Hugo: Sympathy for the Fallen Woman

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality





Fantine frontispiece, Lynd Ward c. 1935, from an illustrated edition of Les Miserables
click here for a discussion of this image

"What is the history of Fantine? It is society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from abandonment, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a bit of bread. Misery makes the offer, society accepts. The holy law of Jesus Christ governs our civilizations, but it does not yet permeate it; it is said that slavery has disappeared from the European civilization. This is a mistake. It still exists: but it weighs now only upon woman, and it is called prostitution."

-Fantine, Book 1, The Results of the Success


Hugo's portrayals of prostitution in Les Miserables mainly centered on the streetwalkers, forced to sell their bodies to keep themselves and, oftentimes, their children alive. Rather than depicting them as morally bereft and hedonistic, he chose to show them as desperate women who had but few options left.


In the above quotation we see a clear depiction of Hugo's sympathetic portrayal of prostitution, and his view of prostitutes as "fallen women" who are still essentially morally good.

  • Hugo's belief was that society at large was really to blame for prositution, because it was through lack of education and poverty that women were forced to sell the only thing they had left, themselves. This is clear in the line "What is the history of Fantine? It is society buying a slave." The transaction is not seen as being between Fantine and her clients, but between Fantine and society
  • Hugo wanted the reader to believe that Fantine was truly desperate and that she had to choose between starvation for herself and her child and prositution. "A soul for a bit of bread. Melancholy barter." It was not that she was lazy or that she did not want to to do unpleasant or difficult jobs. Prostitution was the absolute last resort.

  • Hugo's choice of words demonstrate the truly desperate circumstances that Fantine was in. "From misery. From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from abandonment, from privation." It was only when all of these things fell on Fantine at once that she turned to prositution.

Hugo's liberal politics and his own encounters with streetwalkers and his own mistresses undoubtedly effected his point of view on the subject. Click here for more information on Hugo's dealings with courtesans and a few of his mistresses. And for more on Hugo's achetype of the "fallen woman" click here.