Law and Literature: Les Misérables Part II

January 1, 2022 | By Shane Phelps Law
Law and Literature: Les Misérables Part II

This month, we are completing our evaluation of law and punishment in Victor Hugo’s celebrated work, Les Misérables. Keep reading to learn more.

Fantine: A Study of Crime and Punishment for the Lowest Class

Les Misérables, like many other works serves as a commentary on the class system and the lower class’s vulnerability to crime and punishment. At the time, many people relied on factor work in large cities like Paris as opposed to agriculture in the countryside. Fantine is a very unfortunate character who is left to live an unfortunate life after being cast aside by her lover. Fantine is left with nothing but her daughter, Cosette and must scrounge for meager means to support her child.

To find work, Fantine has no choice but to leave Cosette with a local innkeeper and his wife. Unbeknownst to Fantine, the innkeeper is a corrupt man married to an equally corrupt and cruel woman. The pair demands constant financial support under the guise of raising Cosette in a stable household. In reality, the pair uses the money from Fantine to further their own interests.

Fantine finds work in a factory run by the mysterious Monsieur Madeleine – the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. However, after the factory workers discover she has a daughter out of wedlock, she is cast out. Once again, Fantine is desperate to find a way to provide for her daughter and satisfy the innkeeper’s increasing financial demands.

She sells her hair and front teeth to make money and resorts to prostitution to pay her debts. At this point in the story, Hugo does not shy away from depicting the horror and salaciousness of prostitution in the 19th century.

Prostitution in the 19th Century

During the late 1700s, prostitution was not strictly illegal, but the Commune of Paris issued a ban on prostitution in public spaces in fear that it would incite debauchery. By the end of the French Revolution, prostitution was not acceptable by society but there was a registration for sex workers that was counted by the census. As a part of the registration process, prostitutes were required to undergo regular medical examinations to slow the spread of venereal diseases. The Troisième République (Third Republic) was the golden age of state sanctioned brothels and lasted from 1870-1940.

Fantine’s Death

However, for Fantine, her position is jeopardized when a man tries to solicit her and tries to force her to be with him and she hits him out of self-defense. As a result, Inspector Javert arrests Fantine and imprisons her. Monsieur Madeline hears about the discharge of Fantine from his factory and searches for her.

Madeline orders Javert to release her and takes the dying Fantine to the hospital. She pleads with Madeline to take care of her daughter. Madeline, who is actual Valjean He is searching for Cosette when he hears about a man accused of being Jean Valjean going to trial. He decides to save the innocent man and returns to Fantine’s bedside.

There, Javert accosts Valjean and reveals his identity to Fantine. Valjean pleads with the Inspector to grant hi three days to locate Cosette but Javert refuses. In the confusion of the argument, Fantine realizes that Cosette is not in the hospital and fretfully asks about her daughter’s location. Weakened by severe illness, Fantine goes into shock and dies.

Unfortunately, Fantine’s story while dramatized in Hugo’s work was not uncommon. Sickness among the poorer classes, especially among sex workers was rampant and there was little they could do to protect themselves. The legal system was unforgiving to prosecutes despite having a relatively advanced registration system. Fantine like so many others were imprisoned for a crime she did not commit and died as the result of neglect and a lack of healthcare access in prison.


Cosette is Fantine’s daughter who despite years of abuse at the innkeeper’s hands and a childhood wrought with poverty and lack is an optimistic and innocent girl. Valjean adopts her after Fantine’s death and raises her as his own.

Many relatives of those in the justice system go through the fear and heartbreak reflected in Cosette’s character. She pleads for her adopted father’s life and mourns his death.

Key Takeaways

In the characters of Valjean, Javert, Fantine, and Cosette we find the full spectrum of people involved in the criminal justice system. Valjean is the criminal and Javert the purveyor of the law while Fantine is trapped by poverty and is pushed into prison as a result. Cosette is simultaneously a child left behind and the loved one of those imprisoned by the state.

The criminal justice systems in other countries and throughout the centuries has resulted in wrongful conviction, over sentencing, and irreparable damage to local communities. The suffering of the accused extends to their loved ones and often leads to their destitution as they attempt to survive without a significant portion of income.

During the 19th century, criminal defense was rare if not unheard of in most societies. Now, attorneys and public defenders fight for the rights of the accused and lawmakers push for reform that improves conditions in the prison system. However, despite their best efforts, health care and fair treatment are a luxury for incarcerated people. Changes to the system are always in the works, but significant systemic reform remains out of reach for most.

If you have been accused of a crime, you have the right to an attorney. Contact Shane Phelps Law.