Fantine is the poster child for the plight of the Poor in Les Misérables: her fate is their condition in any age. At her core, she’s a good and loving person, willing to give herself completely to the needs of another. Her situation is self-inflicted: she fell in love with the wrong man, and was abandoned to the plight of being a single mother in an age when it was almost an intolerable scandal. She’s willing to work, trying to make enough to support her and her child, but she’s an easy mark for people like the Thénardiers, and submits to their gouging out of ignorance and desperation. She’s an easy target for her co-workers, who run her out when they think she’s a threat:
At the end of the day
She’ll be nothing but trouble
And there’s trouble for all
When there’s trouble for one!
While we’re earning our daily bread
She’s the one with her hands in the butter
You must send the slut away
Or we’re all gonna end in the gutter
And it’s us who’ll have to pay
At the end of the day!
She can find no effective help until it’s too late: she sacrifices her hair, her teeth, and her virtue. Her sacrifices get her nothing tangible in return and annihilates her spirit. When she reaches rock bottom as a prostitute, she wonders why her customers don’t realize they’re making love to someone already dead. Like Valjean, her one mistake puts her beyond the forgiveness of others, and she pays the price until she literally has nothing. There is no escape and no hope for her; there is no way for her to pull herself up by her own bootstraps. The game is rigged against her and there is nothing she can do about it. It takes Valjean’s unexpected generosity, an imitation of the grace he received from the Bishop, for her to end her life in dignity.
Fear and panic go hand in hand with poverty. Like most of the Poor, Fantine lurches frantically from crisis to crisis, and most of these crises are manufactured to victimize her farther. Poverty enables people such as the Thénardiers to flourish, but even their efforts to get ahead are doomed. The Poor almost never see a level playing field, and are never ready when they find themselves on one.
Justice is not equally enforced. The Thénardiers are never caught because most of their victims are poor or middle class. Valjean’s sentence includes more time served for his escape attempts than his original crime, which was motivated by need. Javert automatically takes the word of the upper class as truth without checking it independently; Valjean is respected when he is M. Madeliene, however when he is suspected to be someone else, his status are mayor and the good he’s done is quickly forgotten. Fantine is automatically assumed to be the culprit by Javert.
Poverty erodes virtue. Another example is the struggle of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: they’re not just trying to find work, but to preserve honor and family in the face of poverty and desperation that tries to pull them apart. It’s only through the heroic effort of Mother Joad that any of them keep their human dignity, and almost every force they encounter on their trip to California tries to force them deeper into poverty, isolation and despair. Some members of the family give in, and give up to the same fate as Fantine, losing themselves in panic and fear. It’s almost impossible to be virtuous and poor, as the Poor of Les Misérables demonstrate.
There are the poor that manipulate the system: in the novels, the Thénardiers are seen worsening their condition to get a better handout. There are always dishonest people in the world, and any system can be abused. Does the fact a system can be abused mean it’s worthless or should be ended? Every government and human organization of any kind would have to be disbanded in that case.
When we meet Fantine’s daughter Cosette, she is a child stripped of humanity, a child that’s never known humanity. Her sole values are her ability to work and the leverage she gives the Thénardiers in extorting money for her upkeep. Her well being and education are important to no one near her. She is not permitted to be a child. If she hadn’t rescued from her predicament by Valjean, her life would truly have been short, nasty and brutish. This was the fate of poor children who worked factories and/or lived in the streets of Hugo’s day.
One of the most abused quotes in Scripture is Mark 14:7 and its parallels: “The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me.” (RNAB) This and its parallels are frequently used as proof texts to show that poverty is unavoidable and hence we waste our effort trying to deal with it. Taking this quote in context, Jesus says this to answer a complaint from Judas about Mary Magdelene wasting expensive oil to anoint Him. It’s a recognition on Jesus’ part that Judas is trying to sidetrack Mary’s intention for his own interest; Judas is throwing up a legitimate need as a non sequitur, and is put in his place. The idea poverty isn’t worth dealing with is also part of the belief this world is fatally flawed and can’t be fixed, so we have to fix our entire attention on the next world.
I believe this train of thought runs counter to the example of Christ’s life and teaching. “Blessed are the Poor” (which is the Lucan version) isn’t meant to dismiss this great evil, or rephrase it in such a way it becomes tolerable. We must remember in Jesus’ time there was no safety net of any kind, the State valued people entirely on their usefulness and could care less whether a given individual lived or died, and the poor were considered cursed by the gods. Laziness meant real death then; lazy attitudes today mean the death of all our souls, whether we’re rich or poor.
The Cosette we see as a young woman is a little problematic: she’s just a normal young woman of her time, dreaming of a wonderful man who will marry her and establish a home. Some would consider her an unambitious airhead; there’s nothing to distinguish her from any other normal young woman of her time. But perhaps the point is because of Valjean’s compassionate care, she’s able to become a normal young woman. Freed from the poverty she knew as a young child, she could develop into a person seeking love, virtue and honor, able to love Marius as an equal and Valjean as her adoptive father. Her life isn’t lost in the despair it was before, she is free to be a person of hope in the future, and that hope gives her a chance to be fully human. Perhaps this the message of relieving poverty: like a desert that will bloom when it gets enough rain, a poor person can blossom when the hopelessness is gone and freedom from want lets a vision of hope flourish.
If I had a perfect solution to poverty, I wouldn’t be writing a blog. There is no amount of money thrown at poverty that will cure it, but letting it fester is a betrayal of the God-given dignity of all human life and a real threat to our spiritual well being as well as our personal safety. Just as we must strive to overcome our personal vices even though we may never completely succeed, we must strive to lessen the sufferings of many even if there is no final solution. If we give up on the Poor because we can never end Poverty, then there’s no point of trying to conquer or control any human vice, since ultimate success is impossible on our own. If the needs of the poor are left unanswered for too long a time, the barricades rise and innocent people, rich and poor alike, die.
We have a God given mission to create a Just world, and since we’re human, we’re supposed to pursue this Good even though we know we’ll never perfectly realize it. At the very least, we must work so that the world of Les Misérables, Bleak House, and the grinding poverty of early 19th Century industrial Europe never fully returns. We must be aware of who is producing what, and who may be paying for our comfort with their dignity and their lives. Fair chance must be as perfectly fair as we can make it, and not be a series of rigged games that benefit one group over another. Despair is a worse disease than cancer, and Hopelessness the door to Evil’s triumph. Our starting point must be compassion for all, great and small alike: our standard is the Imitation of Christ. Christ’s mercy and compassion is what transforms our lives. Our challenge is like the challenge the Bishop of Digne gave Jean Valjean: to use what we’re given for good, to remember we have been purchased for God by the Blood of Christ, and to help Christ reclaim others as our souls have been reclaimed.