Critical Analysis of "Les Miserables"
God has graced mankind with countless attributes that can be portrayed as minor or major roles in one’s daily walk. Among these features are ambition and hope. Ambition, defined as an eagerness or strong desire to achieve something, relates significantly to motivation, an act of movement toward a goal. Hope, a confidence and trust that something will take place, is extensively used when ambition and motivation are of topic. Victor Hugo, a French novelist during the eight-hundreds, adeptly and cleverly exercises ambitions and aspirations, hopes and dreams and motivations throughout his later written novels, such Les Misérables. In Les Misérables a single glimpse into each character’s life, such as Jean Val Jean, the main character, or Cosette, Jean Valjean’s daughter, illustrates progression. Hints of greed, love, and sacrifice can be traced far into each man’s struggle within himself and with man. Each character uses their attributes to gain and over come their obstacle.
Victor Hugo is known to be one of the greatest leaders of the French Romantic Movement, which sought independence from the conservative limitations of the classical style. Hugo’s works convey his indignation at social injustices and human affliction. Hugo knew how to write effectively and with simplicity of the common joys and sorrows of the average man and woman. Les Misérables covers a time span of more than twenty years—from the fall of the first Napoleon to the revolts of a generation later.
Jean Valjean, a convict of unusual strength, originally sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family. Attempts to escape have kept him in the galleys for nineteen years before he is released in 1815. Police inspector Javert is sure he will be back, for his passport proclaiming him an ex-convict, keeps him for getting a job or proper lodging. He stops at the home of the Bishop of Digne, who treats him well despite Jean’s attempts to rob him of some silverware. After receiving a new beginning from the bishop, Jean Valjean devotes his life to honesty.
Later calling himself Father Madeleine, a man with no previous history, he appears in the town of the town M. sur M. His discovery of a method of making jet for jewelry brings prosperity to the whole village, and the town’s people elect him mayor. Then his conscience forces him to confess his former identity to save a prisoner unjustly arrested. Again he escapes from the galleys and from Inspector Javert. Jean Valjean becomes a father, friend, and hero within his new life. He uses ambition to transform into a strong character internally and externally.
After Jean Valjean found shelter within the Bishop’s home, he expresses his gratitude for expecting him, and began to tell stories of suffering in the past. The Bishop kindly speaks to Valjean, “you have left a place of suffering. But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of repentant sinner” (Hugo, 20). Valjean could have taken this as good advice, or a warning, but it did not stop him from stealing the Bishop’s candlesticks later. Valjean’s turning point of growth begins after the last words the Bishop shares with him. “You belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying from you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts, and from the spirit of perdition. I give it to God!” (Hugo, 33). Jean Valjean has a sudden progression in his character. With a promise on his heart, made to God and the Bishop Jean steps into a new life refreshed. When coming across Petit Gravis, Jean learns that his inner self is aware of the truth, “What a wretch I am! Then his heart swelled, and he burst into tears. It was the first time he had wept in nineteen years.” (Hugo, 38).
Valjean’s past disappears and vanishes with a simple act of kindness from the Bishop. The effortless deed that motivates Jean Valjean to change the world. “His past life, his first fault, his long expiation, his external brutishness, his internal hardness, his dismissal to liberty, rejoicing in manifold plans of vengeance, what had happened to him at the Bishop's, the last thing that he had done, that theft of forty sous from a child, a crime all the more cowardly, and all the more monstrous since it had come after the Bishop's pardon,--all this recurred to his mind and appeared clearly to him, but with a clearness which he had never hitherto witnessed. He examined his life, and it seemed horrible to him; his soul, and it seemed frightful to him. In the meantime a gentle light rested over this life and this soul. It seemed to him that he beheld Satan by the light of Paradise.” (Hugo, 38). Compassion and truth were both motivations in Jan Valjean’s earlier walk.
Jean Valjean also displays hope for his daughter, Cosette. Cosette is Fantine's biological daughter, but becomes Valjean's daughter when Fantine dies. She spends the first six years of her life in utter misery as the servant of the Thénardiers, before Valjean rescues her and brings her up in Paris and a convent. She eventually blossoms into a beautiful woman and falls in love with Marius, a young lawyer. Jean Valjean learns to love when adopting Cosette. His heart begins to see not only himself, but others. Valjean uses Cosette as a motivation as well. He cares for her deeply and offers her all that he possesses. When Victor Hugo uses love as a motivation or aspiration, it does not necessarily mean a romantic love, rather a love of humanity, the love of a kindhearted human being for another human being, the love that must be connected with genuine charity. “Jean Valjean learns what love is during the course of the novel. The Bishop has caused the dawn of virtue on Jean’s horizon: Cosette worked the dawn of love. Hugo makes it clear that a man cannot exist without love, for if he tries, he becomes warped and less than a man.” (Reeves, 4). Jean Valjean grows as a person, becomes a good and honorable an after he found the love of a helpless girl. By devoting his life to her, he finds the necessity of a meaning outside of his own life. Jean Valjean come to value his own existence more because the girl is dependant upon himself and loves him.
Javert, the antithesis of Jean Valjean seeks only self righteousness. An obsessive police inspector who desperately searches for Valjean throughout France. He believes in one thing--order--consistently siding with the letter of the law instead of its spirit. Ashamed of his gypsy background, Javert devotes himself completely to his duty and shuns corruption. He is consumed by the malice. He can conceive of no point of view other than his own. Sympathy, mercy, and understanding require an insight that he does not possess. For him there is no such thing as an extenuating circumstance. He clings with mindless, insane tenacity to his belief in responsibility. At his hands, justice is distorted beyond recognition. Through him, Hugo shows the dark side of virtue.
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