how did Jean Valjean end up with 650,000 francs for Cosette's dowry?
December 21, 2020 5:23 PM   Subscribe

I know That Les Misérables Jean Valjean ran a factory for years, but the size of the dowry he offers for Cosette's dowry seems huge.

I just finished the 2018 miniseries of Les Miserables after Lindsay Ellis's backgrounder and given how much a franc seems to be worth, the 650,000 franc dowry seems disproportionate. Jean Valjean ran a factory for years (about 10?), but it's depicted in the miniseries as having perhaps 20 employees.

It also struck me that he got rich on the backs of his workers, which seems in conflict with his compassion for the poor and mistreated. Though Marx's description of capitalism and alternatives was 30 years away, was the view of Hugo and his contemporaries that the fairy tales lives of the rich existed in some vacuum and not a cause of the misery of the poor?
posted by ASCII Costanza head to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In the book this is explained at the beginning of "Book Five" in "I. A History of Progress in Black Glass Beads". Apparently he came up with an innovation to more cheaply produce jet (much in demand for ornamentation) by using different, cheaper raw materials and a simpler clasp design. This apparently allowed him "to raise wages, a benefit for the whole district; to improve the manufacture, an advantage for the consumer; and third, to sell them more cheaply while trebling the profits, a gain for the manufacturer."

So, at least as presented, he miraculously managed to make everyone's lives better, though obviously not so much Fantine's.
posted by LadyOscar at 6:07 PM on December 21, 2020 [15 favorites]

(The book doesn't give explicit employee numbers that I can find, but it describes "two vast workshops", and says that he revolutionized the manufacturing output of the entire district. The 20 people may be a product of the same budgetary forces that sometimes limit the population of Rome to 10 and a mighty fleet to 3 ships.)
posted by LadyOscar at 6:17 PM on December 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

Here's an interesting article in which the author attempts to explore Hugo's ur-socialist leanings, based on their reading of Les Miserables.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:32 PM on December 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

LadyOscar is right about Book 5 of Volume I. Valjean also writes a letter to Cosette answering exactly this question in the last volume, as one of the last acts of his life.
"Cosette, this paper will be found; this is what I wish to say to you, you will see the figures, if I have the strength to recall them, listen well, this money is really yours.

Here is the whole matter: White jet comes from Norway, black jet comes from England, black glass jewellery comes from Germany. Jet is the lightest, the most precious, the most costly. Imitations can be made in France as well as in Germany. What is needed is a little anvil two inches square, and a spirit lamp to soften the wax. The wax was formerly made with resin and lampblack, and cost four francs a pound. I invented a way of making it with shellac and turpentine. It does not cost more than thirty sous, and is much better. Buckles are made with a violet glass which is stuck fast, by means of this wax, to a little framework of black iron. The glass must be violet for iron jewellery, and black for gold jewellery. Spain buys a great deal of it. It is the country of jet ...”
And then he can't hold the pen any more and collapses sobbing, because Hugo can never not be Dramatic. Valjean later adds that he replaced soldered links with links that were simply pinched together, simplifying the process further. (You can still tell fine jewellery from cheaper stuff by noting whether the rings are soldered shut.)

In the penultimate chapter, Valjean keeps talking about this to Marius and Cosette even as he is dying. It's of paramount importance to him that they understand that this money was honestly earned (though part of it doubtless is tied up with residual guilt about Fantine, who seems to have been the only person in Montreuil whose misfortune Valjean failed to notice.)

Jet is really fossilised wood of the araucaria tree. But it's rare and expensive, so there was a huge market for fake jet jewellery. To this day, imitation jet made of glass is known as "French jet."

So if the consumer was already paying market price for their French jet, and Valjean is suddenly paying 10 times less for one of his materials and spending far fewer worker-hours on assembly, then (assuming the consumer price remains the same) his profits will go up.

As to your final question about the relationship between capital and poverty in Hugo: he draws a sharp line between inherited wealth and earned income, which was an important demarcation in post-Revolutionary France. To Hugo, inherited wealth and privilege are a far greater evil than wealth like Valjean's, earned through industry. Marius's grandfather, M. Gillenormand, has inherited wealth and uses it to manipulate and bully Marius. Valjean, after he leaves the convent, lives frugally in Paris in a modest house in an unfrequented neighbourhood with one servant. He uses his wealth to buy Cosette nice things and for philanthropy.

Marius sort of personifies Hugo's uneasy relationship with money. His grandfather tries to give him a generous allowance; he refuses, and ends up living in a room in the world's worst tenement with the Thénardiers next door. Two whole chapters are devoted to his budgeting (based on Hugo's own memories of his youth), and being able to live on very little becomes a point of pride to him. To today's reader it seems that Marius is only playing at being poor. But Hugo's highest esteem in the book is reserved for those who refuse comfort and make themselves misérable by choice: the soldiers at Waterloo, the nuns in the convent, the students at the barricade.

Below Marius are the characters who fall with no safety net: Fantine, Mabeuf, Gavroche and Eponine. But all of those characters, even when they have nothing, still make an effort to protect others.

Then you get moments like that scene in the Luxembourg gardens when the two hungry street children watch a bourgeois and his son throwing their unwanted brioche to the swans. If self-sacrifice is Hugo's highest good, then unexamined privilege is the greatest evil.

...And I've typed a Hugo-style wall of text. I hope some of it's helpful. If you'd like more (!?), there's a LOT of collaborative analysis of this sort over in the Les Misérables corner of Tumblr.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:05 PM on December 22, 2020 [15 favorites]

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