Morals and Politics: Literary Representations of Prostitution

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




Portrait of Honore de Balzac, Louis Boulanger
Rollover image, Before the Mirror, Edouard Manet, 1876

Portrait of Victor Hugo by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon
Rollover image, Fantine, from an illustrated edition of Les Miserables

On the surface, the work of Hugo and Balzac is seemingly similar. Both are works of 19th century France with a moralistic tone, designed to enlighten the reader to overlooked shortcomings in their society. However, Hugo and Balzac's political and moral views vary greatly, resulting in dramtically different representations of the less favored members of society, like prostitutes and courtesans.


Hugo's politics and morals were significantly more liberal than Balzac's, and this is clear in their depictions of both criminals and the underworld, and the varying degrees of prostitutes.
  • Balzac was a moralist firmly against the decadence and materialism he saw in society, especially Parisian society, and courtesans represented much of what Balzac believed was responsible for what he saw as the downturn of society at large.
  • Hugo's perspective was a sympathetic one, corresponding with his liberal democratic views. His belief was that the circumstances of the undesirable classes, prositutes and criminals, was due to lack of education and that they were not to be shunned, but that they should be aided and enlightened in order to better their lives.


Hugo and Balzac each depicted primarily one class of prostitute in order to make their points more effectively.

  • Hugo focused primarily on the Fantine's of the world; fallen women who were forced by dire circumstances to turn to a life as a streetwalker.
  • Balzac chose to depict the well kept, expensive courtesans, with their decadent, luxurious lifestyles and their materialistic tendencies.


Hugo and Balzac both were influenced in their depictions of prositutes by their own life experiences.

  • Hugo had numerous mistresses and was known to associate with the lower classes, including streetwalkers and criminals.
  • Balzac was part of a higly moral "good bourgeosie" family and had a generally negative view of society at large, seeing it as decadent and materialistic, especially the less moral bourgeosie and the upper class, almost all of whom would have had mistresses, either lorettes or courtesans.


In exploring the representations of this varied class of women in literature, it is important to understand the political, moral, and social aspects of their lives and the lives of the authors depicting them. The representations and realities together are what make up the historical truth.


Read on for information on Hugo and Balzac, their political views, and representations of prostitution in their works.