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Les Misérables | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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In what ways is Monseigneur Bienvenu in Les Misérables the moral center of the novel?

The moral center of the novel is Monseigneur Bienvenu because he exemplifies the "religion" (as opposed to "the religions") the narrator favors: the saintly bishop is dedicated to the poor. He gives all his wealth away and radiates compassion. He does not judge but rather leads by example. His philosophy in Part 1, Book 1 is evident in this statement: "To be a saint is the exception; to be upright is the rule. Err, falter, sin, but be upright." His habit of welcoming all to the table has earned him his name, and when Jean Valjean shows up in Part 1, Book 2, he shows the convict the first kindness he's experienced in many a year. Through the bishop's compassion, the hero of the story, Jean Valjean, is able to change his trajectory: he leaves behind a life of hatred and crime and sets off on the road to redemption.

Why does the bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, kneel before G_____, the Conventionist, in Les Misérables?

In Part 1, Book 1, Monseigneur Bienvenu kneels before the Conventionist because, in his exceptional ability to empathize, he sees the man's point of view and acknowledges his suffering before God. The Conventionist explains that, while he may have supported acts of violence, they were inevitable for the sake of realizing "the ideal" of a more just society. Moreover, he did not make himself rich during the Revolution, and at times he protected his adversaries. The Conventionist, referred to as G_____, also admits the Infinite exists and that he is part of it. The Conventionist has been persecuted and hounded for many years since the Revolution, but he has not retreated into hatred. The bishop kneels to acknowledge G_____'s nobility and suffering, one of God's children, and he seizes the opportunity to remind himself his compassion should be freely and universally given.

How does the treatment of Fantine by Félix Tholomyès in Les Misérables demonstrate the bourgeois contempt for the working classes?

In Part 1, Book 3, the narrator relates the story of how Fantine meets her lover, Félix Tholomyès, and becomes pregnant with his child. Fantine is one of four women who become the mistresses of four bourgeois students, although at 30, Tholomyès is much older than the rest. These men are spoiled and pampered by their parents, and when Tholomyès decides it is time to break it off with the girls, no doubt because he realizes Fantine is pregnant, the three of them follow his lead. They do this by taking the women to lunch and then sending a note to advise them of the news. This letter is patronizing, addressing all four women as "Dear lovers" and advising them, "Understand, we have Parents—you barely know the meaning of the word,"—implying the women are bastards. The note treats the women as prostitutes, telling them to mourn their lovers quickly and replace them. This incident is emblematic of the kind of contempt middle-class men exhibited for the lower classes, particularly the women they used and then left. When Fantine writes to her lover about the child, he ignores her, and the narrator tells us in Part 1, Book 4 he went on to become a rich attorney, "a wise voter and a rigid juror, but as always, a man of pleasure." Thus, the narrator points out the hypocrisy of the bourgeois class as well, in which the men kept one standard for themselves and another standard for judging the offenses of the working classes.

In Les Misérables how does Javert's background as the son of a pariah affect his character?

Javert is born in prison, the son of a fortune teller and a convict who rows as a galley slave in the French navy (Part 1, Book 5). As the narrator explains, Javert knows his background will never allow him to enter society. Thus, he has the chance of either attacking society or guarding it as a perennial outsider, and he chooses to guard society. Javert remains a pariah himself, despite the fact that he rises in the ranks of the police to become an inspector. He has no wife, no doubt because he has internalized the label that has been put on him by society, as the outcast son of a gypsy. Who would associate with such a man? No one respectable in his estimation, which is likely why he remains alone. His job as policeman puts him in proximity to the people he feels are better than he, as well as to those he can lord it over. His hatred of les misérables on behalf of society is a kind of self-hatred, which warps his personality and creates the merciless and unfeeling person Javert becomes.

How does Les Misérables support the idea that people are more the product of their environment than their genetics?

Les Misérables presents a strong case that people are a product of their environment. Jean Valjean begins life as a pruner and works hard to put food on the table in his sister's house, where she is raising several children. He becomes a thief only out of desperation, when he can no longer get work and he sees the children are hungry. As soon as someone reaches out a helping hand, in the form of a kindly bishop, Jean Valjean turns his life around, even after he has been subjected to 19 years of punishment in prison. Similarly, although Fantine and her parents before her were doomed to spend their lives as members of the underclass, her daughter, Cosette, is plucked from that misery by Jean Valjean and raised by him and the nuns. As a result she becomes a refined young woman who attracts the attention of the middle-class Marius, who falls in love with her and marries her. Thus, like most of the characters in the novel, Jean Valjean and Cosette are shaped primarily by their environment, not by genetic predisposition.

How do disguises and aliases both reveal and conceal the characters in Les Misérables ?

Jean Valjean wears disguises on a regular basis in the novel: he changes his clothes to appear to be a man of either the working class or the middle class, depending on his need, and he sometimes uses wigs to hide his white hair. He also goes by aliases, such as Monsieur Madeleine and Monsieur Fauchelevent, and he is named Monsieur LeBlanc by Marius and his friends. These disguises are used to conceal his criminal identity as Jean Valjean, but at the same time they reveal Jean Valjean as the new man he has become. In Part 1, Book 5, Monsieur Madeleine takes the name of the sinner and penitent, Magdalen, who was forgiven by Jesus, and his name is reflective of the repentant philanthropist and Christian he has become. Similarly, his identity as Fauchelevent reveals his status as father to Cosette. He is symbolically re-baptized when he enters the convent of the Petit-Picpus, in Part 2, Book 5, as he begins a new life as Cosette's parent. Conversely, Thénardier uses a number of aliases that temporarily disguise him so he can remain out of the reach of the law but that can never conceal his villainy, which remains, no matter what he calls himself.

In Les Misérables in what way might it be said that Jean Valjean becomes Monseigneur Bienvenu?

Jean Valjean becomes Monseigneur Bienvenu, first by experiencing profound repentance for his misdeeds, which naturally leads to a commitment to do better. Jean Valjean uses the image of the bishop to guide his actions, which are symbolically represented by the candlesticks he has been given—to light his way. After breaking down and calling himself a miserable man for taking the money from the child, Gervais, he returns to the bishop's house and kneels before his door. This physical act of repentance in Part 1, Book 2 signifies that, indeed, the bishop has bought his soul for God. When he gets to Montreuil-sur-mer, he becomes a millionaire in Part 1, Book 5, providing jobs, building schools and hospitals, and dispensing advice. He gives most of his money to the poor, just as the bishop had done, albeit reserving a substantial sum for himself because he must be prepared to run. But even this money is spent on Cosette's needs, and he gives her close to 600,000 francs as a dowry. Jean Valjean is like the bishop in that he causes harm to none and performs numerous acts of kindness and compassion to many. Indeed, he risks his life to save others, including the sailor at Toulon, the two children at Montreuil-sur-mer (he rescues them from a fire), Fauchelevent, Javert, and finally, Marius.

In Les Misérables what is the role of "little Gavroche" in advancing the themes of the novel?

Little Gavroche is a street urchin, around 11 or 12 years old, the eldest son of the Thénardiers, whom his mother dislikes because he is a boy, and whom his father hardly seems to recognize as his son. Thus, he is thrown out of the house at an early age to fend for himself. Gavroche is depicted as cheerful and kindly. He takes charge of two orphans, in Part 4, Book 6, who are his brothers although he doesn't even know it. Gavroche, a "man" of the streets, knows criminals like Montparnasse and indigent old men like Mabeuf, to whom he kindly tries to give a purse full of coins, in Part 4, Book 4, even though he himself is hungry for food. Often the author puts incongruous language in the mouth of Gavroche, a boy with no education, when he makes adult jokes using sophisticated language. At times, therefore, he seems more like a mouthpiece for the author than a believable character. Nonetheless, Gavroche provides an example of the compassion the poor and the downtrodden often have for one another, which is why this street urchin feeds his two brothers and provides them with shelter and gives money to an old man when he could easily use it himself. The fact that he treats the two orphans he finds like brothers can be seen as symbolic of the idea that all people are truly brothers and sisters and ought to be concerned about one another's welfare. Gavroche exhibits Christian virtues in his willingness to empathize with others, take responsibility for them, and render selfless service. Gavroche makes the ultimate sacrifice of his life, in Part 5, Book 1, when he rescues bullets for the revolutionaries. Gavroche, the emblematic orphan, understands what is at stake for the underclass, and his generosity extends to giving his life for a dream that will be realized in the future, long after he is dead.

How do Marius's political views in Les Misérables differ from those of the Friends of the A B C?

Marius is a Bonapartist, while the Friends of the A B C are revolutionaries. Many of the French revered Bonaparte, who made them feel pride because he had been able to conquer and bring under the control of the French empire large swaths of European territory during the period in which he reigned as a self-appointed emperor. Napoleon was also a product of the Revolution and had been part of the military that kept the Revolutionary Directory in power until 1799, when Napoleon staged a coup. After the coup Napoleon went forward with reforms in government and education and revamped the legal code, so he is considered to be a force that moved the agenda of the revolutionaries forward, even though he seized absolute power for himself. In addition he brought the idea of republicanism to other parts of Europe, simply because he was the result of a popular uprising that deposed the monarchy. On the other hand revolutionaries like Enjolras are not impressed with Napoleon's might. In Enjolras's eyes, Bonaparte follows a long line of oppressors of the people who prevent the establishment of representative democracy. The verbal clash between Marius and the Friends, which occurs in Part 3, Book 4, estranges Marius from the group until he returns to fight at the barricade.

In Les Misérables how does Hugo demonstrate that people cannot live without faith or a ruling idea?

The strongest indication in the novel that people cannot live without faith or a ruling idea can be seen in the deaths of Javert and Jean Valjean. Javert's ruling idea is that the law is just and never makes an error; to this notion he has devoted his life. He never doubted Jean Valjean was a bad man, even as the evidence mounted to show the opposite was true. But in Part 5, Book 1, Jean Valjean, whom he has been hounding for many years, sets him free instead of executing him at the barricades. After that he can no longer hide in denial. Later, in Part 5, Book 3, Javert agrees to help Jean Valjean save Marius's life and, in the process, must directly confront the evidence that Jean Valjean is a saint rather than a monster. He must conclude it would be unjust to put him behind bars. Thus, Javert's entire moral edifice crumbles, and his reason for existence seems invalid. Furthermore, he does not have the strength of character to live through this moral earthquake and wait for the dust to settle. He kills himself so he doesn't have to live without a raison d'être (reason for being). In a similar vein, Jean Valjean begins to live for Cosette after he rescues her, and when Marius pushes him out of his daughter's life, he begins to waste away and dies by the end of the novel (Part 5, Book 9).

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