Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In what ways do the characters in Les Misérables demonstrate selfless love?

Jean Valjean has never loved a woman or had the opportunity to be in a relationship or have a family; the loneliness that results from his isolation is brought home to him only after he "falls in love" with the child Cosette and begins to experience strong emotions that are new to him. After he develops a father-daughter relationship with her and his feelings become deeper, he is tempted to isolate Cosette from the world so he can keep her and her love to himself. His is a generous and prodigious love, however, which allows him to let go of Cosette and even save the man she loves from his own recklessness, so Cosette can have a happy life. Thus, Jean Valjean channels his feelings of love and loss (of the love that was denied him) in the direction of one being; he then rises above his own obsession for the sake of the beloved. Eponine presents a similar case. Her love for Marius is unrequited, but, like Jean Valjean, she is spurred to act unselfishly on behalf of the loved one. She channels her love for Marius into selfless service in which she protects the one he loves (Cosette) from the Patron-Minette gang and then gives her life for Marius by taking a bullet for him. Thus, both characters demonstrate selfless love by making a sacrifice of themselves for the sole benefit of the ones they love.

What makes Thénardier a convincing villain in Les Misérables?

Thénardier is a convincing villain because he slides deeper and deeper into iniquity, as he is driven by his insatiable love of money. This greed is not checked by any positive force, since Thénardier is incapable of love. When the reader first meets the villain, in Part 1, Book 4, the narrator says the Thénardiers belong to "that bastard class ... of rough people who have risen and intelligent people who have fallen, which lies between the so-called middle and lower classes," and which combines the faults of both these classes without any of the generous impulses of either. Thénardier has a disposition to progress in evil-doing: the villain first uses the child Cosette to make money and, as he falls deeper into poverty, begins to use his own daughters, Eponine and Azelma, to commit crimes of fraud; he even sells his younger sons to Magnon in Part 4, Book 6, while throwing his eldest son, Gavroche, to the street in Part 3, Book 1. He progressively moves on to extortion, assault, and attempted murder when he joins a gang of criminals (Part 3, Book 8). His focus on money leaves no room for feelings for others, which is why he treats family members as objects to be used for his benefit.

What motivates the female characters in Les Misérables to acts of heroism?

The female characters who act heroically are motivated by love. Sister Simplice, who never lied in her life, finds the courage to lie to Inspector Javert to save Jean Valjean (Mayor Madeleine) so he can escape and rescue the child Cosette (Part 1, Book 8). Sister Simplice has grown attached to Fantine, and she feels unselfish love and compassion for the unfortunate woman. The only way she can help Fantine is by helping Madeleine get away. Also motivated by altruistic love is Mother Innocent, who in Part 2, Book 8, breaks the law of the state to grant a beloved nun her final wish—to be buried under the altar. Fantine is motivated by a mother's devotion to her child, which gives her in Part 1, Book 5, the courage to sell everything she has—even her own body—in order to ensure the welfare of her child. Finally, in Part 4, Book 8, Eponine stands up to a gang of thieves and murderers to protect Cosette, whom her beloved loves; then in Part 4, Book 14, she puts herself in front of a bullet to save him, so he can be happy with Cosette, losing her own life in the process.

How does Javert's profession encourage his immorality in Les Misérables?

Although Javert has a genuine commitment to doing what is "right," which to him consists of unwavering and unquestioning obedience to the law, he does have an immoral streak that his profession encourages. This immoral or perverse aspect of his character can be seen in how he takes pleasure in the pain and suffering of his victims. He is repeatedly described by the narrator as a beast of prey—particularly as a tiger—and he derives joy from hunting down criminals, which goes beyond the satisfaction of performing his job well. For example, when he is hunting Jean Valjean through the streets of Paris, in Part 3, Book 5, he prolongs the chase so he can relish the idea that he has cornered his prey. The narrator says, "the paw and the talon find a monstrous pleasure in the quivering of the animal imprisoned in their grasp. What delight there is in suffocation!" Thus, Javert derives a perverse pleasure in imagining his victim helpless and crushed. His job gives him the opportunity to exercise power over les misérables, which helps him get over his own inferiority complex about being born into the underclass. Being a police officer gives him the opportunity to identify with the privileged social classes—but he fanatically rejects that opportunity.

How are Jean Valjean and Javert similar in their lack of mercy for themselves Les Misérables?

Javert tells Mayor Madeleine (Jean Valjean) to fire him in Part 1, Book 6, when he thinks he has made a mistake in his identification of the convict. In Part 5, Book 4, when Javert lets Jean Valjean go, he cannot forgive himself for breaking the law and punishes himself by committing suicide. Similarly, Jean Valjean feels obliged to tell Marius he is an ex-convict in Part 5, Book 7, after Marius and Cosette marry, and he does not defend himself when Marius pushes him away in Part 5, Book 8. He does not give Marius his full story, which would have cast him in a much more positive light in the young man's eyes. He holds back information because he feels it would be wrong to pressure Marius into showing him mercy. Neither man can shake society's condemnation of him as a member of the underclass. They are similar in that they struggle to transcend the labels society has put on them; however, they are not able to shake their feelings of unworthiness, which is why they both punish themselves for what they see as their transgressions.

How is the central image of the orphan in Les Misérables used to exemplify society's abandonment of the poor?

Les Misérables is full of orphans, including Jean Valjean (orphaned young); Javert (born in prison to a fortune teller); Fantine; Cosette (later adopted); Gavroche and his brothers; and Eponine and Azelma (after their parents go to jail). The narrator also spends time talking about the street urchins of Paris who must fend for themselves from an early age. The society of Les Misérables has abandoned the poor, and this abandonment can be seen most vividly in the plight of children, the most vulnerable of society's citizens. Parents who are poor and debased as a result of poverty leave their children behind, or they are forced to give them up, as Fantine must give up Cosette in order to care for her. The Thénardiers give up the children they cannot care for and don't concern themselves about it. Society turns a blind eye to the orphaned children of the street, and the cycle of poverty and abandonment continues.

Why isn't Marius in Les Misérables more deeply affected by his participation in the uprising of 1832?

Marius perhaps does not remember much of what went on at the barricade, especially after being unconscious for a long time and then spending three months recovering. When he does awaken in Part 5, Book 5, he finally achieves his dream of being united with Cosette, so perhaps he simply wants to put his past behind him. The fact that he is able so easily to forget what happened—that all his friends were murdered, that he participated in murder himself, that Eponine and Gavroche died—seems to indicate a shallowness in his character that is difficult for the reader to account for. From another perspective, Marius's disconnect from the events of the June uprising can be seen as a weakness in Victor Hugo's characterization. It seems implausible Marius would so easily put behind him such a traumatic experience and simply go back to being a bourgeois grandson of Monsieur Gillenormand.

In what way does Jean Valjean in Les Misérables never transcend his status as a pariah?

Even though he is no longer bound to present his yellow passport when entering a new town, Jean Valjean must nevertheless live as an outcast through most of the novel, primarily because he is pursued through most of the story by the relentless Javert; thus he is never able to relax and lead a normal life. Even during his best period, when he becomes rich and is the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer, he avoids social relationships because he doesn't want anyone to begin asking too many questions. In that sense he must remain an outsider who cannot fully engage in social intercourse. His identity as a convict never disappears, and, in Part 5, Book 7, he explains to Marius that he had to reveal himself, in case the long arm of the police might "abruptly tear off my mask." Finally, when Jean Valjean is dying, he says, "If you were to take me back, Monsieur Pontmercy, would that make me different from what I am? No; God thought as you and I, and he has not changed his mind" (Part 5, Book 9). Thus, Jean Valjean repents and changes his life, but he never loses his consciousness as a sinner who has been condemned to live outside the bounds of society.

How does the character of Monsieur Gillenormand change in Les Misérables?

Gillenormand is already an old man when he is introduced in the novel, and readers learn only through back story in Part 3, Book 2 that he is a well-to-do bourgeois who prides himself on being a staunch Royalist and hater of Napoleon and anything Republican. He goes as far as separating his grandson from his father because Colonel Pontmercy fought with Napoleon and even received a title from him. Thus, when Marius first defends Napoleon to his grandfather and insults Louis XVIII in Part 3, Book 3, Gillenormand throws him out of the house. However, his love for his grandson overcomes his lifelong aversion to Republicanism, and by Part 5, Book 5, he has accepted that his grandson has different political ideas than he. He ultimately accepts Marius's marrying Cosette, thinking she is a poor girl without a dowry, also bowing to Marius's idea that one marries for love without considering social and financial implications (Part 5, Book 6). Gillenormand softens in the course of the novel, changing his rigid notions about class because he loves his grandson and wants to keep him in his life.

In what ways is Cosette a static or dynamic character in Les Misérables?

Cosette seems to be more a static than a dynamic character, because she remains easygoing and malleable and never rebels against her treatment. As a young child she accepts the abuse of her caretakers, the Thénardiers, and when she becomes the adopted daughter of Jean Valjean, she accepts his lifestyle without question. After they leave the convent, she never questions their odd habit of living in three houses at once. She acquiesces to her separation from Marius without question, and her only act of rebellion is that she begins to see Marius secretly. But even in this action, Marius is the agent who initiates the secret relationship. In her relations with Marius, she remains passive; when he separates her from Jean Valjean, she accepts his decision, easily transitioning into the role of obedient wife. Cosette begins life as an obedient child and maintains that obedience into adulthood and marriage.

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