Lost in Translation: Les Misérables and America’s Social Question

Eponine and Marius from Les Misérables

Part of a Series

For all its radical political messaging and evocations of patriotism, the heart of Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel was his sensitive and moving portrayal of poor working-class people. Jean Valjean was incarcerated for nineteen years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Fantine was reduced to selling her hair, teeth, and body to support her orphaned daughter. Eponine and her brother Gavroche lived a miserable life on the streets, emaciated and careworn. Society lacked compassion for their plight, so Hugo became their voice. Upon his death in 1885, more than two million people attended his funeral, a throng of mourners that exceeded the entire population of Paris.[1]

But exploitation of workers and neglect of the needy was not solely a French issue when Les Misérables hit bookstores throughout the western world in 1862. Charles Dickens had become a global celebrity with stories centered on the smoke-filled slums of London’s East End and the Five Points neighborhood of New York City was infamous for its disease, violent crime, and decadence. Despite America’s promise as a land of freedom and opportunity, urban men, women, and children labored long hours in excruciating conditions with little access to healthcare or education. Immigrants fleeing famine and political persecution encountered white, Anglo-Saxon nativists determined to demonize them as dangerous others intent on polluting their country.

Vanity Fair Announcing the English Translation of Les Misérables

In the decade leading up to America’s Civil War and the debut of Hugo’s masterwork, many of these same immigrants had become leaders in securing public education, support services for the poor, and improved working conditions. Workers began forming labor unions and trade associations in major cities, leveraging their latent political muscle to influence elections, particularly at the state and local level. As the U.S. became an industrial juggernaut and demand for factory labor increased, some hoped that America’s increasing wealth would lift most of the urban poor out of the depths of despair and enable them to share in the bounty. Then war came.

Suddenly there were ample opportunities for underemployed workers to get a job, feeding the war machine with factory labor or risking their lives for a soldier’s pay. But real wages fell 14% during the war due to higher prices for food and other essentials.[2] In the meantime, the labor union movement stalled and attempts to lobby for higher wages or military stipends were typically dismissed as unpatriotic in the free states. Most poor whites in slave states that relied on forced labor for most industrial and farm production had few options besides joining the Confederate Army, willingly or via conscription.

Reformists like Hugo and socialists like Karl Marx thought that the demise of chattel slavery in the U.S. might foreshadow the end of what they called “wage slavery” and a revision in the relationship between capital and labor. Such hopes were dashed, despite periodic risings like the Paris Commune and America’s Great Railroad Strike in the 1870s. U.S. farm wages rose a mere 6% between 1860 and 1899, while nonfarm wages rose just 34% in forty years.[3] Thus, both urban and countryside indigents got considerably poorer over the second half of the nineteenth century as the costs of essential goods and services increased dramatically.

Hugo believed that his magnum opus was relevant across political boundaries. “Les Misérables is written for all people,” he wrote to an Italian government official in 1862. “I don’t know if it will be used by all, but I wrote it for all. It speaks to England as much as Spain, to Germany as much as Ireland, to republics that have slaves as well as to empires that have serfs. Social problems know no borders. The wounds of the human race, those great wounds which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced on a map. Wherever man is ignorant and despairs, wherever woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of a book to instruct him or a hearth at which to warm him, the book Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: Open to me, I come for you.”[4]

Although Hugo’s themes of free popular government and the end of slavery found wide acceptance among many American readers, his pleas on behalf of the brutalized poor fell on deaf ears across the ocean; first drowned out by the cannons and weeping of war, then stymied by Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and finally ignored by politicians and rich industrialists during the Gilded Age. America would race forward to become the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth by the turn of the twentieth century while today, Hugo’s tragic tale is remembered more for its drama and pathos than for its social message.


[1] Graham Robb, Victor Hugo: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), 528.

[2] The Conference on Research in Income and Wealth, Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 456.

[3] The Conference on Research in Income and Wealth, Trends in the American Economy, 462.

[4] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (Paris: Jules Rouff and Co., 1862), Vol. 4, 353.

1 Response to Lost in Translation: Les Misérables and America’s Social Question

  1. Reformists like Hugo aside, thankfully Karl Marx’s “hopes were dashed”, at least in the US. What is mildly termed a “revision in the relationship between capital and labor” led to the greatest ideological carnage in human history; the toxic class-hatred known as Marxism killed more than a hundred million people in the last century.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: