One of the overriding
themes of the French revolution was the difficulties of the circumstances
of the working class. To be sure, many positive portrayals of
the working classes portray them as victims, in fact many portrayed
themselves as victims in their own autobiographies. On the other
hand, many did not. To what extent were the working classes victims
of the classes above them, or fate, and to what extent did they
shape their own destiny?
portrayal of the working classes in Les Miserables
portrayals of the working classes as victims
portrayals of the working classes that do not denote victimhood
A brief discussion
of the question of victimization amongst the working classes
Depicts the desperation of Fantine.
For a more in depth analysis of two images of Fantine click here.
From the online version of Les Miserables.
"The poor cannot go to
the end of their chamber or to the end of their destiny, but
by bending continually more and more. She no longer had a bed,
she retained a rag that she called her coverlid, a matress on
the floor, and a worn out straw chair. . . her creditors quarelled
with her and gave her no rest. . . She sewed seventeen hours
a day; but a prison contractor, who was working prisoners at
a loss, suddenly cut down the price, and this reduced the day's
wages of free laborers to nine sous. Seventeen hours of work,
and nine sous a day!. . . About the same time Thernardier wrote
to her that he really had waited with too much genrosity, and
that he must have a hundred francs immediately or little Cosette.
. . would be turned out of doorsinto the cold and upon the highway.
. . 'A hundred francs,' thought Fantine. 'But where is there
a place where one can earn a hundred sous a day?'. . . The unfortunate
creature became a woman of the town. . . it is said that slavery
has disappeared from European civilization. This is a mistake.
It still exists: but it weighs now only upon woman, and it is
(Hugo,162) Those unfamiliar with the story of Fantine
can click here
for a brief synopsis.
I next made the acquaintance
of a boy my age, the son of a paver, whose mother had died three
months before. He was just as badly off as I, because pavers
never have any work in winter. We would make the rounds of the
markets, picking up the carrots and other vegetables that had
fallen on the ground. That was our food.
She herself was the daughter
of an innkeeper from Nancy. After being carried off by a commander
of dragoons, who later abandoned her, she was reduced to living
Both from Norbert Truquin,
A Proletariat in Times of Revolution, as appeared in Traugott, 258 &259.
But for all his effort and
toil over several years, what did this industrious worker--the
head of a household with four children to feed--have to show
for it all? Nothing! Nothing! Absolutely nothing!"
From Suzanne Volquin, A
Daughter of the People, as appears in Traugott,105.
Depicts the working class suffering
Depicts embroiders working at home.
Portrays a more positive image of the working class, as the women
are both well fed and well clothed, and seem relatively at peace.
Bibliotheque Forney, Paris as found
"He started a hat shop,
hired a few journeymen, and set to work . . . He was happiness
and abundance personified."
From Suzanne Volquin, A
Daughter of the People, as appears in Traugott, 104. Quote refers to her father's setting up his
own hat shop.
"I was being paid a piece
rate, so my earnings for this work were modest. Still, I got
From Agricol Perdigeur, Memoirs
of a Compagnon, as appears in Traugott, 129. Refers to a new job he has obtained as a joiner.
"When I saw that work
was plentiful and that I could provide for my family's needs,
I advised the master who had hired me that I intended to send
for my wife. When he learned she was a worker, he urged me to
have her come and siad that he would hire her."
From Jacques Bede, A Worker
in 1820 ,as appeared in Traugott, 62.
While many autobiographers
of this time period sought to portray themselves as acting agents,
some still portrayed themselves mainly as victims of society
or fate. Even those who did not portray themselves as victims
overall were quick to point out where they had been victimized,
of how workers in general were taken advantage of. those workers
most likely to see themselves, or to be seen as victims were
not suprisingly those closest to the margins of society. they
typically had very little skills, and very little in the way
of connection through friends or family, which is in part no
doubt the reason they had very little skills. Many of the more
political and more outrgaed autobiographies, such as Norbert
Truquin's seem to date from the later part of the century, perhaps
due to the decline in demand for skilled labor. Due to the small
overall number, and the unrepresentatviveness of autobiography
as whole, it is impossible to say whether this reflects an actual
trend or sheer coincidence. However, Mary Jo Maynes makes the arguement that "representing the process
of becoming working class was. . . connected to the project of
organizing those identities politically." (p.190)