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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!