Les Misérables
Victor Hugo

These pages: Les Misérables
Preface and Part I (here)
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

index pages:

Les Misérables

French original published 1862
English translation by Charles Wilbour published 1862


So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night— are not yet solved; as long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Part I

Book First: An Upright Man

IV: Works Answering Words

“My very dear brethren, my good friends, there are in France thirteen hundred and twenty thousand peasants’ cottages that have but three openings; eighteen hundred and seventeen thousand that have two, the door and one window; and finally, three hundred and forty-six thousand cabins, with only one opening—the door. And this is in consequence of what is called the excise upon doors and windows. In these poor families, among the aged women and the little children, dwelling in these huts, how abundant is fever and disease? Alas! God gives light to men; the law sells it.”

“Man has a body which is at once his burden and his temptation. He drags it along, and yields to it.

“He ought to watch over it, to keep it in bounds; to repress it, and only to obey it at the last extremity. It may be wrong to obey even then, but if so, the fault is venial. It is a fall, but a fall upon the knees, which may end in prayer.

“To be a saint is the exception; to be upright is the rule. Err, falter, sin, but be upright.

“To commit the least possible sin is the law for man. To live without sin is the dream of an angel. Everything terrestrial is subject to sin.”

We may be indifferent to the death penalty, and may not declare ourselves, yes or no, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But when we see one, the shock is violent, and we are compelled to decide and take part, for or against.


Capital punishment

VI: How He Protected His House

“The most beautiful of altars,” said he, “is the soul of an unhappy man who is comforted and thanks God.”

VII: Cravatte

“There is on the mountain,” replied the bishop, “a humble little commune, that I have not seen for three years; and they are good friends of mine, kind and honest peasants. They own one goat out of thirty that they pasture. They make pretty woolen thread of various colours, and they play their mountain airs upon small six-holed flutes. They need some one occasionally to tell them of the goodness of God. What would they say of a bishop who was afraid? What would they say if I should not go there?”

“But, monseigneur, the brigands?”

“True,” said the bishop, “I am thinking of that. You are right. I may meet them. They too must need some one to tell them of the goodness of God.”

X: The Bishop in the Presence of an Unknown Light

“I mean that man has a tyrant, Ignorance. I voted for the abolition of that tyrant. That tyrant has begotten royalty, which is authority springing from the False, while science is authority springing from the True. Man should be governed by science.”

“And conscience,” added the bishop.

“The same thing: conscience is innate knowledge that we have.”

“Alas! the work was imperfect I admit; we demolished the ancient order of things physically, but not entirely in the idea. To destroy abuses is not enough; habits must be changed. The windmill has gone, but the Wind is there yet.”

“You have demolished. To demolish may be useful, but I distrust a demolition effected in anger!”

“Justice has its anger, Monsieur Bishop, and the wrath of justice is an element of progress.”

XI: A Qualification

We must say, by the way, that the hatred of luxury is not an intelligent hatred. It implies a hatred of the arts. Nevertheless, among churchmen, beyond their rites and ceremonies, luxury is a crime. It seems to disclose habits which are not truly charitable. A wealthy priest is a contradiction. He ought to keep himself near the poor. But, who can be in contact continually, by night as well as day, with all distresses, all misfortunes, all privations, without taking upon himself a little of that holy poverty, like the dust of a journey? Can you imagine a man near a fire, who does not feel warm? Can you imagine a labourer working constantly at a furnace, who has not a hair burned, nor a nail blackened, nor a drop of sweat, nor a speck of ashes on his face? The first proof of charity in a priest, and especially a bishop, is poverty.

XII: Solitude of Monseigneur Bienvenu

We may say, by the way, that success is a hideous thing. Its counterfeit of merit deceives men. To the mass, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy. Success, that pretender to talent, has a dupe,—history.

XIV: What He Thought

That he raised his prayer to a superhuman aspiration, is probable; but one can no more pray too much than love too much; and, if it was a heresy to pray beyond the written form, St. Theresa and St. Jerome were heretics.



Book Third: In the Year 1817

II: Double Quatuor

Wisdom and philosophy are two things; a proof of which is that, with all necessary reservations for these little, irregular households, Favourite, Zéphine, and Dahlia, were philosophic, and Fantine was wise.

“Wise!” you will say, and Tholomyès? Solomon would answer that love is a part of wisdom.



Fantine, in those labyrinths of the hill of the Pantheon, where so many ties are knotted and unloosed, long fled from Tholomyès, but in such a way as always to meet him again. There is a way of avoiding a person which resembles a search.

V: At Bombarda’s

The Parisian is among Frenchmen what the Athenian was among Greeks. Nobody sleeps better than he, nobody is more frankly frivolous and idle than he, nobody seems to forget things more easily than he; but do not trust him, nothwithstanding; he is apt at all sorts of nonchalance, but when there is glory to be gained, he is wonderful in every species of fury. Give him a pike, and he will play the tenth of August; give him a musket, and you shall have an Austerlitz. He is the support of Napoleon, and the resource of Danton. Is France in question? he enlists; is liberty in question? he tears up the pavement. [...] Thanks to the men of the Paris faubourgs, the Revolution infused into armies, conquers Europe. He sings, it is his joy. Proportion his song to his nature, and you shall see! So long as he had the Carmagnole merely for his chorus, he overthrew only Louis XVI.; let him sing the Marseillaise, and he will deliver the world.

VII: The Wisdom of Tholomyès

“Do not talk at random, nor too fast!” exclaimed he; “we must take time for reflection, if we would be brilliant. Too much improvisation leaves the mind stupidly void. Running beer gathers no foam.”

“Indigestion is charged by God with enforcing morality on the stomach. And remember this: each of our passions, even love, has a stomach that must not be overloaded. [...]

“The wise man is he who knows when and how to stop. Have some confidence in me. Because I have studied law a little, as my examinations prove, because I know the difference between the question mue and the question pedante, because I have written a Latin thesis on the method of torture in Rome at the time when Munatius Demens was quæstor of the Parricide; because I am about to become doctor, as it seems, it does not follow necessarily that I am a fool. I recommend to you moderation in all your desires.”

Book Fourth: To Entrust Is Sometimes To Abandon

I: One Mother Meets Another

Why was this vehicle in this place in the street, one may ask? First to obstruct the lane, and then to complete its work of rust. There is in the old social order a host of institutions which we find like this across our path in the full light of day, and which present no other reasons for being there.

Book Fifth: The Descent

V: Vague Flashes in the Horizon

This man was a compound of two sentiments, very simple and very good in themselves, but he almost made them evil by his exaggeration of them, respect for authority and hatred of rebellion; and in his eyes, theft, murder, all crimes, were only forms of rebellion. In his strong and implicit faith he included all who held any function in the state, from the prime minister to the constable. He had nothing but disdain, aversion, and disgust for all who had once overstepped the bounds of the law. He was absolute, and admitted no exceptions. On the one hand he said: “A public officer cannot be deceived; a magistrate never does wrong!” And on the other he said: “They are irremediably lost; no good can come out of them.” He shared fully the opinion of those extremists who attribute to human laws an indescribable power of making, or, if you will, of determining, demons, and who place a Styx at the bottom of society.

VII: Fauchelevant Becomes a Gardener at Paris

When the population is suffering, when there is lack of work, when trade falls off, the tax-payer, constrained by poverty, resists taxation, exhausts and overruns the delays allowed by law, and the government is forced to incur large expenditures in the costs of levy and collection. When work is abundant, when the country is rich and happy, the tax is easily paid and costs the state but little to collect. It may be said that poverty and public wealth have an infallible thermometer in the cost of the collection of the taxes.



VIII: Madame Victurnien Spends Thirty Francs on Morality

For prying into any human affairs, none are equal to those whom it does not concern.

XI: Christus Nos Liberavit

What is this history of Fantine? It is society buying a slave.

From whom? From misery.

From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from abandonment, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a bit of bread. Misery makes the offer, society accepts.

The holy law of Jesus Christ governs our civilisation, but it does not yet permeate it; it is said that slavery has disappeared from European civilisation. This is a mistake. It still exists: but it weighs now only upon woman, and it is called prostitution.

It weighs upon woman, that is to say, upon grace, upon feebleness, upon beauty, upon maternity. This is not one of the least of man’s shames.

Book Sixth: Javert

I: The Beginning of the Rest

“You have suffered greatly, poor mother. Oh! do not lament, you have now the portion of the elect. It is in this way that mortals become angels. It is not their fault; they do not know how to set about it otherwise. This hell from which you have come out is the first step towards Heaven. We must begin by that.”

II: How Jean Can Become Champ

[...] I have often been severe in my life towards others. It was just. I did right. Now if I were not severe towards myself, all I have justly done would become injustice. Should I spare myself more than others? No. What! if I should be prompt only to punish others and not myself, I should be a wretch indeed! They who say: ‘That blackguard, Javert,’ would be right. Monsieur Mayor, I do not wish you to treat me with kindness. Your kindness, when it was for others, enraged me; I do not wish it for myself. That kindness which consists in defending a woman of the town against a citizen, a police agent against the mayor, the inferior against the superior, that is what I call ill-judged kindness. Such kindness disorganizes society. Good God, it is easy to be kind, the difficulty is to be just.”



Book Seventh: The Champmathieu Affair

III: A Tempest in a Brain

The conscience is the chaos of chimeras, of lusts and of temptations, the furnace of dreams, the cave of the ideas which are our shame, it is the pandemonium of sophisms, the battle-field of the passions. [...] What a gloom enwraps that infinite which each man bears within himself, and by which he measures in despair the desires of his will, and the actions of his life!



Book Eighth: Counter-Stroke

III: Javert Satisfied

Probity, sincerity, candour, conviction, the idea of duty, are things which, mistaken, may become hideous, but which, even though hideous, remain great; their majesty, peculiar to the human conscience, continues in all their horror; they are virtues with a single vice—error. The pitiless, sincere joy of a fanatic in an act of atrocity preserves an indescribably mournful radiance which inspires us with veneration. Without suspecting it, Javert, in his fear-inspiring happiness, was pitiable, like every ignorant man who wins a triumph. Nothing could be more painful and terrible than this face, which revealed what we may call all the evil of good.



text checked (see note) Sep 2023

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