverty and sufferings are still and continuously occurring within the living society
everywhere till the present time. The social injusticeness of all that is faced single-handedly by
the lower classes through the only thing that they could think of: a bloody revolution present all
throughout the novel with the use of carefully and artfully and passionately crafted scenes of
poverty and the glory of revolution in an emotional way.
"Les Miserables. Hugo, Victor.’’ Book.
Penguin, London. 1976
"Les Miserables in marxism. Amy Hanson". Web. March 16. 2013
“Marxist Theory of Art”. Web. 16 March 2013.
“The Communist Manifesto: New Interpretations: 1988”. Web. 16 March 2013.
“Marxism and Literary Criticism. Eagleton, Terry: 2002”. Web. 16 March 2013.
“Reflections on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Fernie, Stuart. Web. 17 March 2013.
“Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era: Hugo, Victor Marie 1802-1885” 1760-1850. Web. 17
“Introducing Romanticism. Heath, Duncan: 2000”. Web. 17 March 2013.