Study Guide

Les Misérables Suffering

By Victor Hugo

Suffering

Since there is always more misery in the depths than compassion in the heights, everything was given, so to speak, before it was received. (1.1.2.37)

Figures. You can have as much steamed broccoli as you want, but the ice cream is single-serve. Here, Hugo tells us that the world's supply of misery always seems to outweigh the supply of compassion—which means that compassionate people have to try extra hard to alleviate the suffering of others.

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)

Bishop Myriel is just too good. No, seriously, he's really straining credulity here. Hugo's point is that Myriel's compassion is his wealth—and he keeps on digging it out of the ground of other people's poverty. Lucky him, he'll never run out.

Excess of suffering, as we have seen, had made him in some sort a visionary. (1.2.13.54)

Someone call up the pope (there's got to be a special line, right?) because this guy needs a non-stop ticket to sainthood. Bishop Myriel eventually becomes so familiar with human suffering that he reaches a state of enlightenment. The impulse to value his own happiness over that of others is totally gone. Is he even human at this point?

Excess of work exhausted Fantine, and the small, dry cough from which she suffered grew worse. (1.5.9.12)

Like we said, everyone suffers. But if this book were some sort of suffering Olympics, Fantine would be taking home the gold in every category. Even when she's trying to work her way honestly (i.e., without sex work) out of poverty, she can't catch a break. Instead, she just catches tuberculosis.

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)

Fantine can barely make enough money to feed herself. But the Thénardiers (her daughter's guardians) and remorseless in the way they keep demanding money from her. Even in the midst of one person's terrible suffering, it looks like there are some people in this world who will only make things worse.

She smiled as she said it, and the candle lighted her face. It was a bloodstained smile. There were flecks of blood at the corners of her mouth and a wide gap beneath her upper lip. (1.5.10.53)

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for Fantine (innocence gone, kid gone, job gone, hair gone), she sells her teeth in order to pay for medicine that her daughter Cosette doesn't even have. Of all the images of suffering in this book, this one is probably the most brutal.

"Well […] I may as well sell the rest." (1.5.10.57)

Time to really drive it home for Fantine. After selling her hair and her teeth, and working herself sick, she figures she might as well sell the "rest," a.k.a. turn to prostitution. Way to pile it on, Hugo! Sure, he might be exaggerating just a teeny bit, but the point here is to force us to see, over and over, how lack of compassion and understanding contribute to human suffering—the suffering of a specific human, not just some abstraction we can cluck our tongues and pray over.

They were eyes no longer, but had become those fathomless mirrors which in men who have known the depths of suffering may replace the conscious gaze, so that they no longer see reality but reflect the memory of past events. (4.3.8.15)

If Bishop Myriel is so compassionate that he's almost lost his humanity, this prisoner—the guy everyone thinks is Valjean—has suffered so much that he's almost lost his humanity, too. This guy has suffered so much that can't even see what's happening in front of him, but only the pain he's endured.

Both talked at once, and it was impossible to make out what they were saying because the voice of the younger was choked with misery and the teeth of the elder were chattering with cold. (4.6.2.5)

When Gavroche finds two young boys on the street, he realizes that these children have been thrown out of their house with nowhere to go. Luckily for them, Gavroche understands the streets and can make their suffering a little more bearable, even though he's just as poor and homeless as they are. Next time you're freaking out because your parents got you a black iPhone instead of a white one, we want you to remember this scene.

Of all the torments he had suffered in his long trial by adversity, this was the worst. (4.15.1.25)

Jean Valjean has endured a lot of suffering in his lifetime, but—yep, this is the worst. In order to save Cosette, he has to let her go. (Proof that having a lot of money doesn't insulate you from suffering.) It's the final straw for Valjean, who starves himself into a slightly early grave.