Representations of Authority in Les Miserables

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




Jean Valjean:The Victim of Authority

This image features Jean-Valjean, now operating under the name of M. Madeline in order to disguise his true identity from Javert, the ruthless police officer who is out to imprison him. This image was obtained from the illustrated version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, available online from the University of Virginia electronic text center at


A prevalent theme in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is each character's search for freedom. Whether it is Fantine seeking to free herself and her child Cosette from a life of destitution and poverty, Jean Valjean's concealing his identity to preserve his own freedom and avoid being imprisoned, each character rebels in their own way to protect their lives. Though the causes of their searches are very different, all of them are rebelling against moral authority.

Undoubtedly, Victor Hugo believes that power corrupts, and authoritative figures are mostly incompetent. This can be seen in the differences in writing style when speaking about any of the "miserables", versus that of when he speaks of Thenardier and Javert. In this section, I will highlight Hugo's sympathetic portrayal of Jean Valjean in Book I of Fantine, in direct opposition with Hugo's opinions on authority.

The image above of M. Madeline from the illustrated 1862 of Les Mis suggests a sympathetic portrayal of Jean Valjean exiled:
  • Jean Valjean's expression is stoic and void of emotion. He is not full of despair, although he has reason to be.
  • The hand over the heart, the body turned to the side and the fact that he is holding his hat in his hand suggests a reverence or respect, possibly of a religious nature. Despite his constant struggle to create a new identity and being forced to give up his former life, Valjean appear to still have his principles intact.
  • A more sympathetic portrayal may have shown Valjean in the depths of despair, instead he is depicted as a strong, stoic figure in the face of life-changing circumstances. We feel for Jean Valjean when we see him this way.


" The cities...make corrupt men. The mountain, the sea, the forest, make savage men; they develop the fierce side, but often without destroying the humane side.... There occur formidable hours in our civilization; there are moments when the penal laws decree a shipwreck. What an ominous minute is that in which society draws back and consummates the irreparable abandonment of a sentient being!"


* This is where we learn about Jean Valjeans's past, and how he was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. Hugo takes a Lockean approach here--man in his natural state is savage, but not inhumane. In fact, they are neutral. Society (personified in the reference to the city) "make corrupt men". Automatically we see a negative portrait of society, and since authority and legal matters are branches of society, they must be corrupt too.


*The word choice here "ominous", "consummates the irreparable damage" is predominantly negative.The fact that Hugo feels that laws can "decree a shipwreck" shows that he feels legal decisions are often arbitrary and unfounded, and perhaps targeted towards the dangerous classes.


*Jean Valjean is declared a "sentient being"--in other words, he knows himself, and is capable of vast feeling. Hugo sympathizes with his plight by referring to him in this way. After all,Jean Valjean reached out to Fantine as a member of a dangerous class.



Read on to find out about Javert!