Hunger, Jean Valjean and Horse Thieves

In the Old West of Legend, legend has it that horse thieves got hanged. The logic ran as follows: your horse-owning cowpoke depended on his horse to make a living. He, and his, if he had any, might just die if you stole his horse. Therefore, stealing a man’s horse was akin to attempted murder.

Sometimes, a punishment may seem excessive if one has no context, but in context, it makes more sense.

In the 1780’s, Pestalozzi – remember him? – started a school on a farm in order to try to feed a bunch of orphans and abandoned children. A series of wars had raged across what is now southeastern France, northern Switzerland and Austria (and much of the rest of Europe) for decades (well, centuries, really), and left in their wakes many destitute and starving people. Only in our modern times and in Western nations have armies been entirely provisioned by the state – everywhere else, and at all other times, armies generally ‘lived off the land’ – pillaged the farms and villages along their routes. (1)

Recall also that, until the last couple of centuries, populations everywhere in the world were ‘harvest sensitive’ – if the amount of food raised locally in one year fell below sustenance levels, people there starved. Thus, when wars raged, people in those areas tended strongly to starve – their pigs and cows and crops and anything else the soldiers could lift were stolen. Often their farms were the battle grounds, torn up and mangled, so their ability to replant was damaged (if the peasants even survived). Also recall that the 10% or so of people who were not farmers were now also liable to starvation, since they also got their food from the surrounding farms.

Thus Pestalozzi attempted to gather the large numbers of starving orphans and abandoned children onto a farm, both so that they could have enough food to survive and that they could learn farming, so that they could survive once grown. For these efforts, he is correctly recognized as a great humanitarian.

We saw a very good amateur production of Les Miserables recently. The plot centers on the fate of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for 19 years – 5 for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family, and the other 14 for resisting arrest and attempted escape. To modern audiences, this punishment seems insanely and cruelly excessive – but we can walk down to the local supermarket and buy loaves and loaves of bread for the typical hourly wage. In 1815, in Europe devastated by decades of war, stealing that bread could have very well meant that some other family got to starve. It might take a day’s wages to buy that bread, and there might be not nearly enough bread to go around. Just as stealing a horse had very serious consequences in the Old West, stealing bread in Jean Valjean’s time was no trivial matter. Just imagine the social breakdown in a time of famine if stealing bread when there isn’t enough to go around was not punished harshly.

But we can hardly believe this. Victor Hugo drives the point home by having the bishop who feeds Valjean upon his release from prison go hungry – a bishop might not even have enough to eat. (2) Valjean is a tragic character, but it is not his punishment that makes the tragedy, it is the wars and subsequent social upheavals that makes such punishments reasonable.

  1. Here’s a nice bit from Wikipedia: “During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. The larger armies of the period required increased and regular supplies of quality food. Limited food availability was among the factors limiting military campaigns to the summer and autumn months.” It took decades for canning to be developed and spread enough to make much of a difference – everybody still relied on locally-produced food for their survival: “Throughout the mid-19th century, canned food became a status symbol amongst middle-class households in Europe, being something of a frivolous novelty.”  The ability to go to a local store and buy food from around the world all year round is entirely modern.
  2. Read somewhere that some of Hugo’s contemporaries were appalled that he made a bishop into a hero, as he was a well-known critic of the church. He is said to have responded that he wished to shame the real bishops of France by having his fictional bishop practice what he preached.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

7 thoughts on “Hunger, Jean Valjean and Horse Thieves”

  1. Admittedly, I don’t know anything about Les Mis other than having seen the most recent movie. But this puts a whole new interpretation to the story. My view was that Jean Valjean was, at most, a petty criminal who was the victim of overzealous policing. The story, therefore, is about justice. He’s fighting the law to clear his name, like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive.

    With your suggested (more grave view) of his crime, the emphasis is on mercy. Valjean maybe doesn’t deserve the relatively comfortable life he’s living on the lam.

    In fact, is Valjean the villain of the story? He’s living off of mercy for a crime he didn’t repent of. He’s an escaped criminal living under a different identity to hide his past. Javert, trying to bring him in, might be the hero in this case!

    Just thinking out loud…

    1. Haven’t read the book myself, either – basing everything on the play.

      I think Valjean is still the hero of the story, but that it’s not as simple as it seems. Further, he takes the bishop’s silver, and promptly sets out to help destitute poor women – by setting up a sweatshop! He then makes enough money to live a pretty good life – but he is helping keep those poor women away from prostitution (which, at the time, was a death sentence), and rescuing the daughter… It’s just a much more complicated picture, I think, than most people seem to think.

      Also, think of the context of the barricade –

      “Leading up to the rebellion, there were significant economic problems, particularly acute in the period from 1827 to 1832—harvest failures, food shortages, and increases in the cost of living—creating discontent throughout the classes.[3] In the spring of 1832 Paris was ravaged by a worldwide outbreak of cholera, which ended with a death toll of 18,402 in the city and 100,000 across France. The poor neighborhoods of Paris were devastated by the disease, arousing suspicion of the government poisoning wells.”

      All this within the bigger context of the French Revolution and Napoleon, where Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood were proclaimed, but death, misery and war delivered, then, as the revolutionaries finished executing each other, a strong man starts wars, then a king is brought back, and the Empire collapses… – social, political and moral chaos.

      So Valjean, by showing any compassion and any willingness to try to make things better, is clearly a hero, even if certainly a hero with many flaws.

  2. Valjean is clearly the hero, though there’s no issue with your analysis. If anything, the problem is that he is too perfect.

    We call what Valjean set up a “sweatshop”. At the time it was called “work for people who otherwise had no job”. He lived a cushy life, but gave it all up to clear another person’s name, and presumably had no issue going to prison if he wasn’t forced to raise a prostitute’s daughter; remember, her mother’s death was only indirectly his fault at BEST.

    For the rest of his life he raised this daughter in secret; when he learned she fell in love with somebody she barely knew, he took up arms specifically to defend him, without even telling Cosette about the act. He spared Javert’s life, then offered to turn himself in after Marius reached a doctor (the implication seemed, to me, to be that he would have done so had not Javert committed suicide).

    One thing the musical and musical movie changed is that Javert was not an ultra-zealous religious person, but an atheist; justice was his god because he had no higher God. I suppose that making him an atheist and Valjean religious didn’t sit well with the musical types who adapt this sort of thing. “Hey! That’s not fair…”

    It’s a shame, because they missed Hugo’s point.

    1. Yes, of course I used ‘sweatshop’ because that’s the modern prejudice – yet to Hugo, clearly Valjean isn’t a capitalist pig (or whatever they would call such folks in 1830) , but a philanthropist and hero.

      I’ve been toying with writing something about how the children sent into the coal mines – the poster children for Everything That Is Wrong with the free market – might have viewed it differently than we do.

    2. Johnny come lately here and with poor memory. If I recall Les Miserables correctly, Valjean went to prison twice, which was left out of the play, etc. He was returned to prison for stealing from the Bishop. The first time he was released (?) the second, he escaped.

      He is definitely the hero, because he repents. He changes his name, his actions, and is really a different person in every way, except he DOES NOT GO BACK; that is to prison, nor to his former ways.

      1. I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but if I had to guess probably this:

        He lived a cushy life, but gave it all up to clear another person’s name, and presumably had no issue going to prison if he wasn’t forced to raise a prostitute’s daughter

        My point was that if he wasn’t suddenly saddled with the responsibility of raising Cosette Valjean WOULD have gone back to prison and faced his punishment. The reason he didn’t wasn’t because he was trying to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, but that he had another responsibility he had to take care of first.

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