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Les Misérables

Victor Hugo

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean stands at the center of Les Misérables and becomes a trial figure for Hugo’s grand theories about the redemptive power of compassion and love. Valjean goes into prison a simple and decent man, but his time in jail has a seemingly irreversible effect on him, and he emerges from the chain gang a hardened criminal who hates society for what it has done to him. By the time Valjean encounters M. Myriel in Digne, he is so accustomed to being a social pariah that he almost seeks out such abuse, greeting even the kindly bishop with scorn and hatred. Myriel, however, turns out to be the first person in decades to treat Valjean with love and respect. The meeting with Myriel forever changes Valjean’s character, as Myriel makes Valjean promise to become an honest man.

Once Valjean opens up his heart, he becomes a testament to the redemptive power of love and compassion. His hard work and new vision transform the derelict town of Montreuil-sur-mer into a thriving manufacturing center, which in turn teaches Valjean the value of philanthropy. In taking care of Cosette, Valjean learns how to love another person and how to pass that love onto others. He is exceptional only in his physical strength and his willingness to discover what is good, and this earnestness is enough to make him the novel’s hero as well as a savior and a friend to a number of people who find themselves in danger. Hardened by prison and rescued by the kindness of M. Myriel, Valjean is a blank slate, molded by his encounters and circumstances. This ability to change makes him a universal symbol of hope—if he can learn love and charity after suffering so much injustice, anyone can.


Cosette, like Valjean, grows up in an atmosphere of poverty and fear, but she is rescued from this life before her innocence gives way to cynicism. Though she spends a number of years under the tyrannical care of the Thénardiers, she never adopts their cruel views, which indicates that she possesses a fundamental decency and goodness that they lack. Once Valjean takes charge of Cosette’s upbringing, she quickly transforms from a dirty, unhappy child into a lovely, well-educated young woman. For Hugo, this transformation is so natural that he does not even bother to walk us through it and instead skips several years ahead.

Though she is obedient and fiercely loyal to her adoptive father, Cosette also has her own personality, which emerges as she enters adolescence and begins to hunger for a less sheltered life. In this period of their lives, Valjean’s role temporarily changes from Cosette’s savior to her jailer. Cosette’s ability to truly love Marius, however, is due in large part to Valjean, who has taught her to trust and love. In the end, Cosette remains true to her upbringing, and her love for Marius becomes her way of applying to her own life what she has learned from Valjean.


Javert is so obsessed with enforcing society’s laws and morals that he does not realize he is living by mistaken assumptions—a tragic and ironic flaw in a man who believes so strongly in enforcing what he believes is right. Although Javert is such a stern and inflexible character that it is hard to sympathize with him, he lives with the shame of knowing that his own Gypsy upbringing is not so different from the backgrounds of the men he pursues. He lives his life trying to erase this shame through his strict commitment to upholding the law.

Javert’s flaw, however, is that he never stops to question whether the laws themselves are just. In his mind, a man is guilty when the law declares him so. When Valjean finally gives Javert irrefutable proof that a man is not necessarily evil just because the law says he is, Javert is incapable of reconciling this new knowledge with his beliefs. He commits suicide, plagued by the thought that he may be living a dishonorable life. True to Javert’s nature, he makes this decision not with any emotional hysterics, but rather with a cool determination. Although he is a man of logic, he is impassioned about his work. To this end, Hugo frequently uses animal imagery to describe Javert, particularly when he likens him to a tiger. In the end, it is difficult to feel anything other than pity for Javert, who assumes his duty with such savagery that he seems more animal than man.

Marius Pontmercy

Unlike the other major characters in the novel, Marius grows up in a well-to-do household free of financial worries. Nonetheless, his family is split apart by politics, and it is not until he develops his own personality that he is able to become whole. Marius’s loyalties are torn between his father, Georges Pontmercy, who is a colonel in the Napoléonic army, and his staunchly monarchist grandfather, M. Gillenormand, who raises him. The political differences between his father and grandfather threaten to tear apart Marius’s identity, as he learns that his conservative grandfather intentionally prevented him from establishing a relationship with his father out of fear that Marius would succumb to his father’s liberal political views. Angry and confused, Marius adopts his father’s beliefs, but it soon becomes apparent that what he really needs is an idealism of his own. Marius begins to develop truly only when he leaves Gillenormand’s house, finding himself and falling in love for the first time.

Marius is more innocent than the other characters in the novel, and while this innocence keeps him from becoming cruel or cynical, it also makes him occasionally blind to the problems of others. This lack of perception first becomes clear in Marius’s treatment of Eponine, and becomes especially unattractive when Marius drives Valjean from his house. In the end, Marius is a good person, but his inability to perceive the needs or feeling of others can at times make him unwittingly malicious.


Although all of Fantine’s misfortunes are caused by the callousness or greed of others, society always holds her accountable for her behavior. In this sense, she embodies Hugo’s view that French society demands the most from those to whom it gives the least. Fantine is a poor, working-class girl from the desolate seacoast town of Montreuil-sur-mer, an orphan who has almost no education and can neither read nor write. Fantine is inevitably betrayed by the people she does trust: Tholomyès gets her pregnant and then disappears; the Thénardiers take Cosette and use the child to extort more money; and Fantine’s coworkers have her fired for indecency. In his descriptions of Fantine’s life and death, Hugo highlights the unfair attitude of French society toward women and the poor. Fantine’s fellow citizens criticize her for her behavior and depravity, but they also take every opportunity to make her circumstances even more desperate.

Hugo’s portrayal of Fantine’s mistreatment distinguishes the honest, hardworking poor from the parasitic opportunism of the working-class Thénardiers. By juxtaposing Fantine with the Thénardiers, Hugo suggests that poverty does not necessarily equal indecency. In doing so, he condemns a system that allows the indecent poor to survive even as it crushes the honest and needy.

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by kiiiiid, January 30, 2013

and gavroche dies and the rest of france build a barricade and end the french revolution


16 out of 79 people found this helpful

Les Miserables Analysis

by Adi31415, March 28, 2013

Les Miserables is based around the turning point in French history, and it explores the nature of this change in terms of society, and uses this as a basis for explaining the revolution. It explains how the ‘miserables’, or ‘victims’, damned into a life of thievery and being the scum of the Earth aren’t inherently bad. The society which has not given them a chance forces them to be bad, or do bad things. Instead of understanding their inner goodness and their plight to change their ways, or giving them some kindness or hope, they a... Read more


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Correction to Note 1 in Study Section

by IleneRM, October 24, 2013

It says: "Fantine falls in love with Tholomyès, a debonair upper-class student who obeys upper-class social customs and leaves Fantine even though she is pregnant with his child." This is wrong. Fantine was not pregnant. Ten months after the affair ended, Cosette was almost 3 years old; therefore she was already born when he left Fantine.


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