You are young, strong and healthy. Why don’t you work? It bores you? Want do you want to be? A thief?
… Poor boy, sheer laziness has started you on the most arduous of careers. You call yourself a loafer, but you will have to work harder than most men. Have you ever seen a treadmill? It is a thing to beware of, a cunning and diabolical device; if it catches you by the coat-tails, it will swallow you up. Another name for it is idleness. You should change your ways while there is still time. Otherwise you’re done for; in a very little while you will be caught in the machinery, and then there’s no more hope. No rest for the idler; nothing but the iron grip of incessant struggle. You don’t want to earn your living honestly, do a job, fulfill a duty; the thought of being like other men bores you. But the end is the same.
Work is the law of life, and to reject it as boredom is to submit to it as torment. Not wanting to be a workman you will become a slave. If work fails to get you with one hand it will get you with the other; you won’t treat it as a friend, and so you will become its Negro slave. You flinch from the fatigues of honest men, and for this you will sweat like the damned; where other men sing you will groan, and their work, as you contemplate it from the depths, will look to you like rest.
What other men find light as a feather for you will have the heaviness of lead. The gentlest slope will seem steep and all life will be a matter of monstrous difficulty. The simplest acts, the very act of breathing, will be a labour to you, your very lungs will seem to have a crushing weight. The ordinary man when he wants to leave his home has only to open the door, and there he is, outside, but you will have to break through your own wall.
What do ordinary people do when they want to go into the street? They simply walk downstairs. But you will have to tear up your sheets and make a rope of them, because you must go out by way of the window, and there you will be, dangling on your rope in darkness. Or you’ll climb by way of chimney, at the risk of getting burnt, or crawl through a sewer at the risk of drowning. I say nothing about the holes that must be covered up, that stones that must be removed and replaced, the plaster to be disposed of. You are confronted by a lock which the householder has the key in his pocket, the work of a locksmith. If you want to break it you have to create a masterpiece. First you will take a large sou piece and cut it in two slices. As for the tools you use for this purpose, you will have to invent them. That’s your affair.
Then you will hollow the inside of the slices, taking care not to damage the outside of the coin, and cut a thread in the rims so that they can be screwed together without any trace being visible. To the world at large it will be nothing but a coin, but to you it will be a box in which you will carry a scrap of steel – a watch-spring in which you have cut teeth, making it into a saw. And with the saw, coiled in a sou piece, you will cut through the bolt of a lock, the shank of a padlock, or the bars of your prison cell. And what will your reward be for working this miracle of art, skill, and patience if you are found to be its author? It will be prison. That is your future.
Indolence and the life of pleasure – what snares they are! Can you not see that to decide to do nothing is the most wretched of all decisions? To live in idleness on the body politic is to be useless, that is to say harmful, and it can only end in misery. Woe to those who choose to be parasites, they become vermin! But you don’t want to work. All you want is rich food and drink and a soft bed. You will end by drinking water, eating black bread, and sleeping on a bed of planks with fetters on your limbs, with the night cold piercing to your bones.
You will break your chains and escape. All right – but you will crawl on your stomach through the undergrowth and live on the grass like the beasts of the field. And you will be caught. After which you will spend years in an underground cell, chained to the wall, groping for the water-jug, gnawing crusts of bread that a dog would not touch, and maggoty beans – like a cockroach in a cellar!
You want fine black cloth and glossy pumps , hair smoothly combed and scented; you want to be a gay dog and please the girls! But want you’ll get is a shaven head, a red smock, and clogs. You want rings on your fingers, but you’ll have one round your neck, and a cut of the whip if you so much as look at a woman. You’ll start on that life at twenty and end at fifty. You’ll start young and fresh, bright-eyed and white-toothed, and you’ll end broken and bent, wrinkled, toothless and repellent, with white hair. My poor boy, you’re on the wrong road. Sloth is a bad counselor. Crime is the hardest of all work. Take my advice, don’t be led into the drudgery of idleness. Rascality is a comfortless life; honesty is far less demanding.
Excerpt from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables