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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!