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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In what ways is Jean Valjean's attachment to Cosette in Les Misérables unnatural or pathological?

Jean Valjean's attachment to Cosette is not unnatural or pathological. As the narrator explains so eloquently in Part 4, Book 15, Jean Valjean has been years without family members and has had no one on whom to bestow love and affection. He has never married or courted. It is therefore natural for Jean Valjean to love the child Cosette as his daughter, and he pours all his excess emotion into that love, becoming extremely attached to her. Had he kept Cosette for himself and not put his jealousy aside, he could have strayed into the realm of pathology. But he does not do that; instead, he does what every good parent does, which is let his child grow up and start her own life with the man she has chosen. In fact, when he realizes the bond between Cosette and Marius and that Marius is in danger, he rescues Marius from the barricade (Part 5, Book 1) so the couple can be reunited.

In Les Misérables from where does Jean Valjean derive his strength of character before he is converted by the bishop?

Jean Valjean has inherent strength of both body and mind, which allows him to survive 19 years in prison. But Jean Valjean nourishes his mental strength with anger and hatred. Jean Valjean's back story, told in Part 1, Book 2, is that he was a pruner who, during hard times, was unable to get work to feed his sister's children, and for this reason he stole a loaf of bread. After he is sentenced to five years, he is angry and intrepid enough to escape four times, only to be caught and brought back to jail. As time goes on, his anger, bitterness, and resentment against society grow. He defiantly keeps trying to escape, which accounts for the additional time on his prison sentence. His entire purpose becomes fueled by anger, and he even learns to read and write to strengthen his hatred. He knows he was wrong to steal, but he also knows society fashioned a punishment that did not fit the crime and that society is responsible for the fact that he had no work. While some men would have acquiesced to incarceration, Jean Valjean's refusal seems to point to an inherent stubbornness and tenacity in his character, which serves him well once he is on the run.

How does Les Misérables illustrate that people are warped by an unjust social system?

One of the main ideas of the novel is that prison does not serve to regenerate the criminal but instead makes them more and more monstrous. Furthermore, the novel clearly puts forth the idea that most crime in society is caused by poverty, in which the poor become progressively more debased and unregenerate. Many instances of the debasing effects of poverty include Jean Valjean's original crime of stealing a loaf of bread, Fantine's descent into prostitution, the progressive iniquities of Thénardier (although he is presented as someone who begins with bad character), and the novice street crimes of the Thénardier children. Both Jean Valjean and Fantine are victims of poverty: Jean Valjean goes to jail and narrowly misses moral ruin when he is saved by the bishop, and Fantine's loses her child, her self-respect, and finally her life. It is clear to see that the life ahead for the Thénardier children will likely be filled with crime, prostitution, or both. These children have no one to care for them, and they have no education. For such children there is little hope for leading a normal, social life.

How does the novel Les Misérables show that prostitution is both a result of and an example of social injustice?

Fantine turns to prostitution because society has not provided her with the means to obtain work or education (Part 1, Book 5). She begins life as a seamstress, which is what she does to support herself after she moves to Paris. Her back story does not have a lot of details, but it seems that she mostly raised herself and lived in the country, presumably where she learned to sew. While she has some basic literacy, she doesn't have enough to even conduct her own transactions with Thénardier and must rely on a scribe. When she moves back to the country after giving birth to Cosette, she is able to do unskilled labor at Madeleine's (Jean Valjean's) factory. But once she loses that work, she sinks into poverty. She gets some work sewing, but the wages are pitifully low, so she is eventually forced into prostitution to keep up with the payments demanded by the Thénardiers. Because society has not provided avenues for this unmarried mother to earn a living, she is forced to prostitute herself. At the same time, this profession is unjust. Prostitutes of that time had to be "inspected" by health officials, who further degraded them. Moreover, the work itself was degrading, and prostitutes had to suffer additional indignities on the street from men the likes of Bamatabois. This particular bourgeois dandy thought it would be amusing to put snow down Fantine's back. Subsequently, she is arrested and presumed guilty of attacking her attacker for no reason. She would have faced jail time if she had not been rescued by Jean Valjean. Because of her poor health and the little money she makes, even from prostitution, she ends up dying at a young age.

How is Gillenormand's statement that love is "the pearl to be found in the dark folds of life" an encapsulation of a major theme in Les Misérables?

Gillenormand makes this statement about love in Part 5, Book 6, at Cosette and Marius's wedding. A wedding is often a traditional ending for 19th-century novels, underlining the theme that love is what makes life worth living. Indeed, love has the ability to redeem human beings—even those who might seem hopeless. The moral center of the novel, Monseigneur Bienvenu, who exemplifies unconditional and selfless Christian love, rescues the hero from moral perdition through a simple act of love. The hero, Jean Valjean, incorporates that love and passes it on to innumerable people. But the novel also extols the love of parents for their children, romantic/sexual love, love of country, and love of liberty. Clearly, the characters who are fortunate enough to love find happiness and satisfaction (for example, Jean Valjean, Gillenormand, Cosette, Marius, and Enjolras), proving the truth of Gillenormand's statement.

How does Les Misérables demonstrate the author's faith in Enjolras's dream of a perfect republic?

In his speech on the barricade in Part 5, Book 1, Enjolras mentions that the 19th century will give way to the 20th, in which there will be free public education, equal rights for all, the end of fear, the end of tyranny, the end of famine and exploitation, and much more. He claims a revolution is a "tollgate" that will deliver the human race. After this speech, the narrator does not comment but immediately moves to Marius's wonderment about seeing Fauchelevent at the barricade. Given the degree to which the narrator breaks into the novel frame with continual commentary, this absence of any gloss of Enjolras's speech denotes that the narrator/author could have said Enjolras's words himself and looks forward to a day when France will be a perfect republic. In other parts of the novel, the narrator expresses hope in progress, even as he admits people must be patient, since progress does not happen all at once. Victor Hugo finished the novel in 1860, during his time of exile as he waited for another uprising to depose the current French tyrant. Thus, Enjolras's speech on the barricades may be read as Victor Hugo's hope for the future.

In Les Misérables why does Eponine choose to defend the Rue Plumet against the Patron-Minette?

Eponine chooses to defend the Rue Plumet against the Patron-Minette in Part 4, Book 8 for two reasons. First, she is in love with Marius, and even though she knows Cosette is her rival, she cares for the young man so much she cannot help but protect those who are dear to him. Second, Eponine has begun to change as a result of her love for Marius. It is likely Cosette and Marius represent an ideal for her—as the bishop is an ideal for Jean Valjean. Eponine wishes to be more like Cosette and has even stopped using argot, the narrator says. She wants to be a woman Marius would admire. But she also admires Cosette and the loving relationship between Cosette and Jean Valjean. Rather than want to destroy the family, as her father or mother might react in a similar circumstance, since they live from a place of hatred, her impulse is to preserve and protect them.

How does Les Misérables demonstrate that it is morally necessary to disobey unjust laws?

The novel demonstrates the moral necessity of disobeying unjust laws by showing exemplary characters doing so. First, Sister Simplice lies to Javert (Part 1, Book 8) because she understands that, if the law is pursuing Madeleine (Jean Valjean), it must be for a wrong reason. Mother Innocent disobeys an unjust law that would not allow her to bury a fellow nun below the altar (Part 2, Book 8), which will do no harm to anyone. Jean Valjean disobeys the law numerous times, even after he becomes a paragon of Christian virtue—more specifically, he runs from the law, hiding out in a convent for several years (Part 2, Book 8), and then continues to avoid Javert in Paris. It is wrong for the law to send him back to jail, and for that reason, he refuses to go. By the end of the novel, Javert himself knows Jean Valjean does not belong in jail and refuses to put him there; to follow the law in his case would be unjust. Perhaps most of all, what demonstrates the moral necessity of standing up against injustice writ large is the uprising of June 1832, which the author paints in heroic, romantic terms (Part 5, Book 1), even if he feels some moral ambivalence about the violence that accompanies overthrowing the government.

How is Javert's suicide in Les Misérables a failure of redemption?

Javert's suicide is a failure of redemption because the inspector cannot face up to his own wrongdoing or "sin" and clear a path to remorse and repentance. The reason for his failure is his lack of love. In Part 5, Book 4, Inspector Javert throws himself into the Seine and drowns because he cannot face the prospect of letting Jean Valjean go free. Yet, this is exactly what he has done because his conscience calls for it. At the same time, this action, dictated by his conscience, violates the rule of law that he has pledged to uphold. Between a rock and a hard place, he sees no way out except to extinguish his life. If Javert could have thought more with his heart, he would have realized actions motivated by love are sometimes stronger and more reasonable than those motivated by reason. He lacks love, however, and the ability to forgive—both himself and Jean Valjean. His is a failure of love—mostly a failure to love himself. Further, he has no faith in something greater than himself: that Infinite one who guides his conscience. All Javert can do is fall back on the law. In this instance the law can provide no answers. If he had loved himself a little, he could have found a way to reconcile his imperfect and contradictory actions and to forgive himself for mistaking law for justice.

In what ways does Les Misérables reflect a Christian parable?

A parable is a story with a moral lesson. In this story the hero feels abandoned by God, and his soul becomes filled with hate and bitterness. He finds his way back into the light when a kindly bishop takes his hand and tells him he can be good again. The bishop believes in him, and so Jean Valjean finds the courage to believe in himself. Like the Pilgrim's Progress, a Christian allegory, the hero encounters many temptations as he attempts to stay on the straight and narrow path toward the Infinite. He has Inspector Javert, who hunts him and hounds him and gives him reason to become hateful and bitter again. The Infinite tests him sorely, giving him the opportunity to destroy another man's life to save his own when Champmathieu is mistaken for the convict Jean Valjean in Part 1, Book 7. But he doesn't succumb to temptation and instead risks life imprisonment. The Infinite helps him find an escape hatch, and he is free once again. Jean Valjean faces another test in Part 4, Book 15—in which he can let Marius die so he can have Cosette to himself. But again, he doesn't take the bait and saves Marius at the barricade. In the end the hero is rejected by all, even his beloved daughter. Only at the end of his life does the Infinite prove to him he is still loved and has not been abandoned.

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