The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Humanizing Women in Hugo and Dostoevsky

Michaela Telfer

The nineteenth-century in Europe witnessed waves of uprisings and social reforms that called attention to the plights of previously unheeded social groups. Writing in the midst of these social changes, Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky particularly drew attention to the social ills befalling women and argued in favour of advances in women’s rights. While these two authors are rarely paired together, Dostoevsky draws significantly from Hugo’s ideas and persuasive techniques and both authors create similar but culturally specific political fiction. Looking at Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment in particular, the authors clearly demonstrate comparable but individualized uses of the beaten horse image, the holy prostitute archetype, and the breakage of social norms in order to convey their political opinions. The connections between these authors demonstrate the patterns of social change in the nineteenth-century as well as the potential for universal social change in the future.

Although scholars rarely pair Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky together, these two authors demonstrate clear connections and similarities regarding the topic of women’s rights. In Crime and Punishment, published in 1866, Dostoevsky draws on ideas espoused by Hugo and on the plot of Les Misérables, published in 1862, in order to create a similar, political argument. There are cultural nuances in each novel that mark the works as either distinctively French or distinctively Russian, but the issues that Hugo and Dostoevsky raise reveal common sympathies and opinions. They both build on the nineteenth-century image of the idealized, fallen woman, which generally took the form of a holy prostitute, and create empathetic female characters in order to convince their audience of the necessity for advances in women’s rights: a progressive viewpoint in both France and Russia at the time. Notably, they use the image of a beaten mare, tragic plots, and the non-reciprocated, informal “you” to demonstrate how dire women’s position in French and Russian society has become. Hugo and Dostoevsky preceded the modern idea, as stated by Hillary Clinton, that “women’s rights are human rights” and approached the issue with the same effort and respect with which they approached other human rights causes.

Parallel Plots and Lauding Letters: Connecting Hugo and Dostoevsky

One of the scholars that does directly make the comparison between Hugo and Dostoevsky, Nathalie Bentham Brown, addresses similarities in plot as well as pointing out biographical connections. She first breaks down the plots of Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment to show their fairly parallel structures: each novel tells the overarching story of a convict evading the law with subplots focusing on a love story and the idea of “the outsider as villain” (54). Within the parallels of the plot, parallels between the characters exist as well. Some of these seem fairly obvious, like Jean Valjean and Rodion Raskolnikov as criminals running from the law, or Javert and Porfiry as the pursuing officers. However, Brown points out even more subtle relationships between the two texts, like the similar roles of Mme Thénardier and Mrs. Svidrigailov, devoted wives who treat a young girl unjustly, or those of Bishop Bienvenu and Sonya, religious figures who cause the main characters’ repentance (31). Granted, there are some significant differences between these paralleled characters as well. Jean Valjean becomes religiously reformed at the beginning of Les Misérables whereas Raskolnikov’s rebirth arrives only at the end of the novel when Sonya convinces him to confess his crime. Even looking at these characters beyond their reformation, Jean Valjean’s bitterness originates with his, arguably unfair, imprisonment which, Hugo maintains, he suffers because of economic inequality of the lower classes and his resulting inability to feed his nieces and nephews (Hugo, 83-84). Valjean feels the injustice of his situation, especially given his magnanimity in caring for his sister’s family. Raskolnikov, however, cannot escape a cynicism he holds against the guidelines of his society and ultimately turns inward, into a selfish melancholy, based on his own identity crisis. Convinced of a moral system that allows for the lawbreaking of “great men,” he abandons his natural sympathetic tendencies before the beginning of the novel and attempts to assert his own superiority to “lesser” people.

However, different cultural traditions may explain these contrasts in the expression of two characters, so similar in function. France served as the centre of social change during the late eighteenth to nineteenth-century and, after the French population became disillusioned with Napoleon, the idea of “the people of France” became extremely important (VanderWolk, 151). Thus, Hugo could easily make Valjean a sympathetic character who suffered solely because of social injustice and set him up as a model citizen. Valjean shows the power of redemption and the proper way to support the basic human rights of fellow citizens as outlined by the ideals of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”.

On the one hand, these Western ideas certainly spread to and influenced Russia and probably played some role in Dostoevsky’s conception of human rights. On the other hand, Russia, historically, has suffered an identity crisis much like Raskolnikov’s. Divided between East and West and the opinions of Slavophiles, a group that Dostoevsky held some sympathies for, and Westernizers, Russia has always faced the problem of defining its national identity. Essentially, the Slavophile camp promoted Russian culture and asserted nationalist sentiments about Russia’s place in the world, specifically in relation to Europe, which assigned Russia a leadership role in progressive politics. Westernizers tended to hold up Europe as a social model for Russia to follow (Rabow-Edling, 1).

The problem for Dostoevsky revolved around determining whether humanistic qualities represented something inherently Russian or whether they were brought in from the West. Instead of showing his audience a model to follow, as Hugo does with Valjean, Dostoevsky offers a largely unattractive character who becomes too caught up in his ideas of individual identity, informed by his Napoleonic “great man” complex, and who moves away from his humanist urges in a negative way. He needs to create a more Slavocentric case for women’s rights, by showing the inadequacy of the European model, because he does not believe that Europe has reached the goals set by the French Revolution or that Europe has the capability of reaching these ideals. He considers the religious morality of the Russian national character and the peasant commune far superior to the Western preoccupation with individualism and materialism from which Raskolnikov apparently suffers (Frank, 246). This viewpoint explains the need for Raskolnikov to move away from his “great man” complex in order to reach redemption as well as clarifying Dostoevsky’s idealization of self-sacrifice. For a peaceful, utopian future society, individuals must place more value on the good of the community than on selfish, worldly desires. Dostoevsky praises Sonya’s selflessness and Christian values over Raskolnikov’s desire for, essentially, individual glory. As discussed by Sarah Hudspith, he also uses Luzhin to express the consequences of the selfish and materialist beliefs that originally define Raskolnikov. Individuals like Luzhin cannot create the new society for which Dosotoevsky hopes because “self-interest and utilitarianism deny the existence of a spiritual element in man’s nature,” and he considered religion as a necessary part of a successful new society (95). Dostoevsky could not see the value in blindly following the West’s example. Instead, he called for a Russian view of ideals based on the French Revolution. This tempers his expression of women’s rights in relation to Hugo’s and explains many of the differences in characterization present in Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment. These differences in characterization not only high light the importance of the human rights concepts that Dostoevsky does adapt from Hugo, they also offer insight into the difficulty of universalizing human rights cross-culturally.

Parallel plot structure, though, is not the only evidence pointing to a strong link between Hugo and Dostoevsky. Looking at the personal letters of Dostoevsky and at his journal Время (Time), Brown also draws concrete, primary examples of Hugo’s influence on Dostoevsky, largely in Dostoevsky’s own words. In the journal Время, Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris appears in four installments during 1862 with a glowing introduction that probably came from Dostoevsky. This introduction praises Les Misérables and Hugo’s authorial talent as a whole, claiming that Les Misérables gained universal success and that “Hugo [was] unquestionably the most powerful talent appearing in France in the nineteenth century” (Brown 15). According to most scholars, it seems doubtful that Dostoevsky actually authored the translation of Notre-Dame de Paris, but Brown asserts a consensus among scholars that Dostoevsky wrote the introduction, although neither is signed (15). Based on his personal letters, even if Dostoevsky did not pen the introduction himself, he probably would have agreed with many of the sentiments contained within it. In 1863 Dostoevsky wrote to his brother proclaiming that he had read all of “Hugo except Cromwell and Hernani” and based on subsequent writings from his wife Anna Grigorevna in 1867 and 1874, he seemed to favour Les Misérables and to reread it throughout his life (Brown 10). Dostoevsky, in his own letter to a correspondent named Mrs. Lurie, discussed Crime and Punishment in comparison to Les Misérables and claimed that Les Misérables remained the higher quality work.

Keeping these parallels in mind, it seems relevant to develop a reading of Dostoevsky nuanced by the humanist ideas of Hugo. While Brown diminishes Dostoevsky’s role as social and political critic, describing Hugo as a “sociological writer” and “a champion of popular rights” and describing Dostoevsky as “an extreme individualist” who happens to take up certain “moral and religious issues,” the same types of criticism present in Les Misérables also appear in Crime and Punishment (22). This is especially pertinent in light of the fact that the same women’s movement that began in France eventually spread throughout Europe and into Russia, exposing both authors to the same issues.

Nineteenth-Century Women’s Movements in France and Russia

Looking at the history of women’s rights movements during the mid-nineteenth century in France and Russia reveals Hugo and Dostoevsky’s similar viewpoints on the issue of women’s rights and explains their points of departure. However, before delving into some of the concrete historical details surrounding the women’s movements in France and Russia, I must clarify some of the vocabulary I will use in this section to describe the women activists in these movements. While women in France did hope to create more gender equality, in the 1830’s and 1840’s and with figures like Flora Tristan as leaders, women were not as radical or focused solely on women’s issues. They did not identify with a specific, labelled, political group. Instead these women formed smaller social groups that did deal with discussing women’s rights but also, and more particularly, attempted to solve issues of poverty and workers’ rights. With later women activists in the 1840’s and 1850’s, like Pauline Roland and Jeanne Derouin, the movement did become more directly political and women’s rights oriented, although many of the goals regarding poverty and helping the working class remained within the structure of social groups like the Association of Socialist Schoolmasters and Schoolmistresses and similar to the goals of earlier female activists like Flora Tristan. Even when becoming slightly more radical, however, protesting women did not give themselves an overarching terminological identity.

In Russia, while the nihilist and political radical labels of the women’s movement in the later 1800’s are fairly straightforward, the earlier part of the movement, beginning in the 1850’s, is harder to define. Richard Stites even describes these women as “apolitical” because, like the first women in the nineteenth-century French women’s movement, Russian women of the 1850’s supported women’s rights but worked more concretely towards other social goals, like educational opportunity and relieving poverty.

Both groups of women, in France and Russia respectively, are hard to define as social movements because of their lack of political self-identity and their attachments to other social issues. Like Richard Stites, for my own purpose of referring to these early, less radical movements, I will adopt the term “feminist.” Although this twentieth-century term may seem anachronistic, the Oxford English Dictionary defines feminist simply as “an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women” (OED). Considering the fact that these early women activists had few connections to other political ideologies, especially to the extent that these ideologies could accurately define all aspects of the movements, the term feminist seems most useful as a method of identification. These women were feminists to the dictionary definition, as stripped of its political baggage from more modern movements.

Despite women’s large role in the French Revolution, conditions for women in France during this time were not significantly improved by the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Women in France, as well as in Russia, were largely considered “minors” and not active citizens. Jennifer Waelti-Walters and Steven Hause point out that women were expected to play a role of subservience to their husbands, and to men in general, and that legal and religious ideas strengthened this concept. They point to the Napoleonic Code of 1804 in particular as an enforcer of women’s inferior status (51). Like Russian women, French women had little control over even their personal lives, and this inequality lasted longer than in many other Western countries. France did not grant women the right to vote, in fact, until 1944 (Gordon, 1). So although French feminists attempted to challenge the status quo as early as the Middle Ages, they made few significant gains before the twentieth century. Despite Hugo’s optimism about the improvement in the status of women, as stated by Waelti-Walters and Hause, his novels showed an acute awareness of the major issues still facing the movement while he wrote Les Misérables (52). He recognized that Western culture still viewed women as second-class citizens and, as such, women remained dependent on male support in their everyday lives.

The women’s movements in France “in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries” represented a “small minority of French women” and “contested the post-revolutionary Napoleonic settlement on gender roles”: essentially they disagreed on the rights of man being applicable solely to men (Gordon, 1). Women in these movements largely relied on writing, such as the Feminist journal La Tribune des Femmes, in order to debate the issues at hand in a public sphere (4). Directly following the Revolution, feminist political activity flourished, but by the Second Empire the government began to repress those with dissenting opinions and, after 1835, began to impose “heavy press censorship” and “police surveillance” on any political groups that opposed the norm (3-4). Despite the influence of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” the rights of certain groups still faced resistance that revealed inherent prejudices throughout Europe.

Victor Hugo openly supported the women’s movement in France. Giving a speech at the grave of a woman named Louise Julien[1] in 1853, Hugo uttered the words that French feminists would invoke for years to come: “The eighteenth century proclaimed the rights of man; the nineteenth century will proclaim the rights of woman” (Moses, 149). He highlighted the fact that women deserved the right to become citizens, largely because of their involvement alongside men in the French Revolution. Although this speech, delegating women as “[bearers] of men’s suffering”, may come across in some ways as patronizing, Hugo also gave women an elevated role (97). They took on the suffering of men without receiving equal rights and became as involved as, if not more involved than, men in the political upheaval of the time period. He also painted them as protectors of men, in some ways, describing how women would offer asylum and feed the starving. The most important part about this speech, despite its potential problems of patronization or idealization, is simply the recognition that women ought to be considered citizens and that the reality of inequality somehow represented an injustice. The big question throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the Woman Question, did not simply aim to answer which rights women should have and which they should not. It hinged on the issue of whether or not men should consider women “human.” By keeping this in mind, Hugo’s assumption of the injustice of inequality highlights his progressive political views.

Hugo also recorded his support for women in a more permanent fashion. He wrote a poem honouring one of the main figures in the French women’s movement: Pauline Roland. Roland was originally imprisoned, along with a few of her fellow activists, in 1850 during “a raid on” the offices of “the ‘Fraternal Association of all Associations’.” Gordon states that the reason for these arrests, and the following “six months’ imprisonment” was the political views of the women who were arrested, as well as the personal lives of the women, exemplified by Roland’s refusal to marry (95). After serving her first term of imprisonment, Roland faced another sentence in 1852 for failing to “disassociate herself from her colleagues.” Hugo greatly admired Roland for her loyalty to her cause and immortalized her experience in prison in a poem named after her (Gordon, 98). Taking his political activity into account, Hugo clearly felt that this was an important cause and, although his political position as a Peer of France and his literary fame protected him in some sense, he risked his own political freedom and reputation to support such a controversial, political figure (Josephson, 248).

In Russia, the idea of the Woman Question did not even fully begin to develop until the mid to late 1850’s (Stites, 30). Furthermore, the Russian Women’s Liberation Movement did not really take off until the 1880’s and did not achieve major legal change until around 1917. According to Walter Moss, the treatment of women during this period, that is from the middle 1800’s through the early twentieth century, largely derived from the 1836 Code of Russian Laws which espoused a woman’s role as being obedient and pleasing to her husband (387). Upper-class women had to face forced marriage and domestic abuse, and life for peasant women was even worse. Peasant women would generally marry before they reached their twentieth year and lived constantly under the authority of their husbands and fathers-in-law. They also had to contend with a high likelihood of widowhood and unhealthy conditions for their children (Moss, 389-390). Dostoevsky addresses some of these issues in his literature: for example, Katerina Ivanovna’s first husband, in Crime and Punishment, beats her.

The women’s movement in Russia, as in much of Europe and North America, emerged as many different waves and began as early as the eighteenth century with new ideas about women’s role in society. The Russian women’s movement in Dostoevsky’s period occurred in three stages: the feminists, the nihilists, and the radicals. Due to his ideas on religion and morality, Dostoevsky sympathized more with the feminist camp rather than the less conventional nihilist and radical groups (Stites, 111). The feminists emerged in the 1850’s and continued strongly into the 1860’s under the leadership of independent female leaders like Mariya Trubnikova, Nadezhda Stasova, and Anna Filosofova who held liberal salons, read works by authors like George Sand, and fought for economic and educational independence for women. Essentially, the feminist group wanted to make changes to the patriarchal rules of Russian society in order to allow women more freedom to pursue meaningful and useful lives that did not solely rest on their dependence on men. These women also founded different societies, like the Society for Cheap Lodging, in order to provide work and shelter for less fortunate women, including prostitutes (Stites, 69). Despite social backlash from conservatives, feminists did achieve some significant advances in women’s education, including the creation of courses aimed towards offering higher education for women in particular. These advances arose from hard work, but also relied upon a strategy whereby feminists emphasized their rights to equality with men and their humanity rather than drawing attention to gender differences. This approach meant that feminists gained the support of even some more conservative Russian figures, like Dostoevsky, who agreed with the humanization of women but had difficulty accepting the methods and beliefs, or rather, perceived beliefs, of the free-love nihilists or the violent political radicals (Stites, 111).

Although Dostoevsky did not take on the subject of women’s rights as a politician like Hugo, he was the only individual “among the major conservative literary figures” that somehow “championed the broadening of women’s intellectual horizons” (Stites, 78-79). He also directly addressed the issue of women’s rights in A Writer’s Diary, stating that women’s participation in Russian politics was beneficial for the country and recognizing “the need for higher education for women” in order to make their participation possible (534).  Like Hugo, Dostoevsky asserted the humanity of women regardless of some of his opinions on how women ought to behave given their newfound access to economic and intellectual independence. Despite the fact that Dostoevsky’s answer to the Woman Question represented a progressive camp, his religious beliefs and concerns regarding Russian identity shaped his image of the ideal, humanized female as “elevated [in] moral purity” and firm in her treatment of duty and chastity. He also idealized women, in some sense, as martyrs always willing to offer themselves as sacrifice for their ideas (Stites, 19). These expected qualities also influenced Dostoevsky’s support of the feminist wave of the women’s movement as opposed to the later, more radical waves.

Considering the highly active movements for women’s rights in France and Russia during the nineteenth century, Hugo and Dostoevsky had ready access to the state of women’s rights when writing Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment. Drawing inspiration from women involved in the movements and developing a desire for justice regarding this issue, Hugo and Dostoevsky made women’s rights one of their main priorities in these two novels. Not only did they reflect on political events already happening, both authors participated politically, by creating politicized fiction, and influenced the movements in their respective countries as women activists began to admire the authors for their progressive viewpoints. The most effective way for Hugo and Dostoevsky to convey the feminist cause in their fiction was through creating empathetic characters, especially fallen women characters.

Prostitutes and Poverty: the Image of the Beaten Horse

During the nineteenth century, European authors adopted an idealized form of the fallen woman archetype in order to express a “call for reform” (Kishtainy, 87). Originally, prostitutes only offered “targets of contempt,” but as the century progressed, religious authors, like Dostoevsky, began to idealize the fallen woman and set her up as a redemptive figure (7, 120). Since Hugo, although religious to an extent, held more secular political views than Dostoevsky, he emphasizes Fantine’s desperation more than the redemptive power of religion by portraying her death. However, even in adhering to this trend, neither author forsakes the realistic personalities of their fallen women as individuals. Regarding the spread of this idea of the prostitute with a “heart of gold,” Nicholas Moravcevich draws a direct line of influence between “Western romanticists and particularly Victor Hugo,” and Russian writers, including Dostoevsky (300). This archetype serves as another connection between Hugo and Dostoevsky and between Europe and Russia in general.

Following this popular archetype, each woman seems almost perfect in general character, even to the point of holiness or otherworldliness, while still committing the immoral act of prostitution. However, the authors insist that this immorality occurs only out of necessity and that, instead of automatically dismissing women in this situation, French and Russian society should empathize and attempt to make changes to gender relations in order to afford women more viable financial and educational options.

The image of the broken horse appears both in Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment as an introduction to the fallen woman and women’s rights, before the authors delve into the stories of Fantine and Sonya specifically. This image is fairly common for the nineteenth century in general, but these two authors pull similar meanings from these events that go deeper than urging empathy for other living creatures. In their notes at the back of Crime and Punishment, Pevear and Volokhonsky point out the connection between Dostoevsky’s beaten horse and the poem “Before Evening” by Nikolai Nekrasov, which also appears in The Brothers Karamazov. While this certainly provides a likely source, Dostoevsky seems to blend both Russian and Western ideas in this instance. Originally, this image comes from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey wherein the main character encounters a dead ass that a peasant has over-laden and accidentally killed. However, Dostoevsky’s image of the beaten horse probably also derives, in part, from Hugo’s image more specifically. Considering the links between the two authors, and Dostoevsky’s direct reference, in Crime and Punishment, to Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, wherein Raskolnikov wishes to live “on a square foot of space” for “an entire lifetime” rather than die at that moment, it seems unlikely that Hugo’s beaten horse does not appear in Dostoevsky’s version in some capacity as well (Dostoevsky, 158). In Hugo’s version, similarly to Dostoevsky’s, “a skinny old mare” collapses when attempting to pull a cart too heavy for her, and her owner, in his cruelty, seals her fate with “a terrible snap of [his] whip” (Hugo, 140). The switch from Sterne’s gender neutral ass to a female horse holds significance for the reading of this passage in Hugo and Dostoevsky. Considering the fact that Tholomyès is discussing prostitution right before this incident and considering the female gender of the horse, this scene seems to symbolize man’s abuse and destruction of woman by dehumanizing her to the animal level and forcing her to carry an unbearable social burden: the likelihood of poverty and prostitution without the support of a male caretaker. Furthermore, because the horse’s death occurs immediately before Tholomyès and his friends abandon the four girls, this episode foreshadows Fantine’s fate as a woman and single mother. The fact that Hugo and Dostoevsky’s peasants show no remorse for the death of their animals, unlike the peasant in Sterne’s novel who “seemed to lament it much,” is also relevant (Sterne, 94). The lack of remorse coupled with the violence of the animals’ deaths in Hugo and Dostoevsky emphasizes the cruelty involved in dehumanizing women and documents how far French and Russian society have fallen into immorality by lacking compassion.

Like many women forced into similar positions by social norms, the world of man crushes Fantine to the point of prostitution, and ultimately, death. The Thénardiers make Fantine’s burden increasingly heavier until she can no longer support it, and Jean Valjean must step in to offer his support. However, like the horse’s owner who deals the final blow, Javert, the social and legal authority over prostitutes and convicts, delivers the final blow that causes Fantine to cease fighting for her life by taking away her last support and chance for regaining Cosette. Here, the words “there is no Monsieur Madeleine” act as the final blow of the whip (Hugo, 293). Both in the symbolic scene of the horse’s death, and the scene of Fantine’s death, Dahlia and Javert sum up the general feeling of French society towards women in general, but particularly towards the fallen woman. Observing Fantine’s dismay upon the death of the mare, “Dahlia [exclaims], ‘Now we have Fantine sympathizing with horses! Have you ever seen anything so absurd?”’ (141). By ridiculing empathy for this beaten, female animal, Dahlia also reflects the dominant lack of empathy for women, especially women who cannot bear their social burden, because these women appear less than human and unworthy of general sympathy.

Javert echoes Dahlia’s cruelty by deploring the fact that Valjean has allowed his town to treat “prostitutes…like Countesses,” suggesting that, in his opinion, men should not show any sympathy for women in this position (Hugo, 293). By breaking the law, in his eyes, fallen women have essentially forfeited any semblance of humanity. Again, in this instance, Hugo and Dostoevsky adopt similar techniques in order to get across the social problems facing French and Russian women and the necessity for advances in women’s rights in order to prevent the kind of tragedy faced by Fantine and Sonya.

Dostoevsky sets up the memorable parallel scene of Raskolnikov’s dream about the peasant beating a nag to death, around this image. This terrible scene reminds the reader of women’s situation within Russian society and connects the issue to Raskolnikov’s own mental struggles with women’s humanity. This episode occurs directly following Raskolnikov’s interaction with the young drunk girl, whom he attempts to save, and whose fate he compares abstractly to Dunya’s potential fate (Dostoevsky, 50). Dostoevsky immediately sets up the horse as a female figure, like Hugo, by specifying it as a nag and having the characters refer to her with a feminine pronoun. Like Russian women at the time, particularly in Sonya’s position, the horse is hooked up to a burden, in this case a cart, which she cannot possibly carry on her own (55-56). For her symbolic counterparts, human women, this burden manifests itself in the necessity to become prostitutes to survive or simply attempting to overcome poverty and support a family with no possibilities for a career. Essentially, it is a burden created and enforced by men. The peasant even considers the horse his “goods” as opposed to a living creature, much like the pre-rebirth Raskolnikov dehumanizes women in order to justify treating them inhumanely. The horse does not give up without any resistance, however, just as women in Russia in the 1860’s kept up the fight for gains in basic human rights despite significant setbacks. Although the mare “[begins] to kick” right before her death, ultimately she cannot endure so much pressure and dies (59). Dostoevsky’s suggestion follows that women cannot bear the unfair burden that men have created much longer. Raskolnikov’s concern for the horse reveals his subconscious struggle with dehumanizing women; however, it also reveals his humanity.

The fact that his father and the rest of the crowd show little concern for the animal, suggests that Raskolnikov’s later violence and antisocial behaviour arise as a product of the increasing immorality of Russian society which does not yet embrace its Slavophile desires to become a Christian, moral leader in the world. Raskolnikov is, of course, still responsible for his actions, but Dostoevsky seeks to reveal the problem of becoming too westernized. He asserts that something needs to change in order to keep Russian society effectively functioning. Both authors use the same image to address the inhumanity of dehumanizing women, but mold the fallen horse to fit their, culturally defined, overarching messages.

Fallen Females: Fantine and Sonya as Martyrs

Much like Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Sonya in Crime and Punishment, Hugo sets up Fantine as a religious martyr in Les Misérables. The different styles of portrayal adopted by each author reflect their slight variance in goals and cultural backgrounds. Dostoevsky allows Sonya to ultimately overcome her fall into prostitution by staying true to her Christian faith and taking control of her life. Sonya experiences this positive outcome because, as part of his women’s rights agenda, Dostoevsky must also show his readers that Russian, Orthodox values will lead to this positive social change instead of imported Western values. It would not completely fulfill his purpose to simply show Sonya’s downfall and destruction because it would not instill faith in the Slavophile school of thought. Hugo, on the other hand, uses Fantine to clarify the current problem and to outline the potential consequences for not improving woman’s lot in French society. Since the French Revolution and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” France had made some social advances but Hugo, in parallel to Dostoevsky’s criticism of Europe and France especially, points out that these advances did not solve all of France’s social problems. Even disregarding Napoleon’s limits on social progression, the Revolution and Declaration completely ignored the issue of women’s rights. In order to urge change, Hugo has to point out the flaws in the current system and show the dire consequences of not amending them so he outlines Fantine’s downfall in graphic detail.

In order to create the full effect of the tragedy befalling Fantine, Hugo must first describe her in her natural, untouched state of being. Before falling prey to poverty and the vices that accompany it, Fantine is happy, beautiful, and modest. She is a woman “brought from the heart of the people,” that is, an ordinary person, and embodies the “long white slender fingers of the vestals” (Hugo, 122, 127). Although Fantine technically has a sexual relationship with Tholomyès, Hugo insists on her spiritual virginity and describes her as “innocence floating upon the…fault” that is love (127). Fantine is radiant in her purity and approaches Tholomyès with love, not lust. This initial image makes Hugo’s description of Fantine as a ruined woman especially horrific. Like the beaten mare discussed above, the world of man adds continuously to Fantine’s burden until the weight becomes too much to bear. Beginning with the loss of her factory job, Fantine’s lot continues to decline due to the limitations of her gender and the greed of the Thénardiers. Due to this increasing burden, Fantine goes through the stages leading to complete destitution and takes on the martyr role by giving up not only her food and comfort, but also her last personal vanities: her hair and teeth. Finally, she must “sell what’s left” and “[become] a woman of the streets” (Hugo, 187). This process of martyrdom also shows the psychological effects of poverty and the dehumanization society forces upon Fantine. By this point “something of the wild beast [begins] to develop within her” and Fantine’s countenance seems worlds apart from her young, happy self (187). The social burden of womanhood pushes Fantine to the level of subhuman or animal, a parallel to the beaten mare, while poverty weakens and ages her. Even the salvation offered by Valjean arrives too late because Javert’s destruction of Monsieur Madeleine in Fantine’s mind offers a strong enough final blow to crush her. Here Hugo plays out the dramatic and tragic fate of women when denied basic, human rights.

Through Valjean, Hugo assures the reader that because Fantine acts out of necessity and self-sacrifice, she “[has] never ceased to be virtuous and holy before God” and, therefore, he urges empathy for the fallen woman by blaming external forces for the situation, not the woman herself (199). Hugo also references his criticism of the legal consequences tied to prostitution, both by showing Javert’s lack of mercy and by his own proclamation of the lack of consideration shown by the legal system when dealing with the fallen woman. Javert understands the situation only as “a prostitute [assaulting] a citizen” and rigidly refuses to take Fantine’s circumstances into consideration (192). By internalizing the cold bureaucracy of the law, Javert dehumanizes criminals, including prostitutes, and so merely perpetuates the social ills that produce these criminals in the first place. As Hugo critiques, “these women are placed entirely under the discretion of the police,” who, by following a flawed system without questioning it, make social progression impossible (191). This critique possibly also emerges from his indignation over the imprisonment of women activists like Pauline Roland. A legal system with the absence of empathy does not effectively serve and protect its society as the moral authority.

Similarly to Hugo, Dostoevsky also stresses the danger of condemning someone due to a single immoral act through the words of Razumikhin. As Razumikhin points out of another character, despite his affinity for stealing, “he [is] a good man, only in his own way…and if we look straight, in all ways…there” will not “be many good people left” (Dostoevsky, 133). He argues that every person, by definition as a human being, will have some imperfection in terms of behaviour. The fact that Sonya’s major immoral behaviour manifests itself as prostitution, which she begins solely out of self-sacrifice to financially support her family, makes her problematic but highly sympathetic. Even in her prostitution, Dostoevsky sets Sonya up as an innocent and holy character. He argues, as well as Hugo, that prostitution is not an irreversible character flaw: it is merely an immoral behaviour adopted out of necessity. Instead of completely condemning women forced into this profession, therefore, society ought to amend the norms that push women to this level of desperation.

When describing Sonya’s first necessary foray into prostitution, Marmeladov marks that Katerina Ivanovna “[stays] kneeling at [Sonya’s] feet, kissing her feet,” which places Sonya almost in a Christ-like position, almost as though Katerina Ivanovna worships her martyrdom for the sake of her family. Sonya’s martyrdom becomes more pronounced once she is “obliged to carry a yellow pass” and must live separately from her family in order to avoid bringing moral shame upon them (Dostoevsky, 19). Even with the problems associated with idealization, Katerina Ivanovna’s treatment of Sonya, and Sonya’s sacrifice in itself, also emphasizes the fact that Dostoevsky does not condemn her for her actions, but instead empathizes and praises her for continued piety despite her horrible situation.

In order to solidify the point that prostitution should not condemn a women entirely, Dostoevsky references a less perfect woman on the path to prostitution and shows Raskolnikov’s natural empathy towards her, even through his misogyny. This reference occurs during Raskolnikov’s encounter of the young drunk girl and his attempt to save her from a potential predator. The fact that this girl has an “extremely young little face” probably also helps awaken Raskolnikov’s empathy because, like Lizaveta and Sonya, this girl appears innocent and childlike (Dostoevsky, 46). This quality enhances her victimization and makes Raskolnikov assume her innocence and deception at the hands of men. Upon realizing the other man’s intentions to further abuse the drunk girl, Raskolnikov becomes “terribly angry” and even offers the police officer, who becomes involved, money for the purpose of getting the girl home (48). Raskolnikov does have a sudden bout of cynicism, potentially arising from his internal struggle on the place of women in the world, and tells the police officer not to bother helping the girl after all, but even after this moment, Raskolnikov shows concern over the girl’s probable fate, even though she seems disdainful of receiving help. He thinks to himself that this girl must likely go into the profession of prostitution, become “a wreck,” and ultimately only “[live] to be nineteen, or only eighteen years old” (50). Furthermore, Raskolnikov becomes concerned lest Dunya somehow become a victim of this same fate. Even through his bursts of cynicism, Raskolnikov displays his natural empathetic character and ultimately this is the manifestation of his internal struggle on the recognition of female humanity. Both authors stress the tragedy of Fantine and Sonya’s positions and show the empathy their protagonists hold towards these women to demonstrate fully the cost of dehumanizing women. Even after committing the immoral act of murder, Raskolnikov feels natural empathy for Sonya which further stresses the evil of prostitution as an economic necessity.

Tu and Ты: Dehumanizing Holy Women

Hugo and Dostoevsky further emphasize French and Russian male society’s tendencies to dehumanize women, especially fallen women, through the improper use of the informal you. In French and Russian, nonreciprocal use of the informal or formal pronoun “you” signifies disrespect or the superiority of the individual addressing their conversant informally. As an example, Javert uses the informal “you,” or tu with Fantine, breaking social rules of conduct. Considering how proper and careful of social niceties Javert is around Monsieur Madeleine and other citizens, even when he begins to suspect Madeleine’s criminal history, Javert’s immediate use of tu with Fantine, despite her respectful use of vous to address him, not only asserts his authority as an officer, but also his disregard for Fantine as a human being due to her illegal conduct and, in his mind, moral failing. When sentencing Fantine, Javert states “tu en as pour six mois[2] although Fantine begs him, “je vous demande grace[3] with the formal “you” (Hugo, 343, 344). Even when Fantine lies on her death bed, he addresses her with “te tairas-tu, drôlesse[4] (524). He also changes his tone towards the newly discovered Jean Valjean as when yelling “tu veux rire[5] (520). Hugo here shows how the treatment of women and criminals overlap. Javert cannot show mercy and dehumanizes criminals to place them firmly in the inferior role so that he may conduct the bureaucracy of the law without actually questioning the justice or morality of such a rigid system. However, there is another layer to Hugo’s switch between formal and informal you. In both French and Russian, the informal “you” also applies to God. By having Javert address Fantine and Valjean as tu, Hugo emphasizes not only their victimization, but also their holiness. Both Hugo and Dostoevsky utilize these social distinctions in order to reveal the problematic power structures their characters create to uphold the status quo.

Raskolnikov’s use of the informal “you” in the original Russian text reveals his problematic relationship with women as well. While Raskolnikov does use the informal “you” to express intimacy, specifically with Dunya and Razumikhin, he initially addresses Sonya as ты, the informal “you,” abruptly and with a disregard of social norms. This switch occurs during only the second time that Sonya and Raskolnikov have a conversation alone together, when he visits her in her own lodgings. He begins by politely addressing Sonya as вы, the formal “you,” which Sonya reciprocates, as social rules would dictate in the case of two people who barely know each other and who have not asked each other permission to use ты. Generally the use of ты is reserved for family, like Raskolnikov and Dunya, or for close friends, like Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, but non-reciprocal usage of ты and вы when no clear social superiority plays a role in the interaction denotes disrespect. However, as mentioned above with Fantine, the use of the informal “you” also applies to God. Thus, Dostoevsky creates a paradoxical situation wherein Raskolnikov simultaneously degrades and elevates Sonya, revealing his inner struggle over her value as a woman and a human being. During their conversation, Raskolnikov almost tortures Sonya about her family’s potential downfall, if Sonya were to somehow become incapacitated, and about the possibility of her younger sisters following in her footsteps and becoming prostitutes. Throughout this whole exchange, despite the cruelty of Raskolnikov’s words, he continues to use вы up until the point where he asserts to Sonya that if she believes that Katerina Ivanovna must be losing her mind due to her hardships, then «у вас [Sonya] самой ум мешается»[6] as well (Dostoevsky, 299).

After this moment, Raskolnikov experiences a burst of emotion, seemingly brought on by his empathy for the hopelessness of Sonya’s situation, and switches to the use of ты when addressing Sonya, even though she maintains her use of the more socially correct вы. Although Raskolnikov’s emotional state could, in part, explain this sudden switch to the more informal pronoun, the fact that Raskolnikov keeps using ты throughout the rest of the conversation, instead of realising his mistake and switching back to вы, and that his switch occurs in conjunction with kissing Sonya’s feet, an act of worship almost, gives his use of ты more meaning (Dostoevsky, 321). This action mimics Katerina Ivanovna kissing Sonya’s feet after Sonya returns from her first client and reflects Raskolnikov’s idealization of Sonya as a martyr. His actions also recall the episode in Luke of a sinful woman who washes and kisses Jesus’ feet and whom Jesus forgives for her sins because she shows him selfless love (King James Bible, Luke 7:38). Raskolnikov represents the sinner in this case, for his murders, and he seemingly ignores Sonya’s sin of prostitution by placing her into an idealized Christ-like role. However, this elevation comes at a cost, given Raskolnikov’s use of ты. He informs Sonya that by kissing her feet he «не тебе [Sonya] поклонился, а всему страданию человеческому поклонился»[7] (Dostoevsky, 299). Again, Raskolnikov seems to place Sonya into a Christ-like role by saying this but his non-reciprocated use of ты (Sonya continues to use вы), emphasizes his superiority to Sonya and sounds both impolite and patronizing. In this case, despite elevating Sonya in his mind, Raskolnikov still cannot consider her an equal, and certainly cannot place her in the role of superior, because of her gender. The use of ты helps him cope with Sonya’s holy qualities while still emphasizing her inequality to himself as a man.

However, the use of ты later on in the novel helps Sonya assert her independence and take control of both her and Raskolnikov’s future. After Luzhin attempts to falsely condemn Sonya for stealing, Raskolnikov discusses this issue with her and uses вы at the beginning of the conversation. However, Raskolnikov begins to switch topics towards admitting his murder of Lizaveta to Sonya and here he also changes his use of вы to ты with his assertion of «ведь ты права, Соня»[8] (376). Here Raskolnikov places Sonya in the position of judge and asks her for forgiveness, much like the woman washing and kissing Jesus’ feet in Luke, but he still forces her into the inferior role as soon as he begins to idealize her, by switching back to the use of ты. Sonya wavers between her use of ты and вы throughout this exchange as though she cannot decide if she can equate herself with Raskolnikov or welcome him into some level of intimacy by addressing him as ты. This switching, however, also reveals the inner strength that Sonya begins to grasp at after Luzhin disillusions her about male support. Luzhin the expected benefactor turns into a cruel force that could ruin her family without any reason for doing so and, therefore, Sonya realizes the injustice of her situation. Sonya does not finally commit to addressing Raskolnikov as ты until she learns of his guilt and feels that she can consider herself as his social and moral equal, despite the gender gap between them. This equality stems from her conviction that his sin at least equals, if not exceeds, her own. She switches from politely addressing him на вы to ordering him, in the informal, to «поди сейчас, сию же минуту, стань на перекрестке, поклонись, поцелуй сначала землю, которую ты осквернил»[9] and further to admit his guilt before God and the world (386). Sonya realises that by his crime, Raskolnikov makes them social equals and she pushes him into confessing his crime to the police, which asserts this equality. In forcing Raskolnikov to recognize his guilt and confess his crime, Sonya makes his rebirth possible. Hugo and Dostoevsky, in this way, take advantage of their native languages and social expectations to make the position of French and Russian women understandable from an every-day perspective. The improper usage of the informal “you” by male characters would certainly catch the reader’s attention and probably prompt them to further examine the mechanisms behind this socially incorrect behaviour.


Considering all the women in Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment, there seems to be a strong case for the authors’ support of women’s rights and their expectation that their fictional works may have some form of political influence. Probably due to the fact that the concepts of the holy fallen woman and of women’s rights in general arose in France before Russia, Hugo seems to follow the traditional portrayal of the fallen woman and the form of the empathetic novel more than Dostoevsky. Generally Hugo did not draw influence from contemporaries and so Dostoevsky creates the relationship between the authors by pulling from Hugo’s work. Essentially Dostoevsky internalizes Hugo’s ideas as a base and then builds on them in order to create a more Russian manifestation of very similar concepts. True, Dostoevsky’s views on human rights are tempered by his aversion to the Western character, that is materialism and individualism, but Hugo seems to agree with many of Dostoevsky’s criticisms of the West. Despite Dostoevsky’s problems with French human rights in general, he finds an ally in Hugo who also calls for less materialism and individualism and a return to the values of the 1789 French Revolution. Comparing these two authors, or conducting similar studies, then, offers a deeper level of insight into the mechanisms of disseminating progressive, social ideals as well as the difficulty of implementing a truly universal code of human rights. As demonstrated by Hugo and Dostoevsky, a certain level of cultural respect must come into play and temper international, social advances.

[1] Moses, as well as Gordon, only mention Julien in passing and do not offer any explanation of her identity. I have looked in other sources as well but so far have found nothing further. Generally, I would assume that she was somehow involved in the women’s movement although not as famously as Tristan or Roland.

[2] “You are in for six months.” (Hugo, 192)

[3] “I ask for your pity.” (192)

[4] “Hold your tongue, whore!” (293)

[5] “Are you laughing at me!” (292)

[6] “You’re losing your mind yourself” (Dostoevsky, 321).

[7] “not bowing to you, [he] was bowing to all human suffering” (Dostoevsky, 322).

[8] “Yes, you’re right, Sonya” (Dostoevsky, 408).

[9] “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled” (420).

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