The criminal society: The characteristics of the development in the description of the criminal groups were much the same. Crimes was no longer closely tied to the dangerous classes, but changed its significance and extended to broad masses of the population, to the greater part of the labouring classes. The word “misérables” less and less frequently denoted criminals and more and more often the unfortunate, whether criminal or no.
The strictly criminal groups were those who dwelt in the lower depths, the bas-fonds, the troisième-dessous, “the great cavern of Evil” to which Hugo devoted the book in Les Misérables entitled “Patron Minette”. The anachronisms, the clumsiness, the bogus antiquarianism, the highly improbable details in this evocation of the criminal groups, all contrast strongly with the authenticity and beauty of the description of the diffused criminality that pervades the paragraphs and chapters devoted to the lower classes. We can interpret this contrast as yet another proof of the transformation of a picturesque criminality, of the Hugo knew very little – and that only from books – into a social criminality,which he knew well but only in exactly the same way as any of his contemporaries, since it was one of the most obvious aspects of contemporary city life in Paris.
The description of the criminal groups appears lifelike or at any rate conveys horror only when it deals with masses or crowds, that is to say, when it compounds men with things, and when it uses the procedures whose efficacy we noted when investigating the description of things by way of an approach to the description of men. Thénardier on his way to the place de la Bastille or going up the rue Mouffetard was merely a petty criminal. He did not terrify Marius until he reached the deserted district near the Salpêtrière and the boulevard de l'Hôpital, when he merged with that vast landscape of crime, absorbing from the expressible horror of the place the total horror which he henceforth exuded. It was then, and only then, that Marius shuddered, as Thénardier straddled over a gate and vanished into the night. It is then, and only then, that Hugo speaks of terror. It is then, and only then, that he obtains an effect of terror. In the same way, the slow and monstrous progress of the chain gang looming out of the fog and, as it were, mounting from Paris, calls forth a horror that is not aroused by the convicts described individually. As soon as the description attempts to individualized any particular character, it loses both efficacy and probability. Note the contrast between the great criminals in Balzac, who are formidable and really horrible, and Hugo's petty loafers of the outer boulevards, who criminal enterprises are always paltry exploits; they can easily be gulled by an urchin like Gavroche.
The more lifelike and historically important the descriptions of the criminal districts, because they were significant of a criminality that surpassed their bounds, the harder it was for the description of the criminal groups to do what it set out to do. It is upon the districts that the city's criminality as a whole and the social problem as a whole leave their mark, whereas the bandits do not even succeed in conveying to us their criminality as such and the specific problem they constitute. Indeed, the more Hugo tries by using the documentation on crime too obviously and employing contrivances which are all too apparent and all too unconvincing, the less he succeeds.
What Hugo does is effective only when he deals with the kind of crime which is earlier than and different from that in Les Misérables, the grand picturesque crime whose characteristics we have already defined and whose importance in the collective psychology of the people of Paris we have already stressed. Hugo borrowed from the popular memory of terror the roll of names which in themselves called forth a horror due to the vast publicity by which they were surrounded. The roll of honour is as complete in the novel as it was on the wall at Bicêtre in Le dernier jour d'un condamné:In the urchin's realm Voltaire is unknown by Papavoine is famous. . . . Traditions exist about the last garment they wore. It is known that Tolleron was wearing a bandit cap, Avril a cap of fur, Louvel a round hat and that old Delaporte was bare-headed and bald, that Castaing was rosy-cheeked and a pretty fellow, that Bories had a Romantic beard, that Jean-Martin was in his braces and Lecouffé and his mother kept shouting abuse at each other.
These were, of course, the most notorious names in the criminal history of the Restoration, the names most calculated to arouse memories of terror in readers, to extract such memories from the reader's inmost depths, the unforgettable details set down in this as in preceding works, and as alive the writer's memory as they were in that of his contemporaries. “I recall,” Hugo wrote in the notes on 1846-1847-1848 published in Choses vues,that in my very early youth I saw Louvel cross the Pont-au-Change the day he was being taken to the place de Grève. It was in June, I think. It was bright sunshine. Louvel was in a cart, his hands tied behind his back, a blue frockcoat flung around his shoulders, a round hat on his head. He was pale. I saw him in profile. His whole demeanor was redolent of a sort of serious forcity and violent resolution. There was something severe and cold about him.
The writer's recollection here was simply an expression of the collective memory. The names and details existed in his memory, as they did in everyone's, with such precision that he had only to write them down to make the shudder of the Grève palpable in his narrative.
But when the crime was the crime of the July Monarchy, contemporary with the action of Les Misérables, and when Hugo tried to connect the story he was telling and the groups he was describing with this general criminality, his antiquarianism miscarried. It not only weakened the effect of horror generated by the story as a matter of course, but, curiously, emphasized the artifice and improbabilities in the picture. Hugo vainly rushed to succor a quartet whom he himself probably considered to be rather thin by giving them a reinforcement of accomplices with whom Moreau-Christophe, the Inspector of Prisons, declared in his book Le Monde des coquins (1863) that he was well acquainted. As belonging merely to information on crime, but not to the popular tradition, these petty criminals add little to the major criminals in the story. Thus, on several occasions Hugo bring in the most famous of them all, Lacenaire: “When the President of the Criminal Court visited Lacenaire in prison, he questioned him about a crime which the murderer denied. 'Who committed it?' the President asked, and Lacenaire gave an answer which was an enigma to the judge but plain enough to the police: 'Patron-Minette, perhaps'.” Lacenaire had a sinister fame, of course, on which we need not dwell since it is obvious enough in the contemporary literature and in the evidence of popular opinion. The Minister of Justice even felt it necessary to ask the editor of the Gazette des tribunaux to spread the impression that Lacenaire had died a coward's death. But brining in Lacenaire himself does not manage to confer upon Hugo's petty criminals any part of the terror that Lacenaire inspired. It fails because the contrast between the crime embodied in him and the paltry plotting of the four bandits is too great, but above all because the kind of crime he represents does not tally with the concept Hugo arrived at in Les Misérables by a route we have already observed. Lacenaire was still part of the older, exceptional, monstrous crime, represented it and would continue to conjure it up. The Histoire de l'échafaud en France, or “Livre Rouge”, a collection published in 1863, classified him as one of the “legendary brigands, with the Marshal de Rais, Guillery, Ravaillac, Mandrin, Cartouche, Damiens, Louvel and Fieschi.” He was alien to the diffused collective and social criminality with his the basic theme of Les Misérables. Indeed, the contradiction between the person Lacenaire and Hugo's description of crime stresses eve more clearly the extend to which the development in the theme of crime, the blending of the dangerous with the labouring classes and the transformation of crime in Les Misérables are accounted for not solely by the operation of literary creation but by the influence of the general evolution of public opinion, far more than by any sustained subjective meditation. The most important pieces of evidence relating to this transformation are those which Hugo simply could not help introducing, and even more often those which he did not realize he was introducing. Conversely, there are flagrant inconsistencies in Hugo's elaborated, finished and documented descriptions. When he wrote: “What crawls in the lowest depths is no longer the stifled demand of the absolute, but the protest of matter . . . Lacenaire issued from this cave,” Moreau-Christophe, anticipating our criticism, promptly retorted thatthis conclusion stands in flagrant contradiction with its premises; for if it is true that Lacenaire issued from this cave – and he certainly did – it is definitely not true that “it's fault is built of ignorance, it knows no philosophy, its dagger never made a pen and its blackness bears no relation to the sublime blackness of the inkwell.”
Few criminals have attached so much importance to the accoutrements of culture as Lacenaire. The less convincing this description of the criminal groups as such, owing to its too bookish and too obvious documentation, its borrowed and incomplete information, and the survival of older characteristics tacked onto newer characteristics (Dautun rubbing elbows with Lacenaire), the more important for historical research is the description of the social criminality whose image embraces a large part of the working-class population, all those who are termed “misérables”. Through most of the book, and as the story unfolds, criminality ceases to characterise criminal groups in the strict sense; henceforth is exists potentially in those other categories of the population, which share the mark of poverty with the criminal groups and are differentiated from them only by imperceptible gradations.
This shared plight of the “misérables” is brought out in the novel far less by the actual descriptions than by the habitual use of certain words and the development of some themes rather than others. Such traces of opinion are more important for our investigation than the happy accidents of literary creation.
One instance is the way in which the word “bas-fonds,”, the lower depths, no longer denotes simply the criminal groups, but far large entities. Similarly, Hugo does not use “faubourien de Paris” to mean the inhabitant of the faubourgs, or even of the faubourg Saint-Antoine, the faubourg par excellence, but to designate part of the capital's working-class population. “The Parisian race, we say again,” he wrote in the section on Gavroche,is found most truly in the faubourg; there it is pure-blooded, there we find the real physiognomy, there the people work and suffer; and toil and suffering are the two faces of man. There there are immense numbers of unknown beings, including the strangest types, from the docker of la Rapée to the horse butcher of Monfaucon.
The faubourg means all the working-class districts of Paris. Thus, commenting on the Prefect Anglès's report on the small stature of Parisians, Hugo said:Take care. He will make Caudine forks of the first rue Grenéta to hand. If the hour strikes, this man of the faubourg will grow big, this small man will arise and look terrible, and from this poor narrow chest a breath will swell strong enough to unfold the Alps themselves. It is thanks to the man of the Paris faubourg that revolution, pervading armies, conquers Europe.
We have already described the meaning of the faubourg in the strict sense, all that it summed up in the way of degrading, insecure and underpaid jobs and poverty and crime. The people of the faubourg were different from those of the city. The old term “faubourien” connoted those differences and kept them alive. This application to the greater part of the Paris working class reflected a development similar to that in the word “misérables”, for the characteristics formerly ascribed only to the lowest strata now, like the word itself, spread to the rest of the population.
28. “These names,” Moreau-Christophe wrote, “are real names. Likewise, I know the four bandits Gueulemer, Claquesous, Babet and Montparnasse. These four typical bandits formed a sort of parent association in Paris which gained the singular appellation of Patron-Minette in the underworld.” In describing Patron-Minette, Moreau-Christophe merely reproduced Hugo's description of them.
29. Lacenaire's poems and memoirs were published in two volumes in 1836. There is a well-known poem by Théophile Gautier, “La Main de Lacenaire”.