Law and Literature: Les Misérables

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

The French classic, Les Misérables tells the story of a man, his daughter, and the members of a French town left to rot in the lower rungs of society. This novel addresses several themes within the criminal justice system from punishment to impact of criminal accusations on families. In our newest installment of our Law and Literature series, we are breaking down Les Misérables. Keep reading to learn more.

Les Misérables: Summary

Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict in 19th century France. Inspired by real events witnessed by Victor Hugo, the story covers Valjean’s life from his release to his eventual death and pursuit by Inspector Javert. As Jean Valjean attempts to deal with the trauma of imprisonment, he begins to soften his harsh perspective with the help of his adopted daughter Cossette, and her husband Marius.

While the story may focus on Valjean, it also sheds light on Parisian society and the underworld of criminal activity and desperation. The book as written by Victor Hugo, has several nods to French history like a chapter on the Battle of Waterloo and conditions for female factory workers at the time.

The cast of characters from the wealthy Valjean to the poorest Fantine are involved with the criminal justice system in one way or another whether it is directly through imprisonment (Valjean) or as an enforcer (Javert). At every point, the characters grapple with changes in status and the bleakness of their existence. The sorrow shared by most of them is a universal emotion among those who interact with the criminal justice system at any point in their lives.

Prisons in 19th Century France

While it may seem outrageous to view prisons as a new and meaningful advancement in society, the French legal system lacked a formal imprisonment structure until the early 19th century. The golden age of penology was from 1820-1840. This period saw the construction of a new prison system, and a formal criminal justice process for offenders.

However, with the advent of record keeping and structured punishments, critics found that the new system increased criminology and created the repeat offender – a novel concept to the French at the time.

Methods of Correction

Prisons in the 1800s focused on correction and rehabilitation through moral instruction, constant surveillance, and hard work. Manual labor and regular conditioning were the order of the day for prisoners. The goal of these punishments was to instill virtues like productivity, punctuality, discipline, and order and force inmates to turn from their wicked ways toward a higher morality.

Forced labor was by no means a new concept but instead of building new structures, prisoners were expected to repurpose existing buildings including new prison facilities. Most notably, the prison of Nimes was a converted citadel that held prisoners during the Terror and functioned as a depot de mendicite for the poor class during Napoleon’s rule.

The new prison system shifted punishment from brutal public executions of most offenders regardless of age, gender, or degree of offense to a more rehabilitative one. Les Misérables opens with Jean Valjean, gruff and unkempt, dragging a war-torn ship from the sea into a dry dock for repair along with his fellow inmates. Inspector Javert watches the prisoners from a high perch far from the brine and spray of the water. He informs Valjean of his release from the Bagne of Toulon and sends him on his way with a warning.

Join us next month for the conclusion of our Law and Literature: Les Misérables series.