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 are further punished by a justice and law system which hence does the opposite of the intention. The truly innocent are not able to do good and the truly guilty are left, and hence the poor people are forced to do more bad, and hence are punished more and more. Therefore and the society remains corrupt, creating the darkness and prejudice (against those people, as the law is against them and they are still doing bad things) that caused the crime in the first place, and hence is worse than the crime. However, as sombre and dark this may seem. Les Miserables actually is about the way out; the revolution, which is understanding when people are good in their heart and showing mercy, and kindness, even in self-sacrifice, to release people from the shackles of the law that chases them, and hence stop the darkness in the society that starts the cycle in the first place. As I will discuss, it really is about the spreading of this hope and love, and justifying the actions of the people in revolting and trying to improve the society, and about the way that mercy should be shown to the revolutionaries rather than see them as the scum (where Marius and students are important, as although they are rich and not part of the scum of the Earth, they show the mercy needed to improve society).
Victor Hugo presents Jean Valjean as a convict, punished by a largely exaggerated amount (19 years) for just stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. This is an exaggerated way of bringing out his internal goodness against the darkness of the society. First forced into committing sin because of his situation, no one shows him the pity he deserves, or mercy, or an understanding of why he committed the crime and the goodness of his heart, instead the ‘justice’ is punishment- which is unfair. Instead of being allowed to be a good man after release, even then he is always punished for who he has been forced to become. In this way there is a sort of hypocrisy, as we will see more with Fantine. The truly innocent Valjean has been forced into a path of wrong because of society, which then punishes him for it- it is not his fault, he is the truly innocent, yet he is the one who receives the blame for the sin. And this law does the opposite of justice, forcing a good man like Valjean to be a thief forever, rather than cleaning up the society of this mess, this system creates it instead. And this hate that the world shows him starts reflecting in his own character, when Valjean starts talking about hatred (‘never forgive... come to hate the world’), fully showing this transition.
Victor Hugo then continues Valjean’s story. Forced to become a thief (as shown before), he cannot reform his life. ‘Justice’ has forced him to do wrong, and now he doesn’t trust anyone, predicting the worst for his own state, becoming a dark character himself. Jean Valjean then is taken in by a priest, who lets him stay the night. With this new found hate, he doesn’t even trust the man, and steals his silver and runs into the shadows. A beaten and captured Valjean expects the same treatment from the world he knows: punishment, law, a note stating his crime. Yet instead he is shown the world of love and mercy, the priest does not use the false system that only creates darkness, but instead shows Valjean compassion and understanding, with the promise of becoming an honest man and spreading this love. Valjean has now seen a new side of the world.
Victor Hugo drags Valjean through a phase of loss and discovery. Just like late in Javert’s suicide, Valjean has a moment where he is overcome by the existence of mercy in this world, just as he begun to convert to the side of hate and punishment. Yet he cannot accept this, he feels it is too late for him now, and he has to escape form this world of mercy, and becomes a rich man like any other, a factory owner. He only returns when he is put to the test. In Who Am I? is what I would describe as the ‘greatest Valjean moment’- where he can either pass into the world as it is normally, by shifting the blame onto the innocent poor as it would be assumed, and he would join the list of men who were innocent on the face but guilty inside. He recognises this is wrong, that he would be doing exactly what caused his own troubles and understands the situation of the man, yet he feels he has done no wrong and has been offered a way out of the shameful, criminal world of Valjean- why should he return to that world when he was a good person (‘If I speak, I am condemned, if I stay silent, I am damned ‘)? This dilemma he has is ended by the thought that when he received this way out, he also pledged his word to being an honest man and spreading the mercy, and that although he feels a sense of rejection and shame at his former world that he rejected in his Soliloquy, he should not feel ashamed at that man because that is the one that God trusted was good, and although he is a good man by heart and doesn’t deserve the treatment of being Valjean, his goodness is based only on the fact that he can uphold his promise (ie. he tried to justify to himself beforehand that he was good and doesn’t deserve the world of Valjean, but he only doesn’t deserve that world if he lives up to God’s trust, which was in his goodness and requires him to be Valjean and not pass on his guilt like all others, otherwise he doesn’t deserve the Bishop’s and God’s pity). Yet he continues with this dilemma because he acknowledges that he is helping people so while it may go against God if he doesn’t admit who he is, he will still be helping others so he will be a ‘devil in paradise’ rather than a ‘saint in hell’. Comparing this thought to the dilemma of man in general and then Jesus before his death, Valjean decides to do as Jesus did and do what must be done in the will of God for his own soul, and trust that this will have a greater impact even if it means abandoning the help he can do. It may be important to note that this is another example of mercy with self-sacrifice, just like the priest. With a new sense of trust in the plan of God and the thing he must do to live up to his promise, and with no shame at the world of Valjean, he is rediscovered and puts all this emotion into the chanting of ‘24601’, no shame and no fear. We now know the Bishop’s trust was not to waste, and the society will be improved; Victor Hugo has convinced us of his idea.
This is when he can start to spread his love. It starts with the love of Fantine, who is used by Hugo as a woman who is treated wrongly by the darkness of society. Just like Valjean has been forced into thievery, Fantine has been forced into prostitution. It is society that forced her into this and then looks down upon her for it, again showing the irony and hypocrisy of this society; innocent, she is made guilty and then from that guilty state there is no escape, what is mean to be the justice of the law in fact condemns her further into this chasm of chaos. The cycle starts when she is stupidly and harshly accused of being a prostitute, when the people actually should help her take care of her child, and then ironically she is forced to be a prostitute. Now a prostitute, the society has forced her to do this ‘sin’, and when she strikes out against a man she has no defence against the law, as she is just a whore. Hence the society has forced her to do the bad even when she wasn’t bad, and then the law doesn’t help her plea for a justice she deserves, creating the society that spawns hatred anyway. She herself isn’t shown the way out of this, the hatred has consumed her and the society is still dark, Valjean failed with her, and Fantine passes away. Yet Valjean could not fail again, and steals away in search of Cosette, her daughter.
The character of Javert is most interesting. Hi is pursuing Valjean, and is considered a main antagonist, a man of steel. Although he is hardened by a society, he actually isn’t bad. He is simply convinced that this system of law is the right path, and he is convinced that the order and rule is the way to go, as he explicitly states in Stars. Yet, just like when Valjean experienced the world of mercy, Javert is thrown into the world of doubt upon his experience. Pledging his life to the law and finding Valjean, he is shocked when Valjean shows him mercy. This is the point where Valjean also truly shows his mercy, he does not use punishment, but instead follows the way of the priest and understands Javert himself, shows the form of justice that isn’t law. Javert, only knowing the law and order, felt it was right for Valjean to kill him- that is how the system of law, and justice works, Javert lost, Valjean had to put him to justice, so he should kill him for the crime against Valjean . Initially he mocks Valjean after this show, not understanding this justice. But after that he is killed by his own dilemma- he has pledged his life to the law and God, yet he cannot chase after Valjean, a man who he now knows to be good by showing him the world of mercy (he now knows that following the system of justice would be doing wrong, it would be ‘spitting in the face’ of the man who showed him pity and saved him, and now knows the truth of Valjean’s words, that Valjean is good despite the law being against him, and hence the importance of mercy and love and forgiveness over law). He cannot escape this dilemma and kills himself.
Now we see the rest of the story play out. Cosette, who would not have been shown the world of love had it not been for a certain Valjean, now is able to find love in Marius, beating Eponine who was earlier a higher figure in society. The children before Valjean represented both the society as they were influenced into a model of class (Cosette being the poor), and therefore the influence and injustice against children that starts this cycle from a young age. Her new love is an example of the new love in society. There is a realisation of the cycle of society’s darkness, law, and hence the darkness again. There is mercy shown by even those who are rich and who do not need to show it. The revolution isn’t just a savage uprising of the poor and grotesque, it is the want of the end to the darkness in society that causes those people to be deemed as thieves, or sinners even when they are good, hence stopping those good people turning corrupt and the society remaining bad and full of thieves, creating the darkness and prejudice that hung over France like a cloud. This involves mercy and understanding of goodness, not punishment, and that is what the revolution did. Even though the attempt fails, and it seems Valjean has sacrificed himself yet has not escaped the crime of his past, there is in the end the sense of a hope and a certainty of will shining through.
Even though this was a story about the way this worked during France, in some ways it is true in terms of humanity- ‘Maybe we should understand the influence of society and fate on the human conscience in creating these actions, and show understanding rather than total punishment. If we show total punishment, are we not then doing the bad that we tried to remove in the first place, if we do not understand why the evil was created? Yes, we should punish bad and honour good, but in judgement and misunderstanding this can be taken to the extreme that I realise was my action and then does exactly what I tried to combat. I did not act as the Bishop of Digne but as the Javert, however honest the intention. It is possible that I forgot that bad and good is still a product of humanity and will exist in humanity, and that means it exists in all of us, not one in each of us. It is a matter of choice.’ FrJust something I wrote ;D