Thematic Approaches of LES MISERABLES
Many different people have interpreted the themes of Les Miserables in a number of ways. Two contrasting interpretations are by Victor Hugo, the writer of the novel, and Jim Reimann, the writer of his interpretation of Victor Hugo’s original novel. Jim Reimann views the story from a Protestant perspective while Victor Hugo, however, intended the story to be viewed from a Catholic perspective. Although both writers have different religious views of the story, they both make an emphasis on the same themes. With themes such as evil, hatred, obsession, vengeance, and conviction, Victor Hugo makes it clear why he allows each character to transform through forgiveness.
Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Miserables, is seen in the beginning as nothing but hateful. Kathryn Grossman, head of the French department at Penn State University, states that “Released from prison after serving a lengthy, unjust sentence, Jean Valjean is a ticking time bomb when he arrives on the bishop’s doorstep in Digne” (Grossman 28). Because he dwells on only his disgust for Inspector Javert, the law officer who sentences him, Jean Valjean’s hatred for the law and society only progresses to create an evil within him. Victor Hugo allows Jean Valjean’s character to begin as evil striven by the obsession of vengeance so that the reader will understand that after being sentenced unjustly, he begins to have bitterness toward the world. “Hatred was his only weapon, and he resolved to sharpen it in prison and carry it with him when he left” (Hugo 97). Jean Valjean is convinced that his only purpose is to take revenge.
In order to completely abolish the evil within Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo places the bishop of Digne in his path. With the evil still lurking within him, Jean Valjean feels no guilt in stealing the bishop’s silverware. Hugo catches the reader off guard by allowing the bishop to show mercy upon the criminal knowing that he is not worthy of receiving such benevolence. The bishop tells the confused Jean Valjean kindly, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil, but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God” (Hugo 111). With this, Hugo explains the importance of forgiveness and helps Jean Valjean understand that taking vengeance upon Javert is not the answer. Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian novelist and literary critic, explains that once Jean Valjean understands the reason for the bishop’s kindness, “To a certain extent, he has freed himself from evil” (101). By turning away from the darkness, Jean Valjean is no longer chained to what is in the past.
In the development of Jean Valjean’s character, Victor Hugo’s goal is to essentially portray Jean Valjean’s change as the life of a sinner being redeemed by the grace of God. In a sinner’s life, he or she is driven by the darkness within. A person will continue to live in sin whether or not he or she realizes the evil that prowls inside the heart. Victor Hugo purposefully places the bishop in Jean Valjean’s path so the reader will see that there is a purpose greater than vengeance upon those who may be unkind. With the bishop explaining Jean Valjean is not to remain a criminal, Hugo in a sense, reveals to the reader that kindness to others will impact them even if they do not deserve it.
As Jean Valjean realizes that his determined will to have vengeance upon the cruel Javert is not necessarily what should be pressing him forward, a complete transformation changes his thinking. “A new strange emotion overcame him - one that struck at the hardness he had acquired over the last twenty years of his life” (Reimann 33). Hugo wants the reader to make the connection with salvation with the fact that the bishop basically leads Jean Valjean to live a life for God. “His conversion thus begins as a transformation of perspective, when he apprehends the peculiar logic of love and forgiveness” (Grossman 29). Jean Valjean’s future is not with the wickedness of the world, but with goodness he can thrust upon it. “Like the sequence of daily biblical readings in a liturgical lectionary, Les Miserables aspires to function as a kind of spiritual guide, as a means for reflecting on time and eternity the secular and the sacred” (Grossman 26). As Jean Valjean recognizes his sinful ways, it seems as though Hugo also wishes that the reader would recognize his or her own faults and change completely.
Victor Hugo suggests with the bishop that there will be an everlasting impression on the undeserving. Victor Hugo also wants the reader to understand that it is imperative that Jean Valjean’s change occurs in the beginning of the novel. The encounter with the bishop humbles Jean Valjean and helps him to see past his revenge. Because of the change in Jean Valjean’s life, an immense amount of good affects a number of people such as Fantine, Cosette, and Marius. In the reader’s eyes, Hugo hopes that he or she will bestow kindness upon the unworthy.
The most prominent antagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is Inspector Javert. Javert lives his life for the sole purpose of abiding by the law. After a number of events, Hugo illustrates that Javert truly has an obsession with the law. Javert believes that any person who breaks the law is a criminal, and once a person becomes a criminal, he or she will always be a criminal. Inspector Javert also believes that no one is redeemed from a crime that one may commit.
Hugo repetitively reminds the significance of Javert’s obsession when Javert’s view of forgiveness is concerned. When a person admits they do wrong, forgiveness is not even considered in Javert’s eyes. Victor Hugo describes Javert’s cold heart by saying, “Reflection was something to which he was unused, and he found it singularly painful” (1105). Even with Fantine, who admits she had done wrong with hitting a man as self-defense, mercy did not even cross Javert’s mind. Because Fantine is a prostitute, Hugo emphasizes that it is still a crime to Javert. Victor Hugo wants the reader to understand that unlike Jean Valjean, who has compassion for Fantine, Javert has a hardened heart. When speaking to Jean Valjean about forgiveness, Javert says, “In fact, your kindness to others has only served to increase my anger toward you. Your kindness is what I see as a false kindness - the kind that disrupts society” (Reimann 70). Javert is baffled why Jean Valjean would even consider forgiving someone who does not deserve it; especially when he is the one being forgiven. One significant example is when Jean Valjean is living as a mayor and forgives Javert instead of punishing him for accusing him of being a criminal. Hugo also wishes the reader to see the importance of Javert’s views when Jean Valjean does not kill Javert in the barricades. Javert assures Valjean that he will continue to seek him out and believes Valjean’s choice of letting him go to be poor judgment.
Although Javert’s passionate desire to live by the law and to ignore all other principles seem to reign over his life, Hugo unexpectedly allows him to come to see a new light. As Jim Reimann describes Javert, “His religion was law and order, and it had been enough for him. His faith was in the police, and he reported to his superior, yet to this point he had never dreamed of that other Superior - God” (242). Javert at last recognizes that God is who he should place his trust, not the law. Although he has respect for the law, Javert realizes that the forgiveness Jean Valjean bestows upon him is truly of God and that all Jean Valjean ever wants is to be at peace with living a life that would be better than the life he once lived.
Victor Hugo wants the reader to see that Javert is torn between breaking the law and not being proper when he captures Jean Valjean. Javert is suddenly reminded that Jean Valjean saves his life from the revolutionaries and realizes he is indebted to Jean Valjean. Victor Hugo shows Javert’s struggle by writing that “It would be bad to arrest Valjean, bad also to let him go” (1105). Javert decides to break the law and settles his debt with Jean Valjean by setting him free. “For the first time he had accepted a kindness, and he had repaid it with a kindness” (Reimann 242). Even though Jim Reimann suggests that Javert understands Jean Valjean’s reasoning, Isabel Roche, author of Character and Meaning in the Novels of Victor Hugo and specializes in French nineteenth-century novels, suggests otherwise. Roche states, “Thus unable to make any kind of sense out of the new system in which he has unwittingly engaged himself through his reciprocation of Jean Valjean’s act, he makes the only choice available to him and removes himself from the system altogether” (87-88). Feeling as though he cannot live with himself knowing he has, to some extent, committed a crime, Javert jumps into the Seine River to his death.
It seems as though Jim Reimann proposes from his perspective that the reader must have the understanding that Victor Hugo wants his readers to become more like Jean Valjean instead of Javert. By turning from wicked ways, a person should pursue goodness. Living a life by judging a person will only cause judgment to be granted to those who judge. With Javert, people are afraid of him and do not enjoy his company. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, earns respect from people because of his kindness.
By using themes such as hatred, obsession, vengeance, and conviction, Victor Hugo allows the characters of his novel to be changed through forgiveness. Although individual changes arise within both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, Hugo makes the themes a key factor in what should impact the reader. With Jean Valjean’s desire to take revenge upon Javert, Hugo reveals that the grace of God leads people to take it into consideration that forgiveness is the only solution. Upon understanding that the forgiveness Jean Valjean has given Javert is not false, Hugo helps the reader realize that strict rules are not the answers to all problems. Throughout Les Miserables, Victor Hugo seeks to help readers grasp the importance of forgiveness. Regardless of what crimes or sins one might commit, God will be forgiving. As human beings, no one has the authority to declare the worth of a man based upon one sin stating that there is no going back to a clean slate. After God’s forgiveness, there is no looking back on what is past, but only to the future.
Grossman, Kathryn M. Les Misérables: Conversion, Revolution, Redemption. New York: Twayne/Simon & Schuster/Macmillan, 1996. Print.
Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. Trans. Norman Denny. New York: Penguin, 1976. Print.
Hugo, Victor. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables: The Classic Story of the Triumph of Grace and Redemption. Ed. Jim Reimann. Nashville: Word Pub., 2001. Print.
Roche, Isabel. Character and Meaning in the Novels of Victor Hugo. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2007. Print.
Vargas, Llosa. The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.