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Les Misérables

Victor Hugo

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

“Fantine,” Books One–Two

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Love and Compassion

In Les Misérables, Hugo asserts that love and compassion are the most important gifts one person can give another and that always displaying these qualities should be the most important goal in life. Valjean’s transformation from a hate-filled and hardened criminal into a well-respected philanthropist epitomizes Hugo’s emphasis on love, for it is only by learning to love others that Valjean is able to improve himself. While Valjean’s efforts on behalf of others inevitably cause him problems, they also give him a sense of happiness and fulfillment that he has never before felt. Valjean’s love for others—in particular, for Cosette—is what keeps him going in desperate times.

Hugo also makes clear that loving others, while difficult, is not always a thankless task, and he uses Valjean and Fauchelevent to show that love begets love, and compassion begets compassion. Valjean jumps out of a crowd of onlookers to rescue Fauchelevent; years later, Fauchelevent repays Valjean’s bravery by offering him refuge in the convent of Petit-Picpus. In Hugo’s novel, love and compassion are nearly infectious, passed on from one person to another. After M. Myriel transforms Valjean with acts of trust and affection, Valjean, in turn, is able to impart this compassion to Cosette, rescuing her from the corrupting cruelty of the Thénardiers. Cosette’s love then reaches fulfillment through her marriage to Marius, and their love for each other leads them both to forgive Valjean for his criminal past.

Social Injustice in Nineteenth-Century France

Hugo uses his novel to condemn the unjust class-based structure of nineteenth-century France, showing time and again that the society’s structure turns good, innocent people into beggars and criminals. Hugo focuses on three areas that particularly need reform: education, criminal justice, and the treatment of women. He conveys much of his message through the character of Fantine, a symbol for the many good but impoverished women driven to despair and death by a cruel society. After Fantine is abandoned by her aristocratic lover, Tholomyès, her reputation is indelibly soiled by the fact that she has an illegitimate child. Her efforts to hide this fact are ruined by her lack of education—the scribe to whom Fantine dictates her letters reveals her secret to the whole town. Ironically, it is not until the factory fires Fantine for immorality that she resorts to prostitution. In the character of Fantine, Hugo demonstrates the hypocrisy of a society that fails to educate girls and ostracizes women such as Fantine while encouraging the behavior of men such as Tholomyès .

Hugo casts an even more critical eye on law enforcement. The character of Valjean reveals how the French criminal-justice system transforms a simple bread thief into a career criminal. The only effect of Valjean’s nineteen years of mistreatment on the chain gang is that he becomes sneaky and vicious—a sharp contrast to the effect of Myriel’s kindness, which sets Valjean on the right path almost overnight. Another contrast to Valjean’s plight is the selective manner in which the Parisian police deal with the Patron-Minette crime ring. Unlike Valjean, Patron-Minette and their associates are real criminals who rob and murder on a grand scale, but they receive only short sentences in prisons that are easy to escape. In the French society of Les Misérables, therefore, justice is clumsy at best. It barely punishes the worst criminals but tears apart the lives of people who commit petty crimes.

The Long-Term Effects of the French Revolution on French Society

In Les Misérables, Hugo traces the social impact of the numerous revolutions, insurrections, and executions that took place in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France. By chronicling the rise and fall of Napoléon as well as the restoration and subsequent decline of the Bourbon monarchy, Hugo gives us a sense of the perpetual uncertainty that political events imposed upon daily life. Though Hugo’s sympathies are with republican movements rather than with the monarchy, he criticizes all of the regimes since the French Revolution of 1789 for their inability to deal effectively with social injustice or eliminate France’s rigid class system. Hugo describes the Battle of Waterloo, for instance, in glowing terms, but reminds us that at the end of the glorious battle, the old blights of society, like the grave robbers, still remain. Similarly, the battle at the barricade is both heroic and futile—a few soldiers are killed, but the insurgents are slaughtered without achieving anything. The revolution that Hugo champions is a moral one, in which the old system of greed and corruption is replaced by one of compassion. Although both Napoléon and the students at the barricade come closer to espousing these values than the French monarchs do, these are not values than can be imposed through violence. Indeed, Hugo shows that Napoléon and the students at the barricades topple as easily as the monarchy.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Plight of the Orphan

The prevalence of orphans and unusual family structures in Les Misérables is the most obvious indicator that French society and politics in the period described have gone terribly wrong. Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Gavroche, Pontmercy, and Gillenormand are all separated from their family or loved ones for economic or political reasons. Marius embodies the disastrous effects of politics on family structure, torn as he is between Gillenormand’s monarchism and Pontmercy’s embrace of Napoléon. Social instability and poverty, meanwhile, make orphans of Cosette, Valjean, Fantine, and Gavroche. With the exception of Gavroche, whose home life is so wretched that he is probably better off on his own, these characters are unhappy and lonely because they are separated from their parents and have no one to turn to when they most need help.

Disguises and Pseudonyms

A number of characters in the novel operate under pseudonyms or in disguise, and these deliberate changes in identity become the distinctive mark of the criminal world. Thénardier is a prime example: at one point in the novel, he masquerades under the name Jondrette, and we see that he has adopted other pseudonyms at the same time. Valjean, who uses pseudonyms to hide his past rather than to continue his criminal behavior, inhabits his alter egos more thoroughly. Even Valjean’s disguises, while not as dishonorable as Thénardier’s, are an unfulfilling way of living, and the first thing Valjean does after Cosette’s marriage is shed his fake name in front of his new family. Disguises and pseudonyms are a means of survival for the novel’s characters, but Hugo believes that life is about more than mere survival. Ultimately, one of the most important distinctions between the honest characters and the criminals is the willingness of the honest characters to set aside their alter egos and reveal themselves for who they truly are.

Resurrection

When a character in Les Misérables learns a major lesson about life, this realization is often accompanied by a physical resurrection. Valjean undergoes the largest number of reincarnations, each of which denotes that he is another step away from his old moral depravity. After his encounter with Myriel, for instance, Valjean reinvents himself as Madeleine, and he leaves this identity behind when he pretends to drown in the waters of Toulon. The epitome of this resurrection motif is the ruse with the coffin that Valjean devises in order to remain at the convent of Petit-Picpus. Valjean is not the only one to undergo such resurrections, however. When Marius finally recovers six months after being wounded at the barricades, he is a different man from the love-stricken suitor who goes to fight. Although he does not assume a new identity, Marius needs to experience a metaphorical death before he can reconcile himself with his grandfather and successfully court Cosette.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Myriel’s Silver Candlesticks

M. Myriel’s candlesticks are the most prominent symbol of compassion in Les Misérables, and they shed a light that always brings love and hope. At the beginning of the novel, Hugo uses the contrast between light and darkness to underscore the differences between Myriel, an upstanding citizen, and Valjean, a dark, brooding figure seemingly incapable of love. When Myriel gives Valjean his silver candlesticks, Myriel is literally passing on this light as he tells Valjean he must promise to become an honest man. Subsequently, the candlesticks reappear frequently to remind Valjean of his duty. When Valjean dies, the candlesticks shine brightly across his face, a symbolic affirmation that he has attained his goal of love and compassion.

Snakes, Insects, and Birds

When describing the novel’s main characters, Hugo uses animal imagery to accentuate these characters’ qualities of good and evil. The orphaned figures of Cosette and Gavroche are frequently referred to as creatures of flight: Cosette as a lark and Gavroche as a fly. The Thénardiers, on the other hand, are described as snakes, and Cosette’s time among them is likened to living with beetles. These opposing symbols suggest that whereas Cosette and Gavroche can rise above their miserable circumstances, the Thénardiers are rooted in their immoral pursuits. They are creatures of the earth, which means that they are not as free as Cosette or Gavroche, who can fly wherever they please.

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gavroche

by kiiiiid, January 30, 2013

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

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15 out of 68 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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263 out of 279 people found this helpful

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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2 out of 3 people found this helpful

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