The Underworld

Victor Hugo and Les Miserables


The System

Famous Crime





"'How dark my life has become!' he said to himself. 'Young girls pass before me. Only before they were angels; now they are ghouls.'"

- Les MisÚrables, Marius, Book 8

In Les Miserables, Hugo describes the underclasses as being the "third sub stage" of society. However, he didn't end with that. Hugo segregated the underclasses into his own substages; these took the form of four different types of characters: gamin (and gamine), convicts, prostitutes and criminals at large. He has varying views of sympathy for these subclasses as well, which are listed below under the character that stands as their best representative:

  • Sympathetic
    • Jean Valjean: Reform of convicts
    • Gavroche: Innate goodness of children/gamin
    • Fantine: Pureness of women
  • Unsympathetic
    • Thenardier and his gang: Slyness and treachery of scoundrels

Why did he represent different subgroups this way? This is a good question. Why would Hugo be sympathetic to only three of the four classes? We can see a visible difference in his treatment of the classes through final scenes of each character as quoted below:

"What did he say? What could this condemned man say to this dead woman? What were these words? They were heard by none on earth. Did the dead woman hear them? There are touching illusions which perhaps are sublime realities. One thing is beyond doubt; Sister Simplice, the only witness of what passed, has often related that, at the moment when Jean Valjean whispered in the ear of Fantine, she distinctly saw an ineffable smile beam on those pale lips and in those dim eyes, full of the wonder of the tomb" (Hugo 256). "Let us finish with this man at once. Two days after the events which we are now relating, he left, through Marius's care, for America, under a false name, with his daughter Azelma, provided with a draft upon New York for twenty thousand francs. Thenardier, the moral misery of Thenardier, the broken down bourgeoisie, was irremediable; he was in America what he had been in Europe. The touch of a wicked man is often enough to corrupt a good deed and to make an evil result spring from it. With Marius' money, Thenardier became a slaver" (Hugo 1250).


An image of M. Thenaud from Les MisÚrables on-line text edition; first published in 1862; by Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co. This is a representation of Thenardier from the end of the novel. Note the sharpness of his features, his baldness, and the narrow darkness of his eyes. His body language is cordial enough, but one can tell his intent and character clearly by the detail of his face: it is crafty and miserly.

Clearly, we can see that Thenardier's exit from the novel is marked with much more spite than that of Fantine. What makes Thenardier so much more different than Fantine, Gavroche or Jean Valjean? Perhaps it is his greed, or his lack of innocence. Then again, it could be the fact that Thenardier has experienced some of Hugo's "light" or education and decided to use it for his own desires. His canniness makes him the trickiest character in the book. However, there is much to be said about his condition, because even if he is a man of "evil deeds," he survives until the end. And not only does he survive until the end, but he flourishes. Perhaps it is the meager education which sustains him throughout the novel. This point seems to be both his key to survival and the downfall of his morals. It is the point which separates him from all other lower class characters in the novel, and makes him "a mixture of vulture and pettifogger, the man of tricks making the bird of prey ignoble, the bird of prey making the man of tricks horrible" (Hugo 645).

It is interesting to note that while Hugo bestows Thenardier with some education, he also makes this character the most villainous of the novel. While one feels sorry for Eponine, Gavroche, Valjean, Fantine, and the other poor denizens of Les Miserables, they cannot help but feel intrigued by the terrible little ingenuity that is Thenardier. Hugo is too harsh with him at some points, because if it weren't for his intelligence, Thenardier and his family would never have survived as long as they did. If he was evil, it was due to circumstance.

This page was created by M. Childs