There are echoes of Cinderella, the Grimm fairy tale, in the relationship between the Thénardiers and Cosette, which Hugo uses to comment on the role mothers play in the development of their daughters. While Thénardier plays a more prominent role later in the novel, most of Cosette’s maltreatment actually comes at the hands of Mme. Thénardier and her two daughters, Eponine and Azelma—Hugo’s interpretation of the evil stepmother and evil stepsisters, respectively. Hugo notes that “[Madame Thénardier] was unkind to Cosette and Eponine and Azelma were unkind, too. Children at that age are simply copies of the mother; only the size is reduced.” Here, Hugo identifies the mother as the most important factor in determining a child’s development and suggests that Cosette’s upbringing is impaired because Fantine is absent.
The relationship between parents and children, which is emphasized throughout the novel, surfaces in the letter that Tholomyès and his friends leave their mistresses. In their letter, the four students write, “Understand, we have parents. Parents—you barely know the meaning of the word,” indicating that Fantine and the other working-class girls come from broken homes. Here, Hugo points to the breakdown of the traditional family among the working class, a dissolution brought about by the struggle to survive. These instances of ruptured family relations—of orphans, unwanted children, and foster parents—represent Hugo’s comment on the upturned social order and broken family ties that he felt plagued the working classes of early nineteenth-century France.