Cosette’s doll: when Victor Hugo underlined the importance of play for children


Les Misérables by Victor Hugo has been broadcast all over the world, and, among the many adaptations for young people, often the character of Cosette as a child has been selected to make her a touching heroine, escaping poverty thanks to Jean Valjean. The episode is found in Book III of Part Two.

It was Christmas in Montfermeil in 1823, shops were set up in the square, one of which was opposite the Thénardier inn where Cosette worked all day as a servant. A very large doll dressed in pink is enthroned on a white cloth in the window of the trinket maker, and Cosette is ecstatic.

She goes to get water from the fountain and a helping hand helps her: it’s Jean Valjean. He comes to take a room at the inn where the two Thenardier girls play with their dolls while Cosette only has a small lead sword. Jean Valjean gives him the doll. She contemplates her and goes to sleep with her under the stairs after leaving her hoof in the fireplace. Jean Valjean puts a louis d’or on it. The next day, he leaves with Cosette.

Why is this episode so extraordinary? Why did a modern school publisher, La Librairie des Écoles, take up this passage in 2012 for a small book, entitled La doll de Cosette , using Victor Hugo’s text with an explanation of difficult words? Because it presents, in a literary work, and for the first time, a fine psychological analysis of the play of the doll, highlighting the importance of toys for the child and thus participating in the creation of a romantic myth from childhood.

To write this text , in the years 1845-1847, Victor Hugo drew on his experience as a father, in this sensitivity to childhood that we find in all his work, and, it is our hypothesis, in a tale disseminated from the XVI th  century, the tale doll that bites . Let us examine these two aspects to shed more light on this passage from Les Misérables .

Power of the imagination

For Victor Hugo, the doll is a symbol of all the childhood toys, as shown in this quip from 1 st  January 1832 in Things seen  : “Blessed Providence gave everyone his toy, the doll to child, child to woman, woman to man, man to devil! In our writer’s family, toys were present very early on, from 1823, as the household accounts show. His five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Léopoldine, received a doll in 1830. Her daddy called her “Didine” or “Poupée”, a nickname which appeared in his Correspondence in 1832, the year of the citation, and which was cited. periodically finds until the fourteen years of the girl.

Victor Hugo attended his daughter’s games, her quarrels with Adèle (Dédé), her sister, who took her doll from her until she in turn had one. In the Correspondence, as in all of Victor Hugo’s work prior to 1850, the doll is the most cited toy. He is attentive to it, including in his travels. He sees, on the threshold of a hovel, “a little girl as tall as Dede, who carried in her arms a fat boy of eighteen months who was hugging a doll. Three floors. “( Family correspondence , letter of 1 st  September 1837). This idea of ​​the three floors will be taken up in Les Misérables , with Jean Valjean carrying Cosette who carries the doll.

To tell the story of Cosette’s doll, Victor Hugo therefore drew on his life, his experience of children. But he goes further, towards what would be a “mythisation” of the doll. In the middle of the story, he speaks:

“The doll is one of the most pressing needs and at the same time one of the most charming instincts of female childhood. […] The first child continues the last doll. A little girl without a doll is about as unhappy and just as impossible as a woman without a child. »(II, book III, 8, ed. Laffont, p. 321)

Before him, Rousseau, Maria Edgeworth and Madame Necker de Saussure made room for the doll in their educational writings. But Victor Hugo, by describing the gestures and attitudes of Cosette towards the doll, goes further. He seizes the power of the child’s imagination, when Cosette transforms her lead sword into a doll and when she contemplates, motionless, her doll sitting on the chair and responds to Jean Valjean who asks her to play: “Oh! I’m playing “.

Unlike educators and pedagogues who talk about the doll , Victor Hugo knows how to tenderly evoke the feelings that agitate the child, he shows their play scenarios, their gestures, their joys and their fears. He thus joins the attempts of the authors of books for young people who feature children in their games.

Since the beginning of the XIX th  century albums attach to this theme, as games of the doll , the doll education , often reprinted, but a most important book published in 1839 by Julie Gouraud under the pseudonym Louise d’Aulnay, Memoirs of a doll, tales for little girls . The author does not hesitate, in her preface, to write:

“Yes, the doll is the beginning of a child: the tenderness of its mistress is a first ray of maternal love […] To look closely, but very closely, the doll is the pivot of humanity! “And she says she is tempted to give the title to her book” The Myth of the Doll and the Little Girl “.

The work was republished in 1845, 1847, 1854; it is possible that Victor Hugo had it in his hands. But the structure of his story seems rather to be inspired by a tale.

The structure of the tale

This tale, first published in 1550 in Venice in Le Piacevole Notti by Giovan Francesco Straparola, was translated into French in 1560 and 1562, and spread throughout Europe, in different versions, some of which in Naples, in Provence and Spain, places where Victor Hugo went as a child.

In Les Misérables , the marvelous is Christian , as in a Christmas tale  : the merchant appears to Cosette as “the Eternal Father”, the doll being “the lady”, that is to say Notre-Dame, the Virgin. Seeing the store, Cosette “thought she was seeing paradise”. The gifts in the fireplace are brought by “their good fairy”, and Hugo specifies “the fairy, that is to say the mother”.

If the vocabulary evokes tales, the structure of the story is similar to that of The Biting Doll . Initially, a poor and orphan child, Adamantine will sell the thread, the fruit of her labor and that of her sister, to bring back bread. She sees a display with a splendid doll, which the merchant gives her in exchange for her thread. Her sister beats her because she does not bring back anything to eat, as the Thenardier wanted to beat Cosette who did not bring back the bread.

Then Adamantine plays with her doll and goes to sleep, as Cosette does too. In the tale, the doll wakes her up by asking for a bowel movement and she makes gold coins. The two sisters become rich and the neighbor is jealous, like the Thénardiers towards Jean Valjean. The scatological part of the tale, when the doll bites the king’s posterior, obviously had no place in the Hugo tale.

But Adamantine’s marriage with the king can be compared to Jean Valjean’s affectionate relationship with Cosette, the father / daughter relationship being able to be fantasized as a marriage with a king, this powerful being who brought her out of poverty. We have shortened the comparison between the tale and the novel, but the narratological and symbolic connections are too numerous and too precise to be purely fortuitous.

The genius of Victor Hugo is expressed in this way of tying the threads of lived experience with those of the wonderful Christian and those of a narrative structure of a tale heard in childhood. Thus we end up with a psychologically correct image which rises to a myth in a romantic vision of childhood and its toys.

Author Bio: Michel Manson is a Historian, professor emeritus in educational sciences at Sorbonne Paris Nord University