The Working Classes in Revolutionary France

The Working Class as Victims

Works Cited

 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?

Victor Hugo's portrayal of the working classes in Les Miserables

Autobiographical portrayals of the working classes as victims

Autobiographical 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 called prostitution."

(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 by prostitution."

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 in poverty.


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 in Traugott

Not Victims

"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 along."

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)