Widely regarded as one of the greatest and most recognized French writers, Victor Hugo was the son of a general in Napoleon’s army. As such, he spent a significant portion of his childhood travelling Italy and Spain before joining his mother in Paris at the age of eleven. It was there that he developed his love affair with books and poetry.
Hugo experimented with many different genres of literature, however, it was his plays that proved the most successful. The July 1830 Revolution is credited as the driving force for many of Hugo’s best works, most remarkably, the literary masterpiece The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831). Not long after, Hugo developed a keen interest in politics and was awarded a seat on France’s National Assembly. Taking a predominately leftist stance, Hugo found himself outcast from France in the early 1850’s after voicing his disapproval of the monarch Napoleon. Hugo did not return to his homeland for nearly two decades and continued to be active in the literary world up until his passing in 1885. To date, Hugo is recognized as not only a literary genius, but also a French national hero.
Even now, nearly a century and a half later, the writings of Victor Hugo are at the foundation of popular culture, having spawned many movies and inspired countless other books. Hugo is thought to be a leader of the Romantic Movement and the creator of a unique brand of literature that combines imaginative realism with exaggerated symbolism and realistic elements. The characters in his stories serve the purpose of highlighting significant social issues, as Hugo’s fondness for politics compelled him to bring light to issues like universal suffrage and the availability of affordable education. Hugo firmly believed that it was his duty to stand up for those less fortunate than himself, a quality that drew him widespread appreciation.
Interestingly enough, Les Miserables was conceptualized two decades before being published in 1862. Les Miserables is viewed as a prolific example of humanitarian efforts that compel compassion and inspire hope in the face of social injustice and adversity. Even more so, it is a piece of history that paints a very clear picture of French politics and society during the nineteenth century. In writing Les Miserables, Hugo hoped that he would inspire a more democratic future.
Hugo’s fondness for imaginative realism is evident in Les Miserables. The novel takes places in an artificially crafted ‘hell on earth’ that boldly stresses the three primary issues of the nineteen century. Each of the three primary characters are used to symbolize these issues:
- Jean Valjean signifies the deprivation of man in the proletariat
- Fantine signifies the oppression of women through starvation
- Cossette signifies the atrophy of children in darkness
It is widely argued that Hugo created each character to symbolically represent much larger social issues without minimizing any of the other.
After serving a nineteen year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread, criminal Jean Valjean is released from a French prison. Upon arriving to the small town of Digne, Valjean learns that none of the townspeople are willing to offer him shelter because of his criminal past. Seeking refuge, Valjean comes across the home of the bishop Myriel, who offers him kindness and a warm place to stay. Not quite used to life outside of the prison, Valjean steals silverware from the bishop and is later arrested. However, upon his arrest, the bishop lies to the police, insisting that he gave the silverware to Valjean as a gift. Being spared what would have undoubtedly been a return trip to prison, Valjean promises the bishop that he will do whatever he needs to do in order to become an honest, law abiding man. With the intent of keeping his promise, Valjean recreates himself as the inventor Madeleine and endeavours to create a new life in the town of Montreuil-sur-mer. While there, Valjean creates a unique manufacturing process that brings great wealth to the town and is later elected as mayor.
Fantine, a beautiful young lady from Montreuil, has relocated to Paris. While there, she meets and falls in love with Tholomyes, a student from a prosperous family who romances the young Fantine but eventually abandons her after she falls pregnant. Being left with no way of supporting herself or the daughter she must now raise alone, Fantine makes the decision to return to her homeland with her infant daughter, Cosette. During her journey, Fantine comes to the sobering realization that she will never be capable of finding employment if the people are aware of her fatherless child. While travelling through Montfermeil, she encounters the Thenardiers; they are the keepers of the local inn. The Thenardier family agree to take care of Cosette in exchange for a regular monthly allowance.
While in Montreuil, Fantine seeks out employment at the factory owned by Madeleine. However, upon learning about her daughter, Fantine is fired. In turn, the Thenardier family request an increase in allowance in order to continue caring for Cosette. Spurned by an inability to support herself or her daughter, Fantine turns to prostitution. Eventually, Fantine is arrested by the local police chief, Javert. Had it not been for the intervention of Madeleine, Fantine would have been sent off to prison. Having fallen ill, Fantine asks to be able to see her daughter, Cosette, and asks that Madeleine send for her. However, before he is able to do so, he must appease Javert who has discovered the truth about his identity. Javert informs Madeleine that they have found a man who has been accused of being the criminal Valjean and later prompts a confession by Madeleine. As Javert arrives to arrest Valjean, Fantine dies.
Several years later, Valjean escapes from prison and ventures towards Montfermeil where he buys Cosette from the Thenardiers. It is revealed that the Thernardiers were an awful bunch who neglected and abused Cosette while treating their own daughters like royalty. Valjean takes Cosette and moves to a destitute area in Paris. However, after having been discovered by Javert, the pair must flee. They are lucky to find refuge in a convent, and Cosette receives an education while Valjean earns a tidy wage as a gardener.
Marius Pontmercy, the grandson of wealthy M. Gillenormand, has been estranged from his father due to their differences in political affiliation. However, after the passing of his father, Marius learns more about him and comes to relate to his democratic views. Angry with his grandfather for having kept him away from his father, Marius moves out of the house and adapts to life as a struggling law student. While in school, Marius befriends a group of radicals known as the Friend of ABC, who are spearheaded by Enjolras. One day, Marius encounters Cosette at a local park and is immediately smitten. However, Valjean is immensely protective of the girl and tries to prevent the two young people from meeting. However, their paths eventually cross once more when Valjean makes a social welfare visit to the Jondrettes, Marius’s lower class neighbors. As it turns out, the Jondrettes are actually the Thenardiers, who after having lost their inn, were forced to relocate to Paris under a new identity. When Valjean leaves, Mr. Thenardier announces his plan to rob Valjean. Disgusted by the announcement, Marius contacts the local police to inform them of the crime that is about to happen. Unfortunately, the police inspector is none other than Javert. Javert arrests the Thenardiers, but Valjean is able to slip away before he is recognized.
Eponine, the daughter of Thenardier, is in love with Marius and assists him in locating Cosette. After successfully contacting Cosette, the two declare their feelings for each other. However, the excitement is cut short. Valjean fears that he will lose Cosette and doesn’t want her mixed up in the political unrest that plagues the city. The two make plans to move to London, England. Out of pure desperation, Marius seeks the assistance of his grandfather and asks for his permission to marry Cosette. Their encounter ends in a fight. Marius later learns that Cosette and Valjean have gone. Broken hearted, Marius decides to accompany his radical friends, who have begun to revolt. Armed with pistols, Marius sets out for the barricades.
The political uprising appears to be frivolous, however, Marius and his friends refuse to stand down and continue on in their fight for freedom and democracy. The students soon learn that Javert has infiltrated their group. Labeling him a spy, Enjolras captures him. The army has begun to fight against the group, and in the heat of it all, Eponine jumps in front of the bullet of a riffle to save the life of Marius. As she lays dying in Marius’s arms, she hands him a letter written by Cosette. Marius pens a reply and asks a boy named Gavroche to deliver it.
Valjean intercepts the note, and after reading it, sets out to save Marius. When Valjean reaches the barricade, he volunteers to execute Javert. However, instead of executing him, he lets him go. When the army reaches the barricade, Valjean drags the wounded Marius through the sewers in order to escape. After the pair emerge, Javert arrests him without hesitation. However, Valjean convinces Jalvet to allow him to escort Marius, who is dying, to the home of his grandfather. Javert is plagued by the thoughts of doing the right thing; should he uphold his commitment to the law, or should he uphold his debt to Valjean? In the end, Javert releases Valjean and commits suicide by jumping into the river and drowning.
Marius recovers fully and reconciles with his grandfather, who later consents to the marriage of Marius and Cosette. Their wedding is a joyous celebration, however, joy turns to fear when Valjean confesses his past to Marius. The news of his criminal past alarms Marius, who still has not learned that it was Valjean who saved him at the barricades. Marius attempts to prevent Cosette from seeing the man who loved her like a daughter, and this throws Valjean into a deep depression. Marius later learns from the Thenardiers that it was Valjean who saved him and he sets out to correct his wrongdoing. He discloses everything to Cosette and the pair rush off to see Valjean just before he takes his final breath. Happy to have his daughter by his side once more, Valjean passes away with a full heart.
Jean Valjean is the pseudo-father figure to Cosette. Valjean received a nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a load of bread. After experiencing the kindness of a bishop, Valjean renounces his life of crime and vows to lead a prosperous life. He develops a manufacturing process that nets him a comfortable lifestyle. He finds love he never thought possible in Cosette, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute, and devotes his life to helping those in dire straits. Over the years, Valjean adopts many different personas in order to evade the police. He spends his entire life looking for forgiveness for his wrongdoings and searching for redemption. Upon his death bed, he finally makes peace with his past.
Cosette is the illegitimate daughter of Fantine. Upon the death of her mother, she is adopted by Valjean. Throughout her childhood, Cosette was raised to be the servant of the Thenardier family in Montfermeil. However, despite her tumultuous upbringing, she maintains a positive outlook and always sees the best in people. While living with Valjean and a group of nuns in Petit-Picpus, Cosette receives an excellent education and grows into a caring and well-rounded young woman. She later finds true love in Marius, the grandson of a wealthy businessman. On the outside, Cosette appears complacent and innocent, however, her willing participation in Valjean’s many attempts to thwart the law paint a more daring and intellectual tale.
Javert is the local police inspector. He has a firm belief in law and the pursuit of justice and has committed his life to upholding the strict penal codes of France. In the beginning, it appears that Javert is incapable of showing compassion or taking pity on those less fortunate than himself. He carries out his work with extreme precision, and hunts for lawbreakers in the way that a beast would hunt its prey. Javert has a keen desire to capture Valjean and bring him to justice. Ultimately, Javert battles with his inner self when trying to decide if Valjean truly deserves to be punished. In the end, it is this personal struggle that forces him to undermine the very belief in the system that he has based his entire life on.
Fantine is a typical small town girl. She leaves her home in search of a brighter future in the city. Whilst there, she falls in love and has an affair with a young man who abandons her after learning that she is with child. Despite being sickly, Fantine makes every effort possible to support herself and her daughter, Cosette. Even as her life begins to fall to shambles, and she turns to prostitution in order to make ends meet, she never stops loving her child. Fantine is symbolic of the nineteenth century destruction of the less fortunate.
Marius is the son of George, an active member of Napoleon’s army. The family did not approve of George’s political affiliations and exiled him. Marius was raised in the home of his grandfather, Gillenormand. However, upon learning the true reason for having been kept from his father, Marius leaves on a journey to discover himself. Marius is not yet wise to the ways of the world, but desires change. Having bonded with a group of radicals, Marius fights on the barricades and eventually marries the love of his life – Cosette.
Myriel is the bishop of the town of Digne. His love for his fellow men has made him quite popular. The bishop shows kindness and compassion to Valjean and inspires him to live a life of gratitude, seeking out ways to help those less fortunate.
The sire Thernardier is an awful, greedy man who, under false pretences, agrees to care for Cosette. He ends up abusing the girl and turning her into his family’s slave. Thenardier is driven by greed and will extort anyone he can. He is capable of anything, including murder.
Equally as horrible as her husband, she finds joy in torturing Cosette. Later in the novel, she plays an eager role in helping her husband to plan to rob Valjean and Cosette.
The eldest Thenardier daughter. Eponine is a product of her upbringing and sees no harm in helping her parents destroy the lives of those around them. She is later redeemed by her pure love for Marius. As she lays dying, she is revealed as one of the most heroic characters in the novel.
The elder grandfather of Marius, his mother’s father. Gillenormand keeps Marius away from his father, George, because he worries that he will corrupt Marius with his political views. Gillenormand is a strict monarchist and is opposed to the French Revolution. Despite his views, Gillenormand truly loves Marius and wants nothing more than for his grandson to be happy.
The youngest son of the evil Thernardier’s, Gavroche is kind and generous. He was kicked out of his family home at an early age and shows bravery well beyond his years.
“Valjean strained his eyes in the distance and called out…”Petit Gervais!…” His cries died away into the mist, without even awakening an echo…[H]is knees suddenly bent under him, as if an invisible power suddenly overwhelmed him with the weight of his bad conscience; he fell exhausted…and cried out, “I’m such a miserable man!”
In Book Two of “Fantine” Valjean’s encounter with Petit Gervais after leaving the bishop’s home. It is here when he first realized his inability to keep his promise to live the life of an honest man – he begins to recognize how immoral he is. Valjean pleads for forgiveness, but receives no response, not even an echo. It is this portrayal of desolation that suggests that Valjean might be experiencing a feeling of emptiness, further expressed when he refers to himself as ‘miserable’.
To owe life to a malefactor…to be, in spite of himself, on a level with a fugitive from justice…to betray society in order to be true to his own conscience; that all these absurdities…should accumulate on himself – this is what prostrated him.
This quote from Book Four of Jean Valjean is used to illustrate the frame of mind that Javert has prior to committing suicide. It is clear how much of an impact Valjean’s mercy and compassion have had on Javert. Torn between fulfilling his obligation to the law, or repaying his debt to Valjean, Javert is extremely bewildered. In the end, it is unconditional love for mankind that wins. Javert feels that there is no way that he can continue his commitment to the law without bias, and drowns himself.
Hugo utilizes symbolism quite consistently throughout the novel. However, the most prevalent symbols are the bishop’s silver candlesticks, and the use of animals such as snakes, birds and insects.
It is noted that the silver candlesticks, belonging to the Bishop, are symbolic of compassion as they create a beacon of light that delivers hope and love. In the start of the novel, the author plays with the contrast between light and dark to support the differences between the bishop and Valjean. When the bishop offers his candlesticks to Valjean, he is symbolically transferring the light inside of him to Valjean as he asks him to promise to lead an honest life.
In speaking of snakes, insects and birds, Hugo regularly uses animals to describe the personas of his main characters. Cosette and Gavroche, for example, where described as ‘creatures of flight’ during their orphaned years. Whereas the Thernardiers we commonly referred to as ‘snakes’.
Full title: Les Miserables
Written By: Victor Hugo
Type of literary work: Novel, and later musical.
Original Language: French
Time and Place of Origin: Paris and The Channel Islands, 1845 to 1862
First published: 1862
Published by: Pagnerre
Viewpoint: Les Miserables is told from the point of view of an all-seeing story teller who frequently addresses the readers. The story teller not only has a deep understanding of the characters, but also is quick to deliver a strong viewpoint of the political unrest of the times.
Setting: France, 1789-1832
Major Character: Jean Valjean
Themes: Love and compassion; social injustice; the French Revolution
Symbols: The bishops candlesticks; snakes and birds
Primary conflict: Jean Valjean struggles with letting go of his life as a thief and transforming into an honest and caring man. As time goes on, he fights to stay one step ahead of police inspector, Javert, who wants nothing more than to capture him and send him back to prison. Valjean’s most important mission is to raise his adopted daughter, Cosette.