Study Guide

Les Misérables Poverty

By Victor Hugo

Poverty

"The man who has nothing has God. It's better than nothing and I've no objection, but for myself I stick to realism." (1.1.8.9)

A local government official sits down for dinner with Bishop Myriel and claims that he has no belief in God. He thinks that God is nothing more than a consolation prize for people who have absolutely nothing. See, rich people don't need God because they don't need consolation for having a terrible life like poor people. (The nice thing about this belief, from the official's perspective, is that it keeps him from having to do anything about the poor—at least they have god, kwwm?)

There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; and the universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity. (1.1.14.8)

In a strange way, Bishop Myriel thrives on poverty because it provides an endless supply of people for him to help out. When you think about it, this is actually a bit of a weird thing to say. What would happen if that mine of poverty dried up? Is Myriel getting rich off of other people's suffering? We don't think that's what Hugo is saying, but there's definitely something odd about the wording. Is it possible for someone to be completely unselfish when helping others?

Fantine tried to find work as a servant, but no one would take her. (1.5.9.3)

Fantine is poor and she needs a decent-paying job (which she's willing to work hard at), but even that's not in the cards. Word has gotten around that she is an unwed mother and people are way too judgmental to let her into their homes. Moral? Poverty builds on itself, making life more and more difficult. And just imagine what would have happened to Cosette if Valjean hadn't intervened. Like mother, like child—that's the vicious circle of poverty.

She could not earn enough and her debts grew. The Thénardiers bombarded her with letters, heartrending in tone and ominous in their exactions. (1.5.10.2)

Here's where a little education or general savvy would come in handy. Someone wiser in the ways of the world might start to think about checking the facts behind all these dire letters, but Fantine is too poor and too innocent to do it. Lack of education leads to poverty, which leads to lack of education, which leads to … oh, you get it. We're too depressed to keep going.

"Think it over, my girl. Two napoléons are worth having." (1.5.10.25)

It's like the worst game ever of Would You Rather: would you rather have your two front teeth, or two coins to pay a fake debt? (And no, you can't cheat by choosing death—but you don't even need to, since that's where you're going to end up anyway, without even trying.)

"It is a terrible place, the pit of darkness, the stronghold of the blind. It is the threshold of the abyss." (3.7.1.8)

Let's stop getting personal for a minute and get general—very, very general. For Victor Hugo, poverty is an abyss that sucks you down into it. Okay, sure, it's remotely possible for someone to use innovation and hard work to get out of this abyss. Jean Valjean, after all, makes himself a very rich man. But this kind of upward jump is extremely rare and depends on his (1) receiving a large and unexpected windfall, and (2) totally leaving his old life, a.k.a. criminal record behind. In other words, let's not start relying on Valjean's story as a general example.

"The Noxious Poor" (3.8)

Are we cheating a little here? We might be cheating. "The Noxious Poor isn't a quotation so much as it is a chapter title, but we think it deserves its own thought. By using the adjective "noxious," Hugo encapsulates the general attitude toward the poor: they're gross, inconvenient, and probably smelly. Does that sound like something you'd say about another person? No. It does not. It sounds like something you say about household pests. In other words, the way we talk about poverty and the poor matters. If we use the language of animals, we're going to treat the poor like animals. But if we think of them as real people, with hopes and desires and dreams of their own, then maybe we can actually start to help.

Here disinterest vanishes and a demon is manifest – the spirit of each for himself. (3.7.2.1)

For Hugo, money doesn't make the world go 'round—kindness and generosity do. Okay, that sounds like a great ideal. But what happens when you're so poor that you can't even feed yourself? You start looking out for good ol' Numero Uno, which is a major sin in Hugo's book of morality.

"We've nowhere to sleep." (4.6.2.9)

Gavroche meets a pair of homeless children in the streets of Paris and finds out they have no place to sleep. Look, we're all for free-range parenting or whatever it's called when you don't call the cops on some kid's parents for letting him play by himself in his own front yard. But these kids are between five and ten years old, and they're wandering around Paris at night, in the cold, without anything to eat or anywhere to sleep. That sounds like a good reason to have a social safety net.

"What do I care if my body's picked up in the street tomorrow morning, beaten to death by my own father – or found in a year's time in the ditches round Saint-Cloud or the Île des Cygnes, along with the garbage and the dead dogs?" (4.8.4.67)

When Éponine is arguing with her father about attacking Valjean's house, she says what all the poor people in the book are thinking: why care about dying when you have nothing to live for? And this is Hugo's warning. Oh, sure, he'd like it if everyone had a conversion experience and started treating poor people better out of the kindness and mercy of their hearts. In the meantime, though, he's not above resorting to threats—like, if these people feel like they have nothing to live for, what's stopping them from rising up against you?