Monday, June 19, 2017

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, and the Poor People of Yesterday and Today

David Bellos has written an engaging tale of Victor Hugo and his struggles involved in bringing his classic tale Les Misérables to fruition: The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables.  His book was found interesting on at least two levels.  The first involves the enormous popularity of Hugo and his novel, in spite of its 1,500 page length.  The second is associated with the attitudes of the non-poor towards the poor that existed in Hugo’s era.  While the poor are treated better today than in that earlier time, it is not clear that prejudicial views of those living in poverty have changed all that much—especially in the United States.  Here we will focus on the people referred to as Les Misérables, and how they were treated then and how they are treated now.

Victor Hugo was born in 1802 and reached the age of eighty-three before passing on.  He was a precocious youth who was well known for his writings that included prose, poetry, and plays.  At the age of twenty-nine he published the enormously popular Notre Dame de Paris, better known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”  Based on that success, he was given a contract for another book which would eventually become Les Misérables.  However, other literary and political diversions intervened and Hugo only began writing that novel in 1845.  An incomplete first draft was soon assembled, but it had to be put aside as political tumult and Hugo’s participation in it kept him busy—eventually forced him into exile.  He would settle into a house in St Peter Port on the island of Guernsey in 1855 where he would begin anew his masterpiece which was finally published in 1862.

The classic tale of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, who attempts to live a good life after release from prison, and the overly zealous inspector Javert who hounds him becomes less banal and more compelling when viewed from a nineteenth century perspective.  The book’s title refers those who are poor and the lives they led in Hugo’s time.  Bellos provides some background to Hugo’s tale.

“In the 1840s, France was a constitutional monarchy with a legislative body elected by male taxpayers alone….taxes were levied exclusively on property, and every voter was therefore an owner of a building or of land.  The charge of a government responsible to an assembly representing the well-off defined in this way was to maintain order among those less privileged than the voters it served.  That’s to say, improving the lives of the ragged masses was of interest only if it helped to head off civil strife.”

“The Paris poor were an edgy crowd, always on the brink of disturbing the peace.  What caused the common people to be disorderly so often?  Were they idle by nature?  Irremediably bad?  Was poverty the cause of their frightening behavior, or was their behavior the reason they stayed poor.”

England and France were the dominant economic and intellectual powers at the time.  While they did not agree on much else, both nations concluded that their abundant stocks of poor people were to be feared and controlled rather than pitied and aided.  Poverty breeds crime and crime must be suppressed.

Consider this quote from the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert.

“Few souls are strong enough not to be laid low and eventually debased by poverty.  Common folk are unbelievably stupid.  I do not know what magical illusion makes them blind to their current poverty and to the even greater poverty that awaits them in old age.  Poverty is the mother of great crimes; sovereigns are responsible for making people misérable and it is they who will be judged in this world and the next for the crimes that poverty commits.”

This view at least recognizes that the state has some responsibility for the crime that arises from the poor masses.  A more cynical view—and one more influential—emerged from the theorizing of the Englishman Robert Malthus.

“Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 but read for many decades after that, claims that, absent the benefits of education and refinement, human beings are naturally idle and can be roused to productive labour only by a pressing need.  Its second premise is that the uneducated and unrefined always take the easiest path.  Given the opportunity, poor people steal what they need instead of working to acquire it.  In Malthus’s dim view of human nature, the poor constitute a different species.”

“….even people who were not convinced of Malthus’s grim analysis of the unequal race between population and the land’s capacity to feed it took it for granted that crime and poverty were two sides of the same coin.  The ‘lower classes’ were most often seen as ‘dangerous classes’ in England and in France.”

Both countries had formulated policies for dealing with the poor, none of which could be considered enlightened.  There was a tendency to divide the poor into two classes, one which consisted of those that misfortune had rendered incapable of work, and those who could work but were not earning enough to survive on.  England had a long tradition of “poor laws” that required parish councils to provide some level of sustenance to the sick, orphaned, or disabled.  This definition of the needy gradually expanded to include the low- or non-income poor.  This trend redefined the meaning of the word poor or misérables to that as understood in Hugo’s time.  This change also generated considerable resistance to this expansion by conservative elements.

“The gradual but fundamental shift in meaning from ‘laid low by ill fortune’ to ‘short of money’ ran into a wall of resistance from entrenched economic, moral and political positions, and it took a century and more for them to be overcome.  Les Misérables was a key element in the history of that long drawn out change.”

England generally out performed France economically, but that also meant that it was also more proficient in creating poor people.  Conservative elements won the debate as to how to deal with those suffering from poverty.  The result was a new and most cruel version of a “Poor Law” in which those capable of work would receive no benefits at all and the remainder would be incarcerated in poor houses or workhouses.

“The out-turn of the political debate was not simple abolition, however, but a new kind of Poor Law that drove a wedge between people who didn’t have enough money to live on—the poor, in the modern sense of the word—and paupers, who were to be removed from public sight.  Income support for the underpaid was indeed abolished, but so was direct payment to the ‘victims of misfortune’, who were to be cared for in institutions called poor houses or workhouses.  These were designed to be as unpleasant as possible.  The rationale behind the considerable expense of constructing them was to provide a standard of living lower than any that could be had from work: the workhouse should never tempt the able bodied to abandon toil, however pitiful the wages of honest labour came to be.  So horrible and humiliating were they that some indigents, like Mrs Higden in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, preferred to die on the road rather than enter the doors of a poor house for their last days.”

Bellos suggests that these poor houses where derived from a policy instituted in France by Napoleon.

“The idea came from the dépôts de mendicité (beggars’ repositories), prison-like dormitories set up by Napoleon in 1808 to put vagrants, beggars, lunatics and the disabled out of public sight.  The scheme may have had a cosmetic effect in town centres, but it made no impact on the number of indigents and beggars in France.”

When Hugo began work on his novel in the 1840s, the French system of dépôts had mostly disappeared, while the English system of poor houses had continued to spread to where almost every town had one.  France had no policy for dealing with the poor and England had one that was horrible.  Hugo saw the necessity of a social revolution and he wanted to use his novel to encourage it.  This revolution was intended to extend well beyond France as Hugo and his associates geared up to produce the quickest and broadest distribution of any book in history—one that would be translated into many languages and be read and appreciated worldwide—justifying Bellos’s appellation : ”The Novel of the Century.”

What he wished to accomplish was to create the perception that there was no fundamental difference between the poor and the wealthy other than circumstance.  His novel would produce the immensely sympathetic character of Jean Valjean who struggles mightily with the obstacles placed in his path yet manages to live a good life.  Hugo also creates the villainous Thénardier to balance Valjean’s goodness with his evil.  People do respond to poverty by turning to crime, just as those with immense wealth have demonstrated the capability to commit immense crimes.  And then there is Javert whose behavior is least easily understood by the modern reader.  He plays the symbolic role of society in general which refuses to recognize that an ex-con like Valjean can be a good man.  His logically awkward suicide symbolizes the need to render extinct the notion that there is a class separation between human beings.

“Javert’s limited vision of the social sphere is both a product and a pillar of the society he strives to uphold.  For him, there are two and only two kinds of person, the well-to-do and the ne’er-do-well.  Javert sees these classes as fundamentally incompatible, and his job is to keep them apart.”

“Javert’s too-simple understanding of duty is contradicted by the noble behavior of Valjean, who lets the police spy go free rather than shooting him dead.  A member of the underclass behaving with generosity shatters Javert’s view of the world.  Unable to grasp how he could reconcile himself to the existence of a man whose actions have turned his world upside down, he throws himself into the Seine.  In this late stage in the narrative of Les Misérables, psychological plausibility is less vital than the symbolic meaning of the act: those who refuse reconciliation between social classes in the name of law and order are swept away.  Moral progress cannot be realized as long as Javert’s two-part vision of humanity persists.”

How successful was Hugo in initiating social change?  Bellos provides us with a short list of what policies were most important to Hugo.

“Allow offenders to reenter society after they have done their time.  For example, abolish the ‘yellow passport’ that makes it so difficult for Valjean to find food lodging and work in 1815.”

“Amend the penal code, so that justice might be tempered with mercy.  For example, do not send poor peasants to do hard labor because they steal bread to feed children.”

“Create more jobs for the uneducated masses.  Imitate M. Madelaine, for example, whose profitable glass bead factory gave dignity to Fantine.”

“Build schools for the poor and make elementary education universal and obligatory.  (This is the one policy that is proposed in eloquent and strident terms; it was also put into effect in Hugo’s lifetime by the ‘Jules Ferry Law’, passed in 1877.)

Bellos suggests that Hugo’s vision essentially came to pass and Les Misérables had much to do with it.   

“These four aims don’t add up to a ‘politics’, but they do lay out a pathway we can easily agree to be right because all these measures have been put into practice by governments of the left and right over the past 150 years.  We should not dismiss Hugo’s blustering confidence in the future improvement of society.  Nor should we underestimate the degree to which Les Misérables encouraged and maybe even accelerated its coming about.”

Given the immense and lasting popularity of Hugo’s tale, it would be difficult to argue with the conclusion that it had a role in tempering society’s attitudes and diminishing its divisions.  However, what is most striking about this Bellos’s narrative about social change and the betterment of mankind, is that the four policy thrusts encouraged by Hugo and the notion that the poor are not a different class than the non-poor are all currently under renewed attack in the United States.

The Tea Party version of the Republican Party, the one which controls congress and the presidency, has been explicit in dividing the country into “makers” and “takers.”  This is a small variation in meaning from Malthus’s description of the differences between the poor and the non-poor. 

If one marches down Bellos’s list of Hugo’s four policy requests, one discovers that they are no longer firmly established and the Republican Party is in the process of weakening the protections in all cases.  An ex-con like Valjean would be little better treated in our country today than he was in Hugo’s France.  Parole constraints and limitations on the rights of ex-cons to vote and receive public benefits are common across the nation, and employers continue to avoid dealings with those with a criminal record.  If one wishes to encounter mercy in our legal system it is to be found in our urban areas where crime rates are high but conviction rates are low.  In the rural areas controlled by Republicans the crime rates are low but vindictiveness leads to high conviction rates.  There has never been an explicit job creation program since the era of the Great Depression.  Rather, the economic goal of the Republican Party is to keep wages low rather than encourage wage income to rise.  Tax policy is focused on benefiting the already wealthy, with future transfers intended to flow from the poor to the rich.  Republican governors have come to view a college education not as a right but as a privilege—one to be enjoyed by the people who can already afford it.  Similarly, universal education at the K-12 level has long been under attack in the name of “parental choice.”  The goal is to take funds from public education and use them to subsidize private education—a process that will not end well for the poor.

And it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who, to his everlasting shame, changed our welfare policy from one in which all people have a right to some minimal level of support to one in which only those who work can expect to receive help from society.  This is probably the most regressive welfare legislation since the English began establishing those notorious poor houses.

Europe has better learned the lessons taught by Victor Hugo.  Meanwhile, the United States drifts backwards, trying to recreate the nineteenth century.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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