The Underworld

The Faubourgs


The System

Famous Crime





"The southern barrieres bulk large in Les Miserables because they sum up the city's criminality in a book devoted to criminality, but more especially, both in the Paris of the period and in the novel as a whole, a criminality of the people which is simply a by-product of poverty…"

--Chevalier, Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes, p. 103.

This etching by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is from James McNeill Whistler. It was made during a trip to Venice in 1858. It depicts an old woman and a girl huddling in a dark alley way. In the background, one can see what appears to be the main street or shopping district of town. However, these two females are quite displaced from that area. They may be begging. During the nineteenth century in France, the bourgeoisie were afraid of being robbed in the faubourgs, when in actuality, they were more likely to be robbed in such a setting as above shown.

The technical definition of a faubourg is a suburb of a French city. During the time of Les Miserables, faubourgs were the areas of the city where the poor resided. The most prominent faubourgs were in the southwestern portion of the city.

The relationship of the faubourgs to the barrieres played a crucial role in giving them their dangerous reputation. The barrieres were some of the oldest areas of the city, found mostly along the fringes. They were the places most associated with crime and destitution: "The passerby could not keep from thinking of the innumerable bloody traditions of the spot" (Hugo 378).

Hugo places the Gorbeau tenement in the barrieres. The Gorbeau tenement seems to be the repetitive home of the characters when they have "hit the bottom." Valjean and Cosette have a stay there in Cosette, Book Fourth. Later on, the Thenardiers and Marius would also have a stay there. It would become Thenardier's headquarters for his dealings with the criminal gang Patron-Minette.

Hugo places it in the neighborhood of Saint-Jacques, which he states: " . . . seemed fore-doomed, and was always horrible, the gloomiest of all this gloomy Boulevard was the spot" (Hugo 377).

A list of quotes regarding Saint-Jacques and the barrieres:

  • "A street, at that time, without houses, unpaved, bordered with scrubby trees, grass-grown or muddy, according to the season, and running squarely up to the wall encircling Paris" (Hugo 377)
  • "Far as the eye could reach there was nothing to be seen but the public shambles, the city wall, and here and there the side of the factory, resembling a barrack or a monastery; on all sides, miserable hovels and heaps of rubbish, old walls as black as widow's weeds, and new walls as white as winding-sheets; on all sides, parallel rows of trees, buildings in straight lines, flat structures, long, cold perspectives, and the gloomy sameness of right angles" (Hugo 377-78)
  • "Still a few steps, and you come to those detestable clipped elm-trees of the Barriere Saint Jacques, that expedient of philanthropists to hide the scaffold, that pitiful and shameful Place de Breve of cockney, shop-keeping society which recoils from capital punishment, yet dares neither to abolish it with lofty dignity, nor to maintain it with firm authority" (Hugo 377)

Hugo and other authors (especially Balzac) aggravated the bourgeoisie's view of crime in the faubourgs with descriptions such as those above. In truth, "The bourgeois hardly ever ventured into these purlieus; the assaults on them occurred in the central districts" (Chevalier 86). However, because of these powerful representations, horror regarding crime and the lower classes swept through Paris.


This page was created by M. Childs