“Be it said in passing, that success is a very hideous thing. Its false resemblance to merit deceives men…Win in the lottery, and behold! you are a clever man. He who triumphs is venerated. Be born with a silver spoon in your mouth! everything lies in that. Be lucky, and you will have all the rest; be happy, and people will think you great.”

In the first book of “Fantine,” the narrator argues against society’s tendency to glorify those with success and power, attributing to them traits they don’t necessarily possess. Being lucky doesn’t necessarily mean you are more intelligent or capable than anyone else; it simply means you are lucky. Being lucky enough to be born wealthy, Hugo argues, will bring “all the rest.” Likewise, being unlucky enough to be born in poverty, then, is viewed as a moral failing, a fault of the individual, and it’s this mindset that makes rigid class stratification not only possible, but inevitable. By unlearning the idea that lucky people are inherently great, we also unlearn the idea that unlucky people are inherently inferior and less deserving of support.

“The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow.”

In Chapter 4 of the first book in “Fantine,” Hugo argues that those who utilize prejudice to demean or isolate others are responsible for what becomes of their victims. Characters like Valjean and Fantine, who are pushed into poverty and viewed as sinful for the choices they are forced to make as a result, are not guilty; rather, they are victims of a cruel, callous, and unjust society. Society “has created the shadow” by creating a system in which Valjean and Fantine can’t succeed once they have already failed. Therefore society and those and those who uphold its rigid and unforgiving nature are “guilty.”

“This is a sad thing to say; after having judged society, which had caused his unhappiness, he judged Providence, which had made society, and he condemned it also.
Thus during nineteen years of torture and slavery, this soul mounted and at the same time fell. Light entered it on one side, and darkness on the other.
Jean Valjean had not, as we have seen, an evil nature. He was still good when he arrived at the galleys. He there condemned society, and felt that he was becoming wicked; he there condemned Providence, and was conscious that he was becoming impious.”

Through Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo takes the opportunity to explore the negative impact of poverty and prison on the individual. Prison has hardened Valjean’s heart, prompting him to condemn society, a view Hugo shares. Society, he argues, is to blame for turning Valjean “wicked.” That Valjean has also become “impious,” going so far as to blame God, is yet another consequence of society’s failure. By throwing Valjean into prison, it has created a cruel, embittered criminal where before there was a good man.