The Underworld

Definition of Underclasses


The System

Famous Crime





UN·DER·CLASS ('&n-d&r-"klas) n. Date: 1918 : The lowest social stratum usually made up of disadvantaged minority groups. (Merriam-Webster Online)

The underclasses were also known as the "dangerous classes" of Paris. These were made up of workmen, the extremely impoverished and criminals.

"Destitution in Paris during the first half of the nineteenth century provides a monstrous experience of the physical and moral destitution secreted by great cities in every age . . . The advantage of taking crime as our theme is that it sums up the problem of the course of working-class life in an extreme form and reduces it to its simplest and most striking expression" (Chevalier 269).

The underclasses were indistinguishable to the bourgeoisie. Their view incorporated the whole of the classes into one "dangerous class." Thus, all members of the lower classes became a criminal in the eyes of he bourgeoisie. Crime was "an abiding cause of fear, a fear which reached heights of terror in certain winters of cold and destitution" (Chevalier 3).

"'Criminal' is the key word for the Paris of the first half of the nineteenth century; first of all, because of the increase in the numbers of crimes committed, as recorded in the crime statistics, but brought out even more strikingly in other documents such as the economic and demographic statistics . . . 'Criminal,' secondly because of the imprint of crime upon the whole urban landscape. No part of the contemporary Paris was unshadowed by crime" (Chevalier 2).

One of the best sources for information about these "dangerous classes" can be found from the "qualitative documentation," as Chevalier calls it, from such authors as Victor Hugo, Eugene Sue and Honore de Balzac.


"Every human society has what is called in the theatres a third substage. The social soil is mined everywhere, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. These works are in strata; there are upper mines and lower mines. There a top and a bottom in this dark sub-soil which sometimes sinks beneath civilisation, and which our indifference and our carelessness trample underfoot" (Hugo 621).


"A returned convict, who, in this foul phraseology, is called an 'ogre,' or a woman in the same degraded state, who is termed an 'ogress,' generally keep such 'cribs,' frequented by the refuse of the Parisian population; freed felons, thieves, and assassins are there familiar guests" (Sue 11).


"Unlike Janin, Balzac certainly saw criminality as an important social fact . . . the criminal world was a closed world" (Chevalier 70).

This page was created by M. Childs