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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
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
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!