Is this posthumous enlistment of Victor Hugo into the ranks of the “Yellow Vest” movement and anti-wealth activists justified? Those who have read only an abridged version of Hugo’s work in a university class, or who have only seen a film or stage adaptation, are sure to think it is. Their views have been shaped by professors and editors who believe the rich are the cause of poverty and are enemies of the poor.
But is this “down with the rich” narrative really what Les Misérables teaches us?
Les Misérables is an exceptionally long and complex novel featuring multiple themes, plots, subplots and sub-subplots. One of these themes might be that the law can sometimes be destructive as well as ameliorative, as illustrated by the unjust sentence Jean Valjean receives (5 years for stealing a loaf of bread, which ends up being 19 years following several escape attempts) and the fact that his criminal conviction marks him as a social pariah for the rest of his life. None of this has anything to do with rich verses poor though. Valjean’s jailers are not wealthy, nor is the baker he stole from. What’s more, Jean Valjean himself becomes rich after turning his life around (albeit under a false identity). and becomes a force for good in his village, not just by handing out alms to the poor, but by employing people In his own business and supporting community institutions like his local church and hospital and other charitable causes.
Chalk one up for the wealthy…
A second theme involves the descent of Fantine into a life of poverty and prostitution. Her downward spiral begins when she has a child out of wedlock with Felix Tholomyes who subsequently abandons both mother and daughter. Fantine is forced to place her daughter into the care of unscrupulous innkeepers – where the child is treated badly – while she works in a factory. Eventually Fantine is fired from that job when her supervisor discovers that she is an unwed mother, and she must turn to prostitution to survive.
None of the villains in Fantine’s life are wealthy though. First of all, let’s not pretend that she has no responsibility for her fate. Fantine exercised poor judgment in the first instance by choosing to have sex outside of wedlock. Tholomyes, the scoundrel who refuses to take responsibility for his daughter and her mother, is a middle-class lawyer, The innkeepers in whose care Fantine leaves her infant daughter are at best middle-class. Finally, the supervisor who fires Fantine is nothing more than middle-management, probably not much better off than Fantine is herself.
Re-enter Jean Valjean, the former ne’er-do-well who has made a small fortune by embracing capitalism. He rescues Fantine from imprisonment and provides her with a home while she recuperates from her ordeals and illness. Unfortunately, his care and compassion are not enough and she succumbs to her sickness, but not before eliciting a promise from Valjean to seek out her daughter who has been in the malevolent care of the abusive innkeeper’s family, a pledge which, with some difficulties, he manages to fulfill. Valjean raises the child as his own.
Chalk up another one for the wealthy...
Are there examples of the rich behaving badly in Les Misérables? Of course there are, but the story is as much about mistreatment and lack of compassion among social and economic equals as it is anything else. It seems that Hugo understood what Alexander Solzhenitsyn was to write more than a century later, that “the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man”, to which one might add for clarity’s sake – both the rich and the poor.
As for the poverty and despair into which Fantine sinks, they are not the source of her troubles, but the result.
Which brings me back to the abuse heaped on wealthy donors pledging financial support for the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral. Contrary to what the anarchists and Marxists in the ranks of the “Yellow Vests” would have us believe, the rich are sharing their wealth. They do so through the taxes they pay. They do so by employing thousands of workers in their businesses. They do so through mutual funds that working- and middle-class investors rely on for their own financial well-being, particularly in retirement, and they do so through incredible acts of philanthropy... like paying for the restoration of a church they likely never attend.
Maybe we should just says thanks?