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.
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.
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