Does Poverty Tend to Cause Crimes of Desperation?

As Victor Hugo began the story of his novel, Les Miserables, he planned to center his narrative on Fantine, the poor girl who became the mother of Cosette.

Then ... everything changed.

What caused Victor Hugo to change the lead character of his story? Real life disrupted his creative process when Hugo witnessed a scene he could not get out of his mind.

While on his way to work, Hugo saw a young man, very thin whose feet were wrapped in bloody rags instead of socks, carrying a loaf of bread. He was in the custody of police officers who had arrested him. Later, Hugo wrote about that scene (and how it had impacted him):

It made me think. The man was no longer a man in my eyes but the specter of la misère, of poverty.

In the novel itself, Hugo stops the story to interject a personal observation about the crime of stealing bread:

This is the second time ... that the author of this book has come across the theft of a loaf of bread as the point of departure for the disaster of a destiny. ... English statistics prove the fact that four thefts out of five in London have hunger for their immediate cause.

A fighter against injustice, Hugo now had a new idea for his main character. He would invent Jean Valjean, a young man not dissimilar to the real-life peasant he had seen under police control.

To provide even more perspective about life in France, at the time Hugo was writing Les Mis, hungry children could be arrested - and sent to jail - for picking a peach from a tree.

At the end of his chapter on Jean Valjean’s background - called “Jean Valjean” - Victor Hugo asks a question, about Valjean’s five-year sentence:  

What had taken place in that soul?

Given the facts of the story, as set forth by Hugo in this chapter, how would you answer that question?

Does poverty tend to cause crimes of desperation? Explain your answer.

Have you ever witnessed a family so poor that it would not surprise you if the parents were forced to steal to feed their children? Describe those circumstances.

What should people in a country do to prevent such events from happening?

Do you think that real-life events are a good basis for authors to invent stories (such as Victor Hugo's real-life experience)? Why, or why not?

If authors base their fictional stories on non-fictional events, does that tend to give those stories more authenticity? Explain your answer.

Media Credits

This image, depicting Jean Valjean, is from the English-language version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (published in 1887 by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., New York). Out-of-copyright.


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