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Les Misérables

Victor Hugo
Further Study

Study Questions

Further Study Study Questions

What are the factors leading to Fantine’s decline?

Fantine’s misfortunes are rooted in her naïveté and a poor education, which in many ways stem from the social imbalances of nineteenth-century French society. Innocent to the ways of the world, 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. She struggles to support herself and her child, and when Paris proves too much for her, she returns to Montreuil-sur-mer. Because her illegitimate child would certainly not make anyone want to hire her, she leaves her beloved Cosette with strangers. Even this move does not save Fantine, as she cannot read or write, and must resort to dictating her letters to Cosette to a gossipy scribe who promptly spreads the news. In the end, Fantine has no choice but to become a prostitute—a move that forces her further out into the fringes of society and eventually into the hands of the police. While there are certainly a number of factors that contribute to Fantine’s decline, Hugo suggests that her poor schooling and boorish lover condemn her to a life of poverty before she even leaves Paris, and that the misfortunes that befall Fantine in Montreuil are the inevitable results of these two initial circumstances.

To what extent does the description of Myriel’s background at the beginning of Les Misérables introduce us to the central themes of the novel?

The novel begins with a brief biography of Myriel. We learn that he was forced into exile during the French Revolution and rose quickly to become the bishop of Digne upon his return to France. From the outset of the novel, therefore, Hugo confronts us with the turbulent history of the time period in which the novel takes place. As bishop of Digne, Myriel strives to compensate for the vast inequalities between the rich and poor under his care. He even goes so far as to give up his own material comfort to improve the welfare of his parishioners. Myriel’s selflessness thus serves as our introduction to the many social injustices in France, and highlights the power of love and compassion to overcome these injustices. Hugo establishes Myriel as a man of compassion, the yardstick against which Valjean measures his own success in becoming an honest man. By beginning his novel with the story of Myriel, Hugo hopes we will, like Valjean, understand that this kind of charity is what is needed in such turbulent times. Through Myriel, we understand what a decent man should be and the extent of what he can achieve.

What are the central conflicts that lead Marius to leave Gillenormand’s house? How does he resolve them?

Marius leaves his grandfather’s house in order to make sense of his conflicting allegiances. Until the age of eighteen, Marius is led to believe that his father, Georges Pontmercy, has abandoned him. When Marius learns that his grandfather, Gillenormand, has intentionally kept him apart from his father, he rebels against his grandfather by becoming a staunch supporter of Napoléon Bonaparte and storming out of the house. The issue at stake is largely political but also represents a son’s angry attempt to reconcile himself with his dead father. Once he attains some distance from his family, Marius is able to investigate his father’s life and makes a real connection to his father when he participates in the insurrection of 1832. This action is almost fatal, but when Marius recovers from his wounds, he is finally ready to reconcile himself with his grandfather. Once Marius finally understands and relives his father’s legacy, he is secure enough in himself that he can return to his old home. Marius does not, in the end, choose his father over his grandfather. Instead, he incorporates what he has learned from both of them into a personality that is distinctly his own.