Love Conquers All: The Central Theme of Les Miserables
Love is one of the fundamental principles of humanity. It is what ties humans together as a people, and is vital to society. As such, it has influenced the world in countless ways, just one of which being through literature. Les Misèrables tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a convicted criminal who must escape his past and reclaim his humanity in a world gripped by poverty and oppression. Though he faces many obstacles, he is eventually able to redeem himself through the love of those around him, and is, for the first time in years, able to return that love. Throughout Victor Hugo’s classic French novel Les Misèrables, several themes appear, and yet none are as influential as love, whether it be religious, romantic, or parental.
Jean Valjean’s life was first changed by religious, spiritual love. When he entered the town of Digne, nobody would accept him into their homes on account of his criminal past. For hours, he wandered the town, searching for a place to spend the night until the Bishop took him in. Though this alone was significant, the Bishop didn’t stop there. His love was repeated soon after Jean Valjean attempted to rob him of his silver. Instead of allowing him to be thrown back into the galleys, the Bishop forgave him instantly, even going as far as allowing him to keep the silver. Though Jean Valjean left Digne soon after, he never forgot the love that the Bishop had shown him. In fact, this love is what led to his redemption. As the Bishop tells Jean Valjean, “My brother; you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God” (Hugo 33). Spiritual love is so powerful, it has the ability to save a man’s soul, as is seen in the relationship of Jean Valjean and the Bishop.
Another variety of love to have a great impact within the story is parental. One example of this is in the relationship between Jean Valjean and Cosette. Though Jean Valjean is not Cosette’s true Father, the two form a strong bond after Cosette’s true mother dies. This bond is so strong, it allows both of them to love each other; extremely significant, as both of them have had exceptionally dark, difficult pasts. Shortly after Jean Valjean rescues Cosette, it is said that “Something new was entering his soul. Jean Valjean had never loved anything… but… when he saw Cosette.. He felt his heart moved” (Hugo 123). Cosette has this dramatic shift as well; “Cosette, too, unconsciously underwent a change… she had tried to love, yet… she had not been able to succeed… and so all that thought and felt in her began to love this kind old friend” (Hugo 124). This love between them, while remarkable in itself, is able to produce several great things later in the story.
Yet another type of love to impact the story is romantic, and the main relationship containing this love is between Marius and Cosette. The two glimpse each other during their daily walks in the park, and those mere glances are enough to make them fall deeply in love. Indeed, before Cosette even knows Marius’ name, it is stated that “[Cosette] had always loved [Marius], always adored him” (Hugo 265). However, this deep love doesn’t stop there. Marius and Cosette come from drastically classes, with enormously different pasts. This alone should be enough to keep them from being married, and yet their relationship is made all the more impossible in the fact that their parents don’t approve. Despite all of this, the two fight off all of the odds and are able to get married, in just one of the many examples throughout Les Misèrables of the power of love.
Over the course of history, humanity has seen what love can do time and time again, and in no other novel is this as apparent as in Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables. Though many themes are woven throughout the enticing tale, the main theme is clearly love. This can be seen in the relationships of Jean Valjean and the Bishop, Marius and Cosette, and Cosette and Jean Valjean. Through his novel, Victor Hugo demonstrates the immense power that love holds. It can redeem even the most evil man’s soul, form a bond between a broken man and a neglected child, and fight off all of the odds to bring two people together. Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables demonstrates the power of love, whether it be spiritual, parental, or romantic.
Depictions of Social Climbing in 19th Century French and English Literature
Throughout most of human history, it has been difficult or even impossible to change social classes. Those born into poverty tended to remain there as slaves or peasants, and wealth tended to remain concentrated in the hands of the hereditary social elite. Although there have always been exceptional individuals who rose from obscurity to prominence, most people lived and died in the same classes to which they, their parents, and their grandparents were born. Large-scale social mobility did not become possible until the Industrial Revolution, when the technological innovations developed in the last half of the 18th Century led to the creation of vast wealth from mercantile and manufacturing enterprises. Suddenly, land that land—which had been the primary means of production since antiquity—no longer played as vital a role in the economy, and hereditary landowners—the aristocratic and noble class—lost a great deal of their legal and economic power. By the early 1800s, the old social order was in tatters throughout Europe as “new money” threatened to dominate or even eclipse traditional forms of authority. Yet the way in which contemporary authors discussed and described social climbing behavior was heavily influenced by the political climate in which those authors wrote. Whereas England was consistently governed by a constitutional monarchy during the Industrial Revolution, such that there was no significant disruption to the existence of the land-based independently wealthy “gentlemen”, France’s economy and society was ripped apart by a violent revolution in 1789 followed by a decade known as the Reign of Terror in which the French monarchy was destroyed and the hereditary aristocracy was deliberately eradicated. Even years afterwards, following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo, a sense of ongoing social upheaval prevailed in France. Yet that upheaval was not regarded as a negative thing by French authors, who presented individual ambition and social climbing in a positive light, reserving much of their criticism and condemnation for the rigid social mores and hierarchies that suppressed the development of the individual. By contrast, English authors of the same period generally took the opposite approach, by ensuring their fictional social climbers in an almost uniformly negative light.
This essay will compare and contrast the treatment of upwardly mobile characters by English and French authors of the mid-19th century. On the English side, the social climbers shall be represented by Jane Wilson from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Becky Sharp from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and Rosamund Vincy from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. On the French side, the characters striving for upward mobility will be represented by Eugène de Rastignac from Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot, Porthos from Alexandre Dumas’s Les Trois Mousquetaires, and Jean Valjean and his nemesis Javert from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.
Women, who generally assumed the rank and social class of their husbands upon marriage, had an opportunity to move up in class by marrying a wealthier man from a more prestigious family. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the minor characters named Jane Wilson attempts to do just that. She is ashamed of her brother Robert, who is a simple farmer, and she tries to entrap the wealthy Frederick Lawrence. Overall, her character is predominately negative. Like her mother and her best friend Eliza Millward, Jane is a vicious gossip who likes to start and pass rumors. She despises the novel’s protagonist—a married woman fleeing an abusive alcoholic husband—and spreads negative rumors about her. This defect of character is what drives Frederick away from her: the newcomer Jane despises happens to be Frederick’s beloved sister. Jane has so little control over her destructive, rumor-mongering behavior that she cannot contain it long enough to ensnare the wealthy, attractive bachelor of her dreams. It is Jane’s unreasoning, immature campaign of social warfare against his sister that alerts Frederic to the fact that Jane is not marriage material.
Jane never succeeds in breaking out of her social class. Having spurned the company of people she considers to be beneath her, such as most of her own family, she ends up with no husband whatsoever. This, in a society where men control most of the money and assets, guarantees a very unhappy and uncomfortable life. Her legal status now matches her character in terms of immaturity. Indeed, the author presents Jane’s misery as the predictable result of her actions. Although this is not the tidy cause-and-effect denouement preferred by Romantic writers, Bronte nonetheless makes sure the reader sees that Jane Wilson’s attempts at social climbing are not rewarded.
Thackeray’s antihero Becky Sharp is the most vibrant, interesting character in Vanity Fair. Raised in poverty, pushed—the text strongly suggests—into a form of child prostitution, and subsequently orphaned after being dumped into a boarding school for girls where she has to work to earn her education and board, Becky is almost completely without social connections or resources. She spends most of the book trying to secure financial security, although she goes about it in an almost completely amoral way. Along the way she makes mistakes. Although she succeeds in marrying up in terms of social class, the husband she chooses is the handsome but stupid Rawdon Crawley, who embodies every possible stereotype of the early 19th century cavalry officer. He is also not just penniless but in significant debt, and by marrying Becky he earns the wrath of his wealthy aunt who previously supported him. The young couple has to rely on Rawdon’s paltry pay as a cavalry officer, supplemented by his gambling winnings. However, by borrowing heavily and moving out without repaying, Becky and Rawdon are constantly on the move ahead of their creditors. Becky subsequently advances Rawdon’s career with manipulative flirtations that may or may not have included romantic services. She is eventually caught by her husband, but not until after they have bankrupted one of their creditors, the loyal Mr. Raggles, whose house they rented.
Becky Sharp is not entirely without principles or positive traits. She helps her old friend Amelia Sedley near the end of the book, and she does so not entirely with the hope of ensnaring Amelia’s well-off older brother. But she is also shown as degenerating into drunkenness, dishonesty, and friendship with con artists and cardsharps. Whether she murders Jos Sedley at the end of the book is left up to the reader’s interpretation, however although she gets the money from the insurance policy she never does attain the title of “Lady” Crawley she covets so intensely: her husband dies before the title passes to him, so that her son becomes the new Lord Crawley. So the little social climber does not actually succeed in accomplishing her goal.
Thackeray presents reasons that explain Becky’s commitment to intrigue and to conduct that resembles what one might expect of an acquisitive cockroach: she seeks the social and financial security she was denied in her youth. Indeed, to a modern audience Becky is a sympathetic character, yet the narrator’s assertion that people frequently deserve their own bad treatment may have struck a nerve with a contemporary audience. Although interesting and readable, Becky is not and can never be considered “good”.
Middlemarch was written later in the 19th century, after the mercantile class had become well established as possessing enough wealth to occasionally compete financially with independently wealthy families. Overall, George Sand is more charitable to her social-climbing characters than earlier English Realist authors were. She depicts the Vincy family, warts and all, in a far more positive way however she does not allow them to succeed in their aims.
The Vincy family has two young adults, Fred and Rosamund, who both aspire to a higher social station due to years of overindulgence by their financially overextended parents. Mr. Vincy spends more than he can afford on Fred’s education and Rosamund’s fripperies, attempting to compete with the wealthier families such as the Casaubons and the Brookes and launch the Vincy children higher onto the social ladder. In this effort, he is not successful. He and his wife end up experiencing the predictable results of their financial folly. Their children are depicted in a more positive way, however their ethical weaknesses are clear and George Sand clearly and explicitly describes the effects their self-absorbed social climbing behavior has on other people.
Fred is depicted in a mostly positive way, with acknowledgement of his moral and ethical weaknesses which do not ameliorate until he accepts the class he was born into. He has been educated alongside young gentlemen at university and has adopted their habits in terms of spending and dress. He has no other ambition than to ride good horses, follow the hounds in a fashionable riding habit, and be generally respected for doing so. To that end he hopes to inherit significant property from an uncle who favors him, and in expectation of this inheritance he spends heavily. Unpleasantly surprised when his uncle leaves most of his property to somebody else, Fred must either become a minister (a career for which he is unsuited) or go to work for Caleb Garth in order to repay a debt that financially cripples the Garth family. He ends up discovering an an aptitude for property management, and earns the respect of Mary Garth, Caleb’s daughter. So instead of marrying “up” in class, Fred ends up sinking socially and becoming a tradesman who works with his hands, likes it, and earns an honest living. By the end of the book, he is happy overall. He is financially better off than he was at the beginning of the story, however he has slipped in social class. His sister, who is miserable, has done the opposite.
Like her brother Fred, Rosamund Vincy has been raised at a very affluent standard of living. Her idea of running a household simply consists of ordering the very best of everything, and expecting someone else to pay the bill. She believes that Tertius Lydgate, whose titled relatives disapprove of his choice of a medical profession, will help him financially. But she’s wrong, and her free spending and systematic undermining of her husband’s attempts at economy drive the young couple into debt. Throwing pretty little tantrums fails to solve the Lydgates’ financial problems, which improve only after a loan from the upper-class Dorothea Casaubon. Lydgate, having married a spendthrift, sacrifices his dream of service to the medical community, leaves Middlemarch, and becomes an obscure doctor whose income never matches Rosamund’s expectations. It is not until Lydgate dies that the petulant, immature Rosamond finds a physician wealthy enough to satisfy her material wants. Although she does end up in a good financial situation later in life, Rosamond never becomes an attractive or positive character and is not ethically redeemed the way her brother Fred is.
Among the English Realist authors, attempts to rise in class are regarded as evidence of a moral, spiritual, or character defect. The characters who eventually attain happiness seldom do it by marrying up, and the characters who do achieve improvements in social status generally do not do so without a great deal of amoral conniving or self-absorbed disregard for the effects of their actions on other people. The predominant message is that permanent class divisions are good and appropriate, and that human beings are happiest and most effective when they live, work, socialize, and marry within the class in which they are born. Those who try to rise above their station generally cause and incur misery even if they succeed, which many do not—in fact, some of them end up worse off than before.
By contrast, the French Realist authors have a more tolerant and benevolent view of social climbing. This may be due to the social instability that devastated the French economy and culture in the late 18th century. By the 19th century, although Napoleon had been defeated and France’s imperial ambitions had been temporarily curtailed, decades of social engineering on a national level had produced an environment wherein people could—for the first time in human history—expect to be promoted to positions of temporal authority based solely on their merit. Freed from the oppressive social structures of the Church and the hereditary aristocracy courtesy of Madame Guillotine, French people became used to the notion that it was possible to accumulate not only wealth but social status. For an individual to desire to rise in the world was not heretical but noble. Even after the restoration of the French monarchy and a return to a society and economy that contained a hereditary upper class, the French character was permanently changed to the point where things condemned elsewhere were, in France, deemed reasonable and understandable. The desire to change one’s social class was one such addition to the French national psyche. Whereas English authors and readers still looked askance at social climbers, in France the behavior was considered right and legitimate.
It is now important to draw a distinction between social climbing and conspicuous overconsumption. Social climbing is an attempt to permanently change one’s social class by being accepted into a more elite clique of associates. In order to do this, people acquire habits, preferences, and mannerisms appropriate to their desired station in life. Sometimes this involves spending more than they can afford. Eugène de Rastignac, in Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot, severely gouges his family to equip himself with clothing appropriate to social life among the nobility so as to obtain a wealthy mistress who will be able to arrange profitable job appointments. Becky Sharp throws expensive parties on credit from tradespeople and vendors, who allow her credit only because they think she is the mistress of the Marquis de Steyne. Becky’s parties have several goals: to trigger reciprocal hospitality, to finesse military promotions for her husband, and to allow Rawdon to fleece the guests at cards or billiards. Eugène and Becky therefore spend with a purpose. By contrast, Gustave Flaubert’s eponymous heroine Madame Bovary spends her family into ruin not with the goal of being accepted among the provincial upper crust, but in order to act out her fantasies of wealth and privilege. Likewise, Mathilde Loisel from the short story La Parure by Guy de Maupassant fancies that she has been born beneath her rightful station in life, however her financial distress is only distantly related to her desire to appear wealthy and beautiful at the ball. Mathilde’s major error is due to pride. It is not her social ambitions that cause her to bankrupt herself and her husband replacing the diamond necklace she loses: it is the pride that keeps her from telling her friend about the loss, confessing everything, and including the other woman in her plan to replace the necklace. Had she admitted to losing the necklace, with its imitation diamonds, she and her husband would have had only a brief period of financial hardship and would not have been ruined.
Honoré de Balzac, in the body of novels sometimes described as his “human comedy”, writes about Eugène de Rastignac repeatedly but introduces him for the first time in Père Goriot. As a Realist writer, de Balzac has no trouble showing Rastignac’s willingness to sacrifice other people to achieve his own goals. The hardship endured by his family from whom he continues to wheedle money so as to outfit himself for a place in high society, his love for a woman who aggressively exploits her elderly father Goriot in a way that would be considered elder abuse today, and his willingness to move into an apartment with Goriot’s daughter at the already impoverished old man’s expense show a willingness to financially abuse others. However Rastignac has standards. He does not participate in the murder plot proposed by Vautrin, even though he stands to gain a fortune. He not only attends Goriot’s funeral but helps to pay for it along with a student even more impoverished than Rastignac.
Although Rastignac is willing to exploit others for financial gain, he does not exploit them except in the service of his upward mobility. He does not manipulate people for fun or spread gossip like Jane Wilson, nor does he needlessly slight or blatantly discard people he believes to be his social inferiors the way Becky Sharp does. He is not stupidly short-sighted, lazy, or selfish like the Vincy siblings, and unlike Rosamund he is capable of changing his strategy. Overall, Rastignac is an intelligent and likeable young man. Character-wise, he is well developed in a way most of the English social climbing characters are not.
Alexandre Dumas (Père) is not considered a Realist author but a Romantic one. His series of novels revolving around the d’Artagnan character are historical fiction that he uses to critique different aspects of the Old Regime prior to the French Revolution. The first novel, Les Trois Mousquetaires, is set in the late 1620s during the Huguenot rebellion. The musketeer characters support their ideals of honor and service to a just and competent monarchy, in an increasingly ambiguous and dishonorable world. His character Porthos, who appears in Les Trois Mousquetaires and its two sequels, is an amiable man. Large, strong, loyal, but not too bright, Porthos is a musketeer with champagne tastes and a water budget. He is not nobly born like Athos, nor is he well educated and refined like Aramis. However he has a taste for the finer things in life. To that end, he hopes at first to marry a wealthy widow. By the first sequel Twenty Years After, Porthos is a very wealthy man whose assets have grown considerably due to one happy coincidence after another. He then desires a noble title: he wishes to be a baron. By the end of the second book he succeeds in his aim. Yet Porthos, unlike Rastignac or any of the English social climbers, never pretends to be anything except who he is. He does not seek to harm others, except through his participation in the escapades with Athos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan.
Interestingly, Porthos’s desire for social advancement is not seen as being somehow against the natural social order. His fellow soldiers, even the aristocratic Athos, support not only his pursuit of wealth but his desire for rank. This viewpoint is radically different from that of the English aristocrats and peers portrayed in Vanity Fair, who shun the upstart Becky and her comically dim husband unless it is in their interests to do otherwise. At no point do the English Realist authors introduce democratic motives to their characters. Dorothea Brooke visits with Rosamund on a business related errand to Lydgate’s home, but it never occurs to her to mingle socially with her or with Mary Garth. Although she designs new houses for her uncle’s tenants, Dorothea does not socialize with them, and when her name is linked romantically with Ladislaw’s in a codicil to her husband’s will, her friends and relatives are shocked. When she later marries the assetless but somewhat liberal Ladislaw, sacrificing her husband’s entire inheritance and living only on her own assets inherited from her mother, her decision is not presented as good or intelligent. Indeed, Ladislaw’s attraction to Dorothea is something he himself regards as inappropriate. Yet in Dumas’s book, nobody suggests that Porthos’s courtship and marriage of a wealthy widow is in any way inappropriate despite their vast age difference and a sizable difference in class between an enlisted musketeer (not even an officer) and the wife of a well educated lawyer.
One point to remember is that Dumas wrote in the Romantic tradition and not the Realist tradition, so the lack of opposition to Porthos’s financial and social advancement was not plausible or realistic. However Dumas’s treatment of Porthos is not solely a product of the Romantic perspective. In Les Misérables, the Romantic writer Victor Hugo spends several chapters chronicling the various rises and falls of Jean Valjean.
Valjean begins as a convicted thief and escapee, and at first reoffends by stealing from a child and from a priest. Yet after having been shown mercy by one of his victims, Valjean has a change of heart. He changes his ways, becomes an honest man, and in fact becomes the mayor of a town, rising from obscurity to become one of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential men in the area. Yet Valjean is not allowed to remain successful. He is recognized and recaptured after heroically saving a man from being crushed beneath a wagon. When he escapes again to rescue Cosette, he seeks out a life of quiet anonymity as a private citizen, yet by the end of the novel he has been found out again. Valjean does indeed learn to live a moral life—he is among the most noble and self-sacrificing of all literary characters—but aside from his brief stint as a mayor and factory owner the author does not allow him to keep any of his gains no matter how well earned they might be. This exaggeration of fortune can also be attributed to the Romantic perspective. Valjean’s desire to live as an honest person instead of with the stigma of having been a convict is a driving force in his life, and yet the entire world is arrayed against him.
Unlike the anti-heroine Becky Sharp, who is similarly trying to rise out of an ignominious beginning, Jean Valjean is in every respect a hero. The reader cannot help but empathize with him, and the human beings who persecute or mistreat him are presented as malicious, ignorant, or irrational. Indeed, the entire system that keeps him and the other characters down is exposed to critical judgement from the reader. This is an inversion of the version of society and class presented by the English novelists, who treat social traditions and constructs as basically positive. Although he has human weaknesses and fears, and although he makes mistakes, he is a man who does his very best even though circumstances force him to be dishonest about his identity. He saves the lives of several people throughout the book, including the overzealous Javert whom he spares much the way Valjean was spared by the priest he robbed long ago. He dies surrounded by the people who love and respect him for the man he has become, who know about his past but do not hold it against him. In this respect he has indeed moved up in the world.
In conclusion, both the 19th century French and English authors are at times critical of human society, but the French authors include social inequality and systemic poverty among the aspects of human society to criticize. Anne Bronte depicts alcoholism in brutal and disgusting detail, George Sand delves into the financial problems created by the bad decision making of some of the characters in her books, and William Makepeace Thackeray freely mocks the pretensions of English genteel society. Honoré de Balzac does not shrink from depicting people as physically ugly as well as morally corrupt, particularly in the aristocracy. Alexandre Dumas allows his Musketeers to make political enemies and allies, working sometimes for and sometimes against corrupt politicians, statesmen, and would-be rulers. Finally, Victor Hugo’s masterwork, while rejected by several contemporary Realist critics, caught the public imagination so thoroughly it actually led to significant social and political improvements in France. However the English authors, unlike the French authors, tend to take class stratification as a fact of life and are seldom critical of the way social hierarchies work. The French authors, influenced perhaps by the Revolution, have a tendency to criticize social inequality while presenting proactive and upwardly mobile individuals in a positive way.
de Balzac, Honoré. Père Goriot. 1835.
Bronte, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 1848.
Dumas, Alexandre. Les Trois Mousquetaires. 1844.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-72.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. 1848.
Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables, 1862.
de Maupassant, Guy. La Parure. 1884.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair. 1847-48.
Romanticism in Les Miserables
The Romantic era began with the desire to create something new and pleasureful, and to leave classicism in the past. Parker explains that “Romanticism is the art of presenting to people the literary works which …are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure; classicism, on the contrary, of presenting them with that which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their grandfathers” (Parker 307). Parker thus summarizes the mood by which Romantics were fueled, one characterized by a need to create from their own imaginations, not from those of their ancestors. Romanticism is characterized in a plethora of ways, and ranges from foundations of artwork, to literature, to music, to philosophy- anything requiring creation. The ideals of Romanticism, in addition to creating something new, encompass individualism, imagination, beauty, love, nature, the supernatural, the sublime, organicism, the Byronic hero, and many more depending on the creator.
However, Parker precisely pinpoints the dominating and most recurring traits in Romanticism: “The essential elements of the romantic spirit are curiosity and the love of beauty” (Parker 308). Imagination and beauty, most often in nature, find themselves as key points for Romantic authors, with Victor Hugo a great herald of these ideals. Influenced by his own experiences in the French Revolution, his eventual exile, and loss of loved ones, Hugo created Les Miserables as a manifestation of all things Romantic, in an effort to educate and to inspire emotion. He famously writes, as a preface to his novel: “So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century — the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labor, the ruin of women by starvation and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible…so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this” (Hugo 21).
Hugo recognized his duty as a poet, to instruct and legislate through his (often considered divine) ability of writing. Hugo addresses a great many topics in his novel, with focus on a few core values of romanticism: nature, individualism, and imagination, by use of character development and conflict. In Romanticism, nature is perhaps the most recurring theme, and finds itself manifested throughout Les Miserables. By emphasizing the importance of nature, Hugo also emphasizes the importance of inspiration that we find through nature. Inspiration takes the form of several ideals in the novel, such as love, beauty, and the sublime. Nature is all consuming, and Nash parallels its complexity to that of the novel, “the novel, like nature, is a grand paradigm for metaphoricity — the more one looks, the more analogies one finds” (Nash 480). In short, nature is more than just scenery, and Les Miserables reflects that depth. Particular scenes of nature’s impact on characters occur throughout the novel, beginning with Bishop Bienvenu, representative of the goodness humanity can possess through his charity and trusting nature.
The Bishop is described by Quale as “Hugo’s hero as well as saint; and we can not deny him beauty such as those enskied and sainted wear. This is the romanticists tribute to a minister of God; and sweet the tribute is” (Quayle 17). This description shows the value of a man in tune with God’s grace, and able to receive inspiration through it, which is a common romantic theme. The Bishop finds this inspiration in nature, as he takes walks in his garden before bed each night. His experience is described: “Was not this narrow enclosure, with the sky for a background, enough to enable him to adore God in his most beautiful as well as in his most sublime works? Indeed, is not that all, and what more can be desired? A little garden to walk, and immensity to reflect upon. At his feet something to cultivate and gather; above his head something to study and meditate upon: a few flowers on the earth, and all the stars in the sky” (Hugo 6). These lines reflect the immensity of inspiration and comfort found in nature, and the Bishop’s feelings of closeness, or organicism, with the rest of the universe. This enables him to feel a closeness with others, and is reflected in his caring and forgiving nature. This personality influences Jean Valjean into becoming more saintlike, and he in turn finds his own solace in nature at various times throughout the novel. One example is when he and Cosette live at a nunnery to escape the policeman Javert; Cosette is taught by the sisters and Valjean works as a gardener. His experience is sublime and described as, “his soul subsided into silence like this cloister, into fragrance like these flowers, into peace like this garden…” (Hugo 189). As is seen in these lines and the example of the Bishop, garden’s become a recurring motif representing the divinity of nature, and Cosette and Marius both find their own kind of inspiration through it. They find love through nature, with Marius describing his experience thus: “Never had the sky been more studded with stars and more charming, the trees more trembling, the odor of the grass more penetrating; never had the birds fallen asleep among the leaves with a sweeter noise; never had all the harmonies of universal serenity responded more thoroughly to the inward music of love; never had Marius been more captivated, more happy, more ecstatic” (Hugo 189). These lines show how the beauty of nature and how nature and love become one — a common romantic theme often referred to as organicism. Nature allows for inspiration through many devices, ranging from solace to pure love, and reflect the romantic theme of nature being the greatest teacher.
Individualism becomes a broad topic in Les Miserables with the focus encompassing the individual’s struggle against a greater force, whether it be morality or political conflicts. Through this exploration, Grossman describes the product as, “Many of the ethical and political overtones of his work also serve the distinctly aesthetic end of defining his mature concept of romanticism and the romantic novel” (Grossman 9). These political critiques are most powerfully manifested in Jean Valjean’s struggle with Javert, and a focus on the unfairness between classes, such as the Thenardiers and Fantine. It is the struggle of the individual against that of higher powers. Cooke describes the struggle as, “Victor Hugo taught his readers the new truth of the humanity of all men, even the lowest. He opened the eyes of his countrymen to the sufferings and sorrows and humanness of the poor about them- and the injustice which they endured at the hands of law and society” (Cooke 133). This humanity is shown especially in the character development of Jean Valjean. Receiving excessive punishment and unfair treatment for a desire to help others, Valjean greatly reflects a common romantic character — the Byronic hero. Focusing on individualism, the Byronic hero suffers with dignity against all oppositions. Notable as well, is Valjean’s uncanny strength, the supernatural being another common component of romanticism. Schwartz describes his traits as “Romanticism praised the genius of the extraordinary man” (Shwartz). Hugo represents the common man, which is extraordinary in the eyes of the Romantic. Quayle relates this supernatural strength back to Valjean’s heroism, describing it as, “He is a somber hero, but a hero still, with strength like the strength of ten, since his love is as the love of legion” (Quayle 15).
Valjean’s heroism is seen in the good use of his strength, how he uses it to save lives, such as the sailor in peril, and to escape Javert in order to protect Cossette at various points in the novel. Javert, who represents the rigidness of law, eventually succumbs to Valjean’s powerful forces of individualism, manifested in his grace and goodness despite opposition. Duncan describes it as, “Perceiving Jean Valjean as high-minded, he is no longer able to maintain his view of himself as pure. The rigid compromise formation had kept his self-loathing, his sense of inner pollution, repressed. Now, as these feelings surface, Javert commits suicide” (Duncan 115). The individual, in addition to the poor and the lower-class, win through Valjean, who represents the common man — whom Romantics consistently support. Schwartz describes Hugo’s characterization as, “His most memorable characters in Les Miserables were not of the rich or people of high-standing, but rather, of the poor and common man” (Schwartz). However, Valjean, our hero, also finds death, as is the way of all, but it’s his grace and dignity that set him apart as a Romantic and Byronic hero even at death. “Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another…I die happy…” (Hugo 519). These lines express Valjean’s divine fulfillment of love in enduring horrible sufferings, and dies without fear. Grossman describes it as, “Death looms as the price of extraordinary merit” (Grossman 7).
As organicism goes, all things are connected, and so are the themes of romanticism, here we see nature conquering all, even the individual.In addition to themes of nature and individualism, imagination is a key component of the Romantic, of which Hugo embodies in his work. Imagination is broad, with no one definition in the eyes of Romanticism. Perkins describes it most generally as, “‘imagination’ denoted a working of the mind that is total, synthetic, immediate, and dynamic. In this sense, the theory of the imagination was a reaction not only against empirical analysis but also against the traditional faculty psychology…” (Perkins 19). Imagination, like most modes of Romanticism, was in an effort to depart from the traditionalist style and to make it new. Hugo shows it through his newness of writing style and intentions, reflected in his character’s choices and actions. It is also depicted in the novel’s spiritual aspects, where religion is explored as an individuals undertaking, as opposed to oppressive institutional religion. Schwartz describes Hugo’s Romantic style thus: “Hugo presented himself as the poet born of the ideological currents that shaped Romanticism, according to which the poet is a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures…The artist is alone capable of directing society, for he alone embraces both God and Man” (Schwartz).
Les Miserables illustrates Hugo’s imagination by its revolutionary ideas as seen in both plot and stylistic elements. Marius, for example, embodies Romantic ideals of imagination through his love letters to Cossette — the power of words! Schwartz describes his conquest, as “Marius Pontemercy courts young Cosette from afar, and wins her affections with a love letter…Marius crafted his persona with words, representing and embodying himself in a letter…in the hopes that she would see the depth and sincerity of his love” (Schwartz). The power of imagination in creating something new is seen in Marius, as he wins through strength of mind. In addition to stylistic elements, imagination is also shown through the development of the spiritual, or transcendental. Perkins explains that “Romantic transcendentalism arose as a direct reaction against the empirical tradition…transcendentalism is the belief in the existence of a timeless realm of being beyond the shifting, sensory world of common experience” (Perkins 15).
Religion is not specifically addressed as a single institution or religion, instead it is explored through nature and the individual, as previous sections stress. Brombert summarizes the spiritual nature of the novel as, “Les Miserables is meant to be a religious book…the text dwells on some of Hugo’s most dearly held notions: dynamic undoing and ceaseless reconstruction, the vitality of natural forces, the intimate solidarity of the universe, the dialogue with the unseen, the paradox of the irreducible identity of author and God” (Brombert 118). Spiritualism is overtly addresses as an individual’s connection with God, and how they interpret that connection. This process is seen in characters such as the Bishop and Jean Valjean, the latter especially stresses the ideas of own discovery at the end of the novel, when he is on his deathbed. With Marius and Cosette at his side, they ask if he would like a priest, and his reply is described as so, “ ‘I have,’ Jean Valjean replied; and he pointed upwards as though there were some other being present whom he alone could see” (Hugo 518). Valjean, representing the common man and Romantic ideals, does not see the necessity in organized religion, instead, he relies on his own connection with God.
In Romanticism, no one term is able to describe the many ideals that have come together. Each poet adds his or her own twist and own interpretation; however, all rely on their freedom as creators rather than followers of traditional style. Victor Hugo, through the incredible Les Miserables, embodies this spirit of freedom through depiction various themes. With nature, he expresses the love and solace made possible through its beauty, with Jean Valjean and Cosette and Marius being great examples. With individualism, Hugo shows the humanity and power of the common man against oppressive forces, through the Byronic-type hero of Jean Valjean. Finally, through imagination, great use of revolutionary ideas and expression of ideas, such as spirituality, is depicted through characters such as Jean Valjean on his choice of personal revelation for guidance. Les Miserables embodies Romanticism, and continues to provide a powerful sway of emotion and inspiration.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Web.Cooke, A. B.. “Victor Hugo’s Message to His People”. The Sewanee Review 10.2 (1902): 129–133. Web.Duncan, Martha Grace. “Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons: The Unconscious Meanings of Crime and Punishment.” (1996): Web.Grossman, Kathryn. Les Miserables: Conversion, Revolution, Redemption. 1996: Twayne Publishers. Web.Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. New York: Simon and Schuster,1964. Print.Nash, Suzanne. “Figuring Transcendence in Les Misérables: Hugo’s Romantic Sublime.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 24.3 (1996): n. pag. WebParker, D. C.. “Reflections on Romanticism”. The Musical Quarterly 4.2 (1918): 307–322. Web.Perkins, David, ed. English Romantic Writers. 2nd ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace College, 1995. Print.Quayle, William A. A Hero: Jean Valjean. Cincinnati: Jennings and Pye, 1992. Web.Schwartz, Robert. “The France of Victor Hugo.” The France of Victor Hugo. Mount Holyoke University, 1999. Web.
Javert: The Righteous Villain
“Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo is one of the most unique and powerful stories of redemption of all time. This story is unique in many different ways; from its diverse cast of characters to its meticulous blend of storylines. One of the truly unique aspects of “Les Mis” is the character of Javert, the principal antagonist. The factor that makes Javert so unique is that rather than the atypical “bad guy” of modern literature, Javert is a complex individual with a decided sense of justice and morality. Indeed, only in such a thoughtful and religious novel like “Les Mis” could Javert even be considered an antagonist. As one analyses the intricate themes of “Les Mis”, it can be seen that very deliberate writing was required to successfully create this character. Given a simple description of Javert and his actions, one might not immediately deduce that he is in fact an antagonist. Succinctly put, Javert is a police inspector, totally dedicated to his work, zealous for justice to the point of obsession, and morally upstanding. This could quite easily be the description of the protagonist of any detective story. This then leaves the question: how can Javert be an antagonist? The direct answer is quite simple: he is in direct opposition to Jean Valjean, the protagonist. Javert must then, by default, be the antagonist. By definition, an antagonist opposes and/or fights against the hero of the story. Throughout “Les Mis”, Javert hunts Valjean zealously, stopping at nothing to see him returned to the galleys. He also sides against the student rebellion, which Valjean seems to support, causing an opposition of ideals.
Even with these arguments, the concept of Javert being a “villain” could be confusing to some readers. If Valjean is a convict and Javert is a police inspector, is not he (Javert) simply “doing his job”? The reader could begin to wonder if Valjean is in fact an antihero, a tainted individual with his own sense of morality. This concept, however, is not the case in “Les Miserables”. Jean Valjean is an upstanding citizen, a mayor, a factory owner, and a philanthropist, who follows Christian principles with no ulterior motives. He is a genuine hero in every sense of the word.
To fully understand the concept of Javert as antagonist, one must go to the very heart of “Les Miserables”. Ultimately, “Les Mis” is a story of redemption. It is a detailed account of the journey of a soul from darkness into light. Throughout the course of this story, the message of justice seasoned with mercy comes forth time and again. Jean Valjean, as protagonist, is essentially the embodiment of this message, a living testimony of the power of grace. It is when we examine Javert against this backdrop that we see him for who he is: if Valjean is the embodiment of grace, Javert is the embodiment of condemnation. Just as protagonist and antagonist oppose one another, mercy and condemnation oppose one another. Valjean and Javert now become not a clash of individuals, but a clash of theologies; with Valjean representing righteousness through grace, and Javert representing righteousness through the law. James 2:13 of the New Testament says that “mercy triumphs over judgement”. Hugo, a religious man, no doubt had this in mind when he orchestrated the conflict of Valjean and Javert. He also expounds on this by revealing to the reader the ultimate end of these two characters, and in essence, these two theologies. Valjean, the representative of righteousness through grace, dies contented and fulfilled, having received mercy himself having shown mercy to others. Javert on the other hand, when presented with a righteousness which was greater than his own legalistic ideals of right and wrong, experienced a shattering of his world and was driven to suicide.
One of the most poignant points of the antagonism of Javert is how it clarifies the redemption of the convict Jean Valjean. One realizes that if Valjean had never experienced grace, had never been redeemed, Javert could never be considered an antagonist. Valjean, the ex-convict, hardened and embittered, would no doubt end up back in the galleys, a subject to the rigid rules and judgements of Javert’s legalistic world. After his epiphany however, Valjean becomes, in a sense, reborn. He is now a man not under judgement, but under grace. He has, in a sense, escaped the world of Javert. By Javert’s repeated attempts to recapture him, to consider him as nothing but the “old Valjean”, he opposes the whole concept of righteousness through grace. Because of this, he remains one of the most unique and complex antagonists in all of literature.
Jean Valjean: An Angel in Hell
Les Miserables is a story of redemption, forgiveness, charity, salvation and moral obligation. The main character, Jean Valjean, enters the novel as a thief, having spent nineteen years in prison. He is given this second chance by M. Myriel, a prominent bishop, who offers Jean Valjean food and lodging, and by doing so he paves the way for Jean Valjean to live a life of financial prosperity and renewed spiritual faith. Jean Valjean poses as M. Madeleine in this pure and natural life but soon comes across a dilemma. Jean Valjean has to choose “to remain in paradise and there become a demon!” or “to reenter into hell and there become an angel” (p. 84)! Through this conflict, Hugo proposes two kinds of life: the life of a comfortable, wealthy man with few moral obligations and the life of a struggling, but ultimately virtuous convict. Through this conflict, Hugo expresses Jean Valjean”s inner turmoil and his ultimate choice to trade material comfort for moral comfort and selfishness for selflessness. In this paradise that Jean Valjean lives in, he takes on the role of M. Madeleine, a prosperous mayor, who brings wealth to the entire region of which he governs. He is very generous to the poor, has a good conscience, and seems always to be calm. One day Fauchelevent, an old man, falls under his cart and is unable to get out. M. Madeleine goes under the cart and risks his life for this old man. M. Madeleine also saves Fantine from time in jail. Javert sentences her for defending herself from someone who taunts her because of her looks. Despite all of these acts of goodness, Jean Valjean has done little to reconcile the real moral and legal dilemmas in his life, and they eventually begin to reappear. The deeds he carries out are true to his kindly nature, but they almost also seem like repayment to the world for the ills that he has done. The problem is that, according to society”s laws, the only way to right his wrong is by allowing himself to be punished and treated as a criminal. Worse yet, he has become a devil by becoming part of the society he denounced years before. He says early in the book, “If it were not outrageous that society should treat with such rigid precision those of its members who were most poorly endowed in the distribution of wealth that chance had made, and who were therefore, most worthy of indulgence. Those questions asked and decided, he condemned society and sentenced it” (21). He denounces the upper class, who have taken advantage of those already in dire situations, but years later, he has become what he sentenced to his hate. The disparity between the image he portrays and his reality causes great conflict within him and leads him to reassess his choices. The moment at which Jean Valjean”s world becomes a hell is precisely the moment in which it becomes salvation for Javert, “Javert was at this moment in heaven, . . .” (113) Hugo writes, as the inspector feels that he has triumphed over evil. As Javert becomes a devil in heaven, Jean Valjean becomes an angel in hell. The world that Jean Valjean emerges into is a far cry from the comfortable existence as M. Madeleine. However, despite the tragedy that surrounds him, this choice is a better one for Jean Valjean, and he is able to right the real wrongs in his life. After saving Champmathieu, the first deed he does is to save Cosette from the Thenardiers, and in return, the deed provides him with something he has not known before: love. The description of Cosette as he first finds her is terrible; the Thendardiers have nearly killed her. However, Jean Valjean offers to take her away and acts as an angel for a second time, this time in a place that seems like hell. In fact, he is described as being from heaven. “As demons and genni recognize by certain signs, the presence of a superior God, Thenardier comprehended that he was to deal with one who was very powerful” (155). Furthermore, when Cosette is with him, “she felt somewhat as if she were near God” (157). Even his stay in the convent suggests that he has found God or spirituality in a way that he never could have as M. Madeline. His good deeds continue as the situation in Paris becomes even more like hell. In a short scene at the start of his section, Jean Valjean gives up his uniform so that a soldier, who is a complete stranger to him, can live. In fact, the uniform is described as “dropping from heaven” (414), which seems to directly support the image of Jean Valjean as an “angel.” When one soldier asks who this man is, the reply is, “He is a man who saves others” (414). Furthermore, there is no reason that Jean Valjean should help Enjorolas other than as an unselfish sacrifice. At this point, the transition from a devil in heaven to an angel in hell seems very obvious. Years before, he had been a mayor, wealthy and powerful, living in luxury. Now he has put himself into a world of turmoil, danger, and filth. He now is an angel, running around a sewer, trying to help others. However, his truly angelic acts are still to come. The two choices he makes in saving Marius and Javert are clearly difficult for him to make, and in the end, both men could both mean his future downfall. First, he chooses to let Javert go in an act that is so virtuous that it causes the evil Javert to kill himself. He confronts his past as he gives Javert his false name and address in case Javert chooses to pursue him. Shortly afterwards, he makes the choice to save Marius, even when it means that he will lose Cosette, his love, to him. His last act is to reveal his identity to those around him, an act which could destroy him. In the end, though, his good deeds have outweighed his past, and he is treated by Marius as a hero. In fact, he says, “Cosette, that man is an angel!” (515). He leaves this world with his “daughter” happy and content, the sacrifice of an angel. When he dies, he is met by another angel, welcoming him to heaven “with outstretched wings, awaiting the soul” (520). When Jean Valjean decides whether “to remain in paradise and there become a demon!” or “to reenter into hell and there become an angel!” (p. 84), he defines his whole existence and the major theme of the book. He believes that he is only choosing to save one man wrongly accused of his crimes. However, his choice leads him to many chances for redemption. By saving Cosette and finding love, he becomes an angel who is willing to save others even at his own expense. He saves Marius and Javert even when their deaths would have meant comfort for him. He chooses to reveal his identity even when it means he will lose what he loves. But all these things are better than the life he would have led, hidden, and without love, if he had stayed in heaven.
Les Miserables: An Embodiment of Post-Revolution Feelings
In Les Miserables, a French historical novel by Victor Hugo, many characters acted according to their convictions in liberalism, nationalism, and reactionaries. These characters appeared in the June Rebellion of 1832. Along with these characters, many nationalists, liberalists, who were unsatisfied with the current societal order, and even reactionaries, who were content with the prevailing regime, appeared during this time. They embraced post-French Revolution and Napoleonic themes relating to equality, overthrowing the monarchymonarchy overthrow, and wanting a will to return to the status quo. Many assisted in the June Rebellion and some even fought against it. The post French Revolution and Napoleonic themes are represented in characters, for Javert embodies the ideas of reactionaries, Enjolras of nationalism, and Gavroche of liberalism.
Javert, a conservative police inspector, embodies the ideas of reactionaries. Reactionaries hold political viewpoints that favor a return to the status quo of society. Nearly all of them, including Javert, rejected ideas of rebellion and the overthrow of monarchy, for those thoughts sought to change society. Being an elderly man, Javert saw the horrors of the French Revolution and evidently despised the turmoil and anarchy occurring everywhere. He is a law officer, for he sides with authority, which he believes enforces order. After Napoleon and the Concert of Europe, Metternich, the reactionary Austrian foreign minister, established laws to contain the people and impose order. These policies, such as the Carlsbad decrees of 1819 which impose censorship and repression in universities, appealed to the very traditional Javert. During the June Rebellion of 1832, Javert was horrified by the chaos in Paris and tried to notify the royalist army about the plans of the revolutionists. As a result, he saw the rebellion as a threat to the current society and immediately sought to crush the revolt and incarcerate the revolutionists who were threatening the current social order. He was ultimately caught by the revolutionists when he was attempting to assist in preserving the current society. Javert embodies reactionary ideas for he abhors disorder and backs the status quo.
Enjolras, the leader of the Friends of ABC, embodies the ideas of nationalism. The ideology nationalism glorified the people united against the absolutism of kings and promoted self government. Nationalists such as Enjolras were middle and lower class men who were angered at the lack of representation citizens had in government and wanted an end to the monarchy. They felt that their blood spilled in the July Revolution was for nothing. Nationalists in Italy led by Mazzini also faced similar social crises, and opposition against repression as well as the will for self government led to revolution. After the July Revolution in France, Charles X being ousted by Louis Philippe seemed nothing more than a replacement of monarchs. This angered many nationalists, such as Enjolras who wanted self government and an end to tyranny, and the death of Lamarque, a popular critic of the monarchy, provoked the need for revolt. Therefore Enjolras organized and commanded a barricade against royalists in the June Rebellion of 1832. He fought against oppression until his death with the ideals of nationalism still strong within his heart. Enjolras embodies nationalism for his conviction in the tyranny of the monarchy and the right of the people to rule prompted him to take action against the government.
Gavroche, an adolescent who assisted the Friends of ABC, embodies the ideas of liberalism. Liberalists believe in the freedom of the individual and the corruptibility of the nobility. They were of the middle or lower class and wanted to maintain the liberal reforms achieved through the French Revolution and even some of Napoleon’s liberal codes. Gavroche, an impoverished boy, spoke out against the rich who watched as the plebeians suffer. Poor harvests and harsh winters in the years before the June Rebellion had led to people being restless. Social unrest in this time resulted in many to speak out against the government, and Gavroche shouted for equality in parades in Paris and denounced the corrupt current monarch. He even rallied some to fight for bread and the belief of liberty and equality. Many other liberalists, such as the Friends of ABC also believed in the greater good of the people. Gavroche assisted them in their fight for the ideals left behind from the French Revolution and Napoleon, and ultimately died helping their cause. Gavroche embodies liberalism because he stirred the people to shout for liberty and equality and firmly believed in the unethicality of the nobility.
In Les Miserables, the post-French Revolution and Napoleonic ideals were not abandoned by many while others fought against them. Reactionaries like Javert clashed with nationalists like Enjolras and liberalists like Gavroche in the struggles of the June Rebellion of 1832. Where there are advocates of a certain belief, there are most certainly denouncers of that same belief. In consequence, societal conflict is always present.
Marxism in Les Miserables: Victor Hugo’s Critique of Parisian Societal Structures
Karl Marx’s ideas regarding the constructions of an unequal society were already prominent when Victor Hugo published the first book of Les Miserables’s in 1862, with the release of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. In it, Marx states “The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggle.” In 1800s, society was undergoing serious changes – the population was expanding faster than the economy, rural poverty was driving people to the cities, and from the French Revolution to the June Rebellion of 1832 Hugo depicts in his novel, France saw four different monarchs on the throne within forty years. As a result of these great changes, the people suffered, and those who suffered the most were, naturally, the proletariat. The characters within Les Miserables reflect the society, and its challenges, in the 1800s in France. Although the national proverb of France became “liberty, equality, and fraternity”, for the people of Parisian society, this was not the reality. Hugo was concerned with portraying the struggles between social classes in Parisian society, and goes so far as to even state this in the preface to the novel. “So long as the three problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night.” Hugo, much like Marx, wanted to eradicate these societal issues, and stated “so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Hugo uses the novel to critique the societal structures of Parisian society and their rigidity, and in doing so presents some key Marxist ideas.
In his novel Les Miserables, Hugo presents a need for a social equality in Parisian society. He presents ideas of Marxism through his presentation of the character of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict. When Valjean is released from prison, he is turned away at every door because he is a convict even though he has money to pay. He exclaims, “I am not even a dog!” This exclamation shows Valjean as being entirely dehumanised by his time in prison, by his conviction and becomes even lower than the base structure of society – he is left dehumanised and rejected by a society for being a convict (he is convicted for stealing bread, and then more years are added to his sentence for attempting to escape). To further this, Hugo states, “Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave the galleys but not his condemnation.” Once again displaying that a convict is no longer seen as a person after leaving prison, adding to the idea of dehumanisation through the class system. Through Hugo’s narration, he gives the base structure a voice and in turn offers a non-conformist stance against the super structure. In his introduction to Les Miserables, Laurence Porter states “poverty dehumanises the poor […] leading to […] crimes that subject the underclass to a purely punitive prison system that offers no hope of rehabilitation.” Valjean is forced to steal because of poverty, (poverty being one of the three main issues Hugo outlines in his preface), and he is sent to prison for a minor crime and is dehumanised because of it. This idea of dehumanisation is in line with Marx’s belief that, according to critic Peter Singer, Marx believed that “economics is the chief form of human alienation,” presenting the idea that poverty leads to the loss of self, as is shown through the character of Jean Valjean. In giving a voice to the marginalised of society, however, Hugo could inadvertently be going against the proletariat, as Hugo is a middle class writer, so through his narration he provides the poor with a sense of false hope rather than the voice they need.
Hugo also addresses the need for equality through his presentation of women and children in Parisian society. The character of Fantine, for example, is forced into prostitution in order to make money to support herself and her daughter, Cosette. Hugo writes, “[slavery] still exists, but it weighs now only upon woman, and it is called prostitution”. The comparison of prostitution to slavery emphasises the awful circumstances women are forced into due to economic reasons. Hugo outlined in his preface to the novel that the suffering of women in society is also one of the three great problems of the age, “the ruin of women by starvation” – in early 1800s France, many women turned to prostitution for survival. Fantine is a representation of all these women forced into prostitution because they have no other choice. In a capitalist society her body becomes her means of ‘capital’, of profit and in doing so she becomes a commodity and objectifies herself. He also goes so far as to say that Fantine has “aged ten years over night” in order to emphasise the horror of her degradation and exploitation. Marx stated that, “Difference of age and sex no longer have any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age or sex.” However, through his presentation, it could be argued that Hugo sees a division within the proletariat – he supports Marx’s idea that the working class are all instruments of labour, but he presents the idea that to be a proletariat woman is worse than simply being proletariat, since he goes so far as to compare prostitution to slavery. She becomes the ultimate instrument of labour as she becomes nothing more than an object to use and sell. Hugo also portrays the degradation of children in society through the unnamed sons of the Thenardiers, who are sold, and eventually end up homeless on the streets of Paris. Their objectification and dehumanisation is emphasised when the children enter a public garden and a bourgeois man states, “Anarchy is entering the garden.” They are no longer seen as children anymore, but a nuance when they aren’t being used as a commodity. Through the entire novel, they go unnamed, which could make them the representation of any child who became an instrument of a labour, and in their case, end up homeless at the hands of society.
Elsewhere in the novel, Hugo confronts ideas of revolution through the views of those of the ABC Society, whose aims are “republic”. He sides with these students immediately by stating, “they were a coterie, if coteries created heroes”, glorifying them with the modifier “heroes” and presenting their desire for revolution positively, thus supporting the need for change. The character Courfeyrac expresses the point, “I desire no kings … a king is a parasite.” In early 1800s France, the country saw many monarchs being put and taken off of the throne, while the people had no vote in this – the revolution of 1789 was intended to remove the monarchy. The metaphor of a king being a “parasite” expresses the idea of the upper class feeding off the proletariat, which expresses a key Marxist idea of the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariats beneath them. At the time, the gap between the rich and the poor was monumental – the aristocracy often enjoyed a quite carefree lifestyle, while the poor suffered. For example, in the late 1700s, climate and agriculture problems caused an increase in poverty, and in the early 1800s, Napoleon raised taxes in order to fund his wars, draining the money of not only the wealthy but the poor too. Hugo goes into great detail to present the reality of this poverty – how Jean Valjean is forced to become a criminal to survive, how Fantine has to become a prostitute in order to support herself and her daughter, and how the Thenardiers’ two unnamed sons are sold in order for them to have money to live. Hugo also writes of a member of the ABC Society, of revolution, “Enjolras expressed its divine right” – a metaphor presenting the divine right of revolution, in contrast with the king’s divine right to rule. By 1832, when this particular scene is set, France was ruled by the ‘citizen king’ Louis-Philippe, and the people had grown tired of having one monarch being replaced by another – the people wanted a “republic”, rather than the reality of the bourgeoisie gaining while the proletariat lost out. Within his novel Ninety-Three, the narrative focuses on the Royalist counter-revolts during the French revolution, but the Hugo questions the Royalist need for a class hierarchy the character of Gauvain’s questioning of a Royalist’s belief. Through this, Hugo expresses his agreement with the right to rebel, which agrees with Marx’s idea of the necessary overthrow of the old system for a communist society.
Hugo then presents the need of the proletariat’s support for change in society. When the character Enjolras, during Hugo’s depiction of the June Revolt of 1832, realises their revolt has failed, he states, “As for the people, they were boiling yesterday, but this morning they do not stir. Nothing to expect, nothing to hope […] you are abandoned.” The repetition of “nothing” emphasises how the rebels at the barricade have no hope of succeeding. Enjolras realises that the reason their revolt will not succeed is because they no longer have the mass support of the proletariat behind their revolt. Critic Peter Singer, in his book titled Marx, expresses a part of Marx’s ideas on revolution: the force needed “to liberate humanity from its domination by economics is to be found in the working classes”. Therefore, Hugo presents the idea that the proletariat are needed in order to have any hope of changing society, but also considers how all classes have been repressed by society. Hugo writes, “Javert […] sprang up, and fell straight into the darkness […] disappeared under the water.” The use of the words “sprang up” is symbolic of Javert’s high position in society – as a police inspector. The verb “fell” is symbolic of Javert falling from his position of high status and below the base structure of society, to his death. Javert begins questioning his judgement and that of society’s when Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who Javert condemns, spares his life, and instead of facing this questioning he commits suicide. Through this Hugo also presents the idea that in order for there to be an equal society, the old order has to be overthrown – through Javert’s death, him symbolising the ‘old order’, then there is opportunity for social change. Similarly, within his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the ‘gypsy’ Esmerelda refuses to submit to the power of a religious figure, Frollo, and choses death – in doing so, she subverts the power of the superstructure and creates an opportunity for social change.
By presenting the struggles of proletariat characters such as Valjean, an ex-convict, Fantine, a woman forced into prostitution by poverty, and children such as the Thenardiers’ unnamed sons, who are given away to be used as a commodity and are no longer seen as children, he goes far in critiquing the societal structures of Parisian society. However, he neglects to critique the role of religion within these social structures, disagreeing with Marx’s point of “religion is the opium of the people”, Hugo being a religious man himself, although he critiques the power of religion in The Hunchback of Notre Dame through his presentation of Frollo. He portrays the need for revolution for an equal society, through his positive portrayal of those of the ABC Society, and a more so negative presentation of those with power, such as police inspector Javert. Through these portrayals and his social critique of Parisian societal structures, Hugo presents many significant Marxist ideas in Les Miserables.