Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Les Miserables: The Novel

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Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Miserables is not primarily about Bohemianism or student life. But in such a voluminous novel (1260 pages in the 1992 Modern Library edition), Hugo was able to discuss virtually every aspect of French society in the 1820s and 30s, and this included every Parisian class, including students. The primary example of student life in Les Miserables is Marius and his friends in the Societe de la ABC.

 The members of the Societe (whose name is a pun on the French word "abaisser," meaning "to put down") represent the many backgrounds of Parisian students. They range from Enjolras, the group's leader, who was from a wealthy bourgeois family; to Feuilly, who earned three francs each day making fans; to Courfeyrac, whose father was an aristocrat. Marius is the group's novice, soon to be indoctrinated by their revolutionary ideas - for in spite of their varied pasts, the members of the ABC plan to change French society radically. "All were legitimate sons of the French Revolution," wrote Hugo. "The lightest became solemn when pronouncing this date: '89" (569). Because of their strong beliefs, the Societe plays a major role in organizing and carrying out the Revolution of 1832. Many of its members die in combat, including Enjolras.


illustration from Les Miserables on-line text edition; first published in the 1862 edition; by Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co.

In addition to their revolutionary role, however, the Societe also played an important role in its member's social lives. The members were best friends; they laughed and philosophized, ate and drank, and even shared lodgings with one another. They spoke about world politics and their mistresses in the same breath; even when they disagreed they wanted what was best for each other. This to Hugo was the ideal lifestyle of the student: carefree yet serious and surrounded with like minds.

Hugo also presents the reader with a very different idea of student life: Felix Tholomyes, the man who leaves Fantine poor and pregnant without warning, is a student as well. Much older than Fantine, he is thirty, has a large budget of 4000 francs per year, and is an amateur poet. When the four students and their grisettes sit in the countryside, Tholomyes shows off his intellect by giving a rambling, impromptu speech making learned references to mythological beauties and comparing them to his female companions. Over dinner they discuss philosophy and again Tholomyes takes center stage. Finally the men announce that they have a long-awaited surprise for their grisettes; they leave the restaurant. One hour later a waiter delivers the message that they have left the women forever, heading "back to [their] papas and mammas . . . to society, to duty and order" (124). The student, in this view by Hugo, cares more for his future and his knowledge than for his responsibility, especially his responsibility to women.