Les Misérables Themes


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The themes of Les Misérables are concerned with social issues in 19th-century urban France. Victor Hugo uses Les Misérables to deliver critiques of wealth distribution, the justice system, industrialism, and republicanism.

Les Miserables Theme

Themes



Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Love and Redemption
In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is transformed from a hardened criminal into a paragon of virtue. He ultimately sacrifices himself so that his adopted daughter Cosette might attain happiness with Marius, even as it devastates Valjean to “lose” her to the man she loves. In many ways, Jean Valjean is redeemed by his acts, which constitute penance for the wrongs he committed earlier in life. While generated and accelerated by love, redemption—according to the novel—does not take place on a straightforward path. Instead, it is understood as a process to be constantly fought for.

Redemption seems to take place on two major axes in the novel (which also correspond to Christian theology): selfless love and good works. Jean Valjean fulfills the second through his work as mayor of M.-sur-M., as a philanthropist, and as a man of simple tastes and lifestyle. His love for Cosette is another way he redeems himself for his past wrongs. However, Valjean never seems able to fully emerge from the burden of the evil he’s done. Internally, he struggles with whether or not he’s really a good person—whether his actions and love are no more than a façade concealing his true character, which may never be able to be modified. His past continues to haunt him in the external world as well: in his attempt to lead an ethical factory town, he is partly responsible for Fantine’s downfall, and by freeing another man wrongly accused of being Jean Valjean, he is convicted once again and M.-sur-M. falls back into wretched poverty.

By choosing to center his account on a relatively minor failed revolt—June 1823—rather than the 1789 French Revolution, July Revolution of 1830, or Revolution of 1848, Hugo emphasizes the difficulty for French society itself (and not just individual characters) to redeem itself for past violence, inequality, and social ills. Love for one’s neighbor seems to be the key to undoing these ills, though there isn’t much optimism that, in society at large, love will in fact conquer all—at least in the short term. Nevertheless, Hugo portrays his subjects generously and sympathetically, suggesting that the novel lays claim to the possibility of redemption even while starkly depicting the complications in attaining it.

Mercy vs. Judgment
The characters in the novel live in a world of consistently harsh judgment. Convicts and the poor are considered to be the dregs of society, while the rich, in turn, are assumed to be greedy and worth only as much as they can be tricked out of giving away. Women, especially, are subjected to difficult standards, placed on a pedestal of purity but easily and hastily condemned for diverging from this norm, while men who are promiscuous or simply carefree are celebrated rather than judged. Into this framework, the act of mercy enters as a powerful counterweight, at times shocking its recipients into a new way of life, but at other times proving overwhelming in its radical reversal of social norms.

As the novel begins, Jean Valjean is used to being treated and judged as the convict he is. He is therefore dumbfounded by the mercy that Bishop D— shows him in letting him go free after his attempt to steal the bishop’s silver candlesticks. Valjean has no idea how to deal with the mercy shown to him—he is so confused, in fact, that his first move is to commit another crime of robbery, as he desperately tries to reaffirm the values of by which he’s lived for so long. It takes this final criminal act, committed almost as a reflex, for Valjean to repent and embrace the mercy that the Bishop has shown him. Accepting mercy, then, can be excruciating, and takes profound will and grit. Javert, conversely, doesn’t have such mental strength in the end. He finds he cannot live in the contradiction between the judgment he’s bestowed upon Jean Valjean and the mercy that Valjean has shown to him, and he kills himself as a result. As a life transformation, the movement from judgment to mercy can be very painful, the novel reveals, even as Hugo celebrates mercy as the morally correct way to live.

Justice and Injustice
Multiple systems of justice and injustice coexist in the novel. The characters—as well as the morally conscious narrator—must negotiate among all of them in attempting to assign responsibility to certain characters, and in determining how the ethical choices of each one of them compares to the others. No one system of justice triumphs for good in the novel. This is a somewhat radical move for Hugo, who, while embracing a Christian worldview, is less interested in simply parroting official Church authority than in trying, through fiction, to figure out the meaning of right and wrong.

One way of comparing justice to injustice is through the legal system, personified by Javert and illustrated in the various courts, juries, and policemen that appear throughout the novel. Yet by creating in Valjean a protagonist who is an escaped convict—one who, in fact, can only continue to do good by remaining outside the law—Hugo challenges the notion that legal justice is just at all. Of course, this notion is complicated, given that the novel doesn’t portray those seeking legal justice as entirely evil or malicious. Instead, people like Javert are imperfect, perhaps overly zealous followers of the law who fail to understand that this authority can, in some cases, be unjust.

A potentially higher system of justice is the one developed by the Church—a system of justice that embraces mercy, as explained in an earlier theme. But this system also coexists with a system of individual morality, in which characters like Valjean have to weigh imperfect options. The most striking example of this is Valjean’s choice to tell the truth and free a wrongly accused convict, even while accepting that this will lead to the downfall of M.-sur-M., rather than saving himself and the town by sacrificing the convict. In this context, what “justice” even means is less clear.

Through the diverse systems and examples employed in the book, Hugo develops a surprisingly modern understanding of morality, one in which justice depends on the person, the moment, and the stakes involved. What does “crime” mean when it is committed by someone whom society has abandoned—whom society has, to put it differently, committed its own crime against? In this context, justice and injustice are reversed, and it is up to the characters, and the reader, to establish their meaning.

History, Revolution and Progress
Les Misérables is saturated with French history, and a reader not already knowledgeable about the historical figures of Charles X or Louis-Philippe, for example, can easily get lost in all the detail. But this kind of detail plays a larger purpose in the novel. It is telling that Hugo sets his book in the context of a relatively minor revolt, the riots of July 1832, rather than the massive revolutions of 1789 or 1848. Hugo, while socially progressive, was skeptical about revolution—skeptical that a single dramatic event could turn the tide and improve social wellbeing for the downtrodden majority. Instead, the novel suggests that true revolution takes place slowly, incrementally, and that only such careful movement exemplifies real progress.

As in other cases, the novel prefers complexity over one single view in advancing this understanding of history and progress. The conversation between the Bishop and a member of the Convention (the French Revolution assembly that ended up descending into factions and leading to the period of the Terror, characterized by the use of the guillotine to behead people) reveals this ambiguity. The Convention member, now (in the 1810s) hated by society, suggests that none of the Convention’s violence was any worse than what the populace had been subjected to under the king before the Revolution. The Bishop, on the other hand, cannot bring himself to accept that people had to be beheaded for the common good, but neither of them seems to win the argument. Revolution is therefore a mixed bag; because it is so dramatic and sudden, even its benefits are inevitably accompanied by drawbacks.

Mystery and Knowledge in Paris
The novel is full of masks, costumes, mistaken identity, and concealment. Much of this mystery takes place in and is enabled by the winding streets of Paris, a city where characters can find anonymity and escape their pasts. Paris in the period of Les Misérables was not the city of wide-open boulevards that tourists know today. Before the 1850s, it was a largely medieval city of unknown alleys, an old, dank sewer system, and ancient walls and fortresses. Throughout the novel characters both take advantage of and are hindered by its mysteries.

Hugo wrote Les Misérables while abroad in political exile, and he lovingly depicts the city from afar, with lengthy asides on Parisian architecture and history. Jean Valjean is able to start a new life in Paris with Cosette because of the opportunities for concealment that the city affords.—Paris is a dynamic, changing city whose very identity varies with the changing identities of its inhabitants. The characters that can best take advantage of this aspect of Paris are the ones that possess the deepest knowledge of Paris’s secrets, from its sewers to abandoned courtyards and dark alleyways. As an escaped convict, Jean Valjean is one of these characters, but the group of renegades that Thenardier employs to try to snare Valjean are also experts in Paris’s mysteries—as is Gavroche, the young son Thenardier abandons, for whom Paris is a playground to be explored. Ultimately, Paris in the novel takes on the qualities of a character itself, allowing Hugo to explore the other themes of mercy and judgment, justice and injustice, that have Paris as their setting. The city becomes a microcosm of society at large, while also acting as a setting for other characters to discover how to master its ways and plumb its secrets.

Les Miserables Theme

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Les Miserables Themes



Les Miserables is a story, a very long story, which has been categorized as a classic. The story is about 1200 pages long. It is an epic saga, which covers about three decades in the early 1800’s of France. The film is about the fugitive, Jean Valjean, following his release from jail after doing nineteen years of hard labor for stealing bread. Jean Valjean is chased by the cruel and self-righteous Inspector Javert, in a lifelong struggle to evade capture.

The novel, Les Miserables is internationally known. That is because of its universal themes. These themes are: how society treats its outcasts, and how it views its criminals, prejudice, justice, doing what is morally right, and people can become better persons.
The theme -how society treats its outcasts- can be seen in how the poor and homeless are are treated, and that is like animals.
The rich treat them as though they are inferior and that they have no feelings or any form of intelligence. They are also not given the right to vote, which makes them not citizens of that nation.

This theme is universal because every nation in the world has some sort of outcasts in their land. In America, this theme can be related to the blacks. In the beginning of the twentieth century they did not have as much rights and oppurtunities as the whites. Another example of how this theme can be related to America is how a person with a southern accent is perceived as less intelligent, which is a false misconception.
The theme -how criminals are viewed by society- can be seen by how Jean Valjean is treated after he is released by prison. Although, he has served a sentence of nineteen years, he is still chased and wanted. In that period of time when a person commited theft it was viewed as a crime against the community and that person should be punished to the most extremes.

That theme can be seen in modern America. When a person commits a federal crime heshe cannot hold a public job or teach for the rest of hisher life. Also, when a person commits a crime, that person and that person’s career is scarred for life.
The theme -doing what is morally right- can be seen in many instances in the novel. One instance is Valjean gives money to free Cozzette. Another instance is Valjean does not kill Javert to save his life. Also, Javert lets Valjean go free. There are also times where people do something that is morally wrong, but lawful. One might be when the students are executed. Another might be the arrest of the prostitute. A present time situation might be soldiers killing other soldiers. It is legal, but is morally wrong.

In conclusion, the novel, Les Miserables, is a universal book with themes that many people from many countries can relate to. That is why it is put in the class of classics. It is also popular because it can be related with present time situations and events.

Les Miserables Theme

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  • Les Miserables Les Miserables Les Miserables Les Miserables known in English as The Terrible is a musical portrayal of the French Revolution. It is a musical tragedy, which served as a major powerhouse competitor for Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals in the early eighties and nineties. When first debuting on Broadway in 1987 it traveled a long hard road to compete with musicals of the decade. However, in time many well-known performers were proud to associate themselves with this wonderful work of art. The musical play begins wi...
  • Les Miserables Les Miserables Les Miserables Les Miserables known in English as The Terrible is a musical portrayal of the French Revolution. It is a musical tragedy, which served as a major powerhouse competitor for Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals in the early eighties and nineties. When first debuting on Broadway in 1987 it traveled a long hard road to compete with musicals of the decade. However, in time many well-known performers were proud to associate themselves with this wonderful work of art. The musical play begins wi...