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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does Les Misérables show that the author is "for religion, against the religions"?

When the narrator stops to comment on politics, philosophy, or religion, he is speaking in the author's voice. The narrator/author uses the term "religion" in a generic sense (Part 2, Book 7) to mean any belief system that promotes goodness, self-sacrifice, and actions that create a fairer and more just society. He is against dogmatic religion, corruption in religion, religion without mercy, and religion that is "harshly austere to the temporal." Thus the narrator criticizes monastic life for turning its back on the temporal, although he admires the self-sacrifice of the nuns. The author creates the character of Monseigneur Bienvenu, whose religion is presented as the one worthiest of emulation. The bishop is selfless and compassionate and works for the poor. This is what the narrator/author means by religion. On the other hand, Abbé Sicard, the priest who determines Fantine is not worth the trouble of a proper burial In Part 1, Book 8, is practicing "the religions"—a dogmatic and judgmental approach to morality that judges "the prostitute" and not the person who was Fantine.

How does Hugo's liberal use of unlikely coincidences in Les Misérables detract from the power of his story?

The innumerable number of coincidences in the novel can leave a modern reader somewhat impatient, and even some of Hugo's contemporaries criticized Les Misérables for its lack of realism. For example, Thénardier just happens to end up living next door to Marius in Paris; he just happens to be the thief to whom Marius's father, Colonel Pontmercy, thinks he owes a debt (Part 3, Book 8); he just happens to also be the villain from whom Jean Valjean rescued the child Cosette; and he just happens to run into Jean Valjean and Cosette in a large city like Paris and become a recipient of their charity. Thénardier also just happens to be in exactly the right place at the right time to rescue Jean Valjean and Marius from the sewer in Part 5, Book 3. But Les Misérables can be likened to an opera. The author's skilled use of characterization, plot, and vivid description—just as an opera uses music, costume, and lyrics—puts the reader into a three-dimensional world in which he or she can't help but begin to care for the "people" in the novel and empathize with their trials and tribulations. The fact that Thénardier shows up so conveniently in the sewer, for example, takes nothing away from Jean Valjean's hair-raising escape from the sewer, which the reader anxiously follows. When Jean Valjean is released, the reader releases a sigh of relief and feels joy, not thinking much about the fact that Thénardier conveniently showed up to open the grate.

What does Victor Hugo mean in Les Misérables when he says his novel's "first character is the Infinite"?

Victor Hugo says this because, while Les Misérables is a historical novel and a novel of social protest, its main purpose is to show the redemptive power of love, which the author locates in the Christian tradition. Moreover, this imperfect love is a reflection of the perfect love that radiates from the Infinite (God or the Deity), which the author shows as being a constant presence in the main character's life. The Infinite is the first character, Hugo says, in Part 2, Book 7, and "Man is the second." Without God there can be no "Man," since in Hugo's view, God created Man. Moreover Jean Valjean spends his entire life, after the bishop has redeemed his soul for God, in finding his way back to the Infinite, which he does by following the bishop's example. Jean Valjean recognizes the presence of God in his life, and at one point he notes he is grateful that twice, when no one would help him or take him in, the Infinite opened its arms to him. The first time occurs in Part 1, Book 1, when the bishop gives him food and shelter and then saves him from the police. The second time, in Part 2, Book 6, Jean Valjean is taken in at the convent of the Petit-Picpus. At the end of the novel, in Part 5, Book 9, Jean Valjean says he knew God did not mean for him to be abandoned by Cosette.

Even though the narrator and Jean Valjean in Les Misérables note that living in a monastery is like living in a prison, how do their views on monastic life differ?

Jean Valjean thinks about how prison is a forced incarceration, while the nuns voluntarily shut themselves up. In addition, the prisoners can expiate only their own sins in serving time, while the nuns expiate the sins of the world, and they do so freely. The narrator describes monastic life as both incarceration and "castration," a horrible "scourge" that cuts off life. Jean Valjean has nothing but reverence for the nuns in the monastery who take him in (Part 2, Book 8), and he does not question any aspect of the Catholic faith he has embraced as a result of his conversion by Monseigneur Bienvenu. The narrator, on the other hand, has access to the history of the Catholic Church and is aware of the many abuses that went on in monasteries (Part 2, Book 7). He has a much more jaded view of monasticism, which he finds distasteful because it robs people of their liberty and freedom of choice. The narrator thus takes a view against "the religions" in this section of the novel in which he criticizes monasticism in all religions.

How is Enjolras similar to Mother Innocent in Les Misérables?

Enjolras and Mother Innocent are similar in that both have a purity of intent in carrying out their vocations; are fearless in their leadership; are entirely focused on the pursuit of salvation; and have no doubt about the truth of their belief systems. Mother Innocent is the leader of the convent, a learned nun, who is cheerful all the time; she never questions her single-minded devotion to monastic life. She doesn't think twice about breaking the rules of both the police and the health department in granting Mother Crucifixion's last request to be buried beneath the altar (Part 2, Book 8). Mother Innocent has no doubt that God's law is higher than man's and that she is privy to the knowledge of God's law. Enjolras is equally rooted in his belief system. He leads the Friends of the A B C and has no doubt that those who have chosen to man the barricade are giving up their lives for a worthy cause and that their sacrifice will ensure a better future for humanity (Part 5, Book 1). He also doesn't doubt his decision to break the law—both by taking part in the insurrection and by executing the thuggish revolutionary who kills a "citizen" in cold blood. Enjolras is celibate, like Mother Innocent, devoting all his energy to the cause of the revolution, which will deliver his idea of heaven: liberty.

In Les Misérables how do Javert and Marius cling to their moral ideas beyond what is reasonable?

Both Javert and Marius cling to ideas that are unreasonable. Javert insists on believing Jean Valjean is a bad man who must be punished, while Marius insists Thénardier is a good man who must be helped. Both continue in their beliefs, despite the evidence in front of them. For example, Javert sees repeated instances of Jean Valjean's goodness, while Marius sees examples of Thénardier's badness. While Javert's and Marius's loyalty to their visions and attempt to uphold their moral values are admirable, their refusal to admit error and their inability to change perspectives are not. A moral compass with a stuck needle, continually pointing in one direction, is a useless tool, as is a moral sensibility with no ability to change course according to context. Javert and Marius share this weakness.

How does Marius's idealism prevent him from seeing what is in front of him in Les Misérables?

The most glaring myopia resulting from Marius's idealism is his view of his obligation to his dead father. After Marius realizes his grandfather has lied to him about his father, he feels a great sense of loss as well as guilt and regret that this brave and honorable man was not part of his life. He also takes on some of the blame and responsibility for that separation, which is irrational, since he was a child when his father was banished. To make up for this loss and for the kindness done to Colonel Pontmercy, Marius becomes obsessed with paying off the debt to Thénardier. When Thénardier is first unmasked, in Part 3, Book 8, Marius sees before him an unregenerate criminal, and yet he willingly risks the life of Jean Valjean to save Thénardier. It never occurs to him his father might have been mistaken about this man, and he never looks further into the so-called rescue at Waterloo. Marius continues to help this criminal, in the name of his father, never considering what his father might have done in his place, should he have seen Thénardier's true character. Thus, his loyalty to an idealistic belief—that he should fulfill his father's wish—completely overshadows the reality in front of him: Thénardier is a villain who should not be served.

How do the various gardens in Les Misérables symbolically reflect the characters who inhabit them?

Gardens in the novel are an umbrella symbol for the life force—representing beauty, love, compassion, and nurture. In Part 1, Book 1, Monseigneur Bienvenu reserves one quarter of the garden to grow flowers. Madame Magloire chides him for his waste, since he is so frugal in all other areas, saying it would be better to have salads than bouquets. But he answers, "The beautiful is also useful." The garden is a daily reminder of God's blessings, and the flowers feed the bishop's spirit. His garden is well organized, and his care of the flowers is a natural extension of his care for his parishioners. Jean Valjean is also a gardener, having begun life as a pruner, and when he gets to the convent of the Petit-Picpus, he becomes Fauchelevent's assistant in Part 2, Book 8. This garden is hidden away from the public, just as Jean Valjean hides with Cosette and cares for her in secret. The garden at the Rue Plumet is not hidden but, rather, hides. Wild and untended, this garden in Part 4, Book 5 becomes the secret rendezvous of Cosette and Marius. Their love is wild in that it is new and undeveloped and will need cultivation once they become a "legitimate" couple in the eyes of their parents. After marriage Cosette embraces the cultivated garden at Gillenormand's house and tells Jean Valjean how the azaleas are in bloom (Part 5, Book 9) and that she waters the strawberries herself. But his time has passed, and now the garden must pass to the younger generation who will cultivate and enjoy it. Thus, Gillenormand's garden is an extension of the new life force coursing through the couple's marriage.

In what ways is Les Misérables a novel of social protest?

The author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, lived his entire life during the turbulent era following the first French Revolution. He lived through periods of rebellion and restoration of the monarchy, in which democracy in France would take two steps forward and then one step back. Victor Hugo was a highly political man who took part in both rebellion and restoration. He championed the rights of the people his entire life and was particularly concerned about the treatment of the poor and downtrodden. Les Misérables provides a running commentary on the social ills of France, sometimes in the voice of the unnamed narrator and sometimes as the voice of the author of the work, who breaks through the fictional frame. In addition, five of the main characters—Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Thénardier, and Javert—come from working class or lower middle-class backgrounds, and in telling their stories, the author highlights the ways the political and social systems are unfair to the poor. The novel critiques a number of problem areas, including poor sanitation, the draconian prison system, the failure of the government to uphold the rights of the people, the plight of poor people who have no work, the plight of orphans, and the plight of poor women, especially those who are forced to turn to prostitution.

What are some elements that make Les Misérables a realistic novel?

Les Misérables is a realistic novel in its portrayal of the social conditions of France during the early 19th century, including its detailed visual descriptions of Paris; its rendering of political and social history; and its portrayal of human emotions. Victor Hugo based the predicaments of some of his characters on real people, and the social and political milieu is also true to life. For example the novel realistically depicts the harsh treatment Jean Valjean and Fantine receive at the hands of the law (several years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread; imprisonment based on hearsay testimony), as well as the harsh life inside Toulon prison that embitters Jean Valjean. Hugo accurately portrays the geography of Paris during the period he is writing about and the historical events that occur during the 19th century—specifically the political upheavals. Perhaps most important, the emotions his characters go through are realistic and capture the reader: Jean Valjean's obsessive love for Cosette, Inspector Javert's hatred of Jean Valjean as an enemy of society, Fantine's devoted love for Cosette, and Monseigneur Bienvenu's Christian love for Jean Valjean.

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