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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In what ways are the political views in Les Misérables sometimes at odds with its Christian views, as exemplified by the bishop?

In the eyes of Monseigneur Bienvenu, people are responsible for one another and ought to show one another charity. There is no place for violence of any kind in the bishop's Christianity. While he can understand and forgive someone like G_____, the Conventionist, who believed the only way to bring justice to the poor and disenfranchised was by violent revolution, he never condones it. Killing violates the commandments as well as Jesus's command to love one's neighbor. On the other hand, the revolutionaries like Enjolras believe that, for the greater good, it is necessary to spill blood in taking power away from those who oppress the people. This tension between the Christian view and the revolutionary view informs the novel and manifests itself in the grave choices made by many of the characters. The narrator, often speaking as the author, discusses his ambivalent feelings about the morality of violent revolution. While he admires the passion and bravery of the revolutionaries and sees the necessity of violence in some cases, he prefers the nonviolent path toward republicanism, since class warfare ends in murder, as he says in Part 4, Book 10: "To nurture the people is a good aim; to massacre it is an evil means."

According to the moral view of Les Misérables, in what ways is Jean Valjean's act of stealing a loaf of bread moral or immoral?

Jean Valjean committed an immoral act by breaking the law; however, the law is immoral in not giving a man adequate means to maintain himself so he is not compelled to steal. Jean Valjean asks in Part 1, Book 2 whether "human society could rightfully ... hold a poor man forever between a lack and an excess, a lack of work, an excess of punishment." Both Monseigneur Bienvenu and Jean Valjean hold him responsible for his crimes; however, in the Christian view, the criminal can be rehabilitated, and society is also at fault for forcing a man into his criminal behavior. Thus, society must change, and individuals are responsible for doing what they can to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

In Les Misérables how do Jean Valjean and Fantine exemplify parents' willingness to make sacrifices for their children?

Both Jean Valjean and Fantine are willing to make any sacrifice necessary to save the child Cosette, who is the true daughter of Fantine and the adopted daughter of Jean Valjean. Fantine sells everything she has to ensure the welfare of Cosette with the Thénardiers, until she finally has to sell her body (Part 1, Book 5). Fantine loses her life in her battle to save her child. Jean Valjean keeps Cosette safe until she is a grown woman, and when she falls in love, he risks his life to save the man she loves, going to the barricade and then carrying Marius through the sewers of Paris (Part 5, Book 3). Ultimately, he also loses his life for the benefit of Cosette. After he tells Marius his story and the young man pushes him out of Cosette's life, he accepts his sentence and soon dies of heartbreak in being separated from his beloved child (Part 5, Book 9). Both Fantine and Jean Valjean exemplify good parents, as opposed to the Thénardiers, who exemplify bad parents, since they abuse some of their children (Eponine and Azelma) and abandon the others (Gavroche and the two younger sons).

What provides the characters of Les Misérables with the motivation to die for a cause or belief?

People are willing to die for a cause or a belief because the meaning of their lives comes from what they hold sacred or dear—their ideas about the purpose of life, what is most important, and the dignity of the human person. A person's self-image is built upon his or her beliefs, which in one sense is more important than the physical body. For this reason people will die for what they believe, especially if they sacrifice themselves for someone they love or if they think their death will create a better world for people in the future. Jean Valjean and Fantine die for the person they love—Cosette. Eponine also dies for love—protecting Marius from a bullet. Javert kills himself because his belief in the rightness of the law is shattered by the anomalous behavior of Jean Valjean, who defies his stereotypes about convicts. Enjolras and the men on the barricades die for liberty, believing their sacrifice will bring freedom to the French people at some time in the future.

In what ways are both Jean Valjean and Marius romantic heroes in Les Misérables?

Both Jean Valjean and Marius are rebels against the status quo who pursue their own vision of what is moral and right. Jean Valjean steps outside the bounds of conventional society when he first steals a loaf of bread but goes to war with society after he is brutally punished for this minor crime. Although he changes radically after the bishop puts him on the Christian path, he still remains a rebel and an outsider. He continues to elude Javert and determines he will keep his promise to Fantine to care for Cosette, even becoming her father. He defies Javert's assessment of him and saves his nemesis, against expectations. Finally, he remains an outsider to the end of his life and tells Marius nothing will change the fact that he is an ex-convict. Marius is a romantic hero because he rejects his grandfather's expectations and turns against bourgeois society by becoming an active member of the Friends of the A B C. Although he is driven by despair rather than political feeling, he bravely fights on the barricade and willingly risks his life to put an end to the political regime, which Enjolras has deemed stalled the Revolution of 1830. Marius is also a romantic hero because he lives according to his ideals and sees the world through them, even though the world often contradicts his view. This is the case with Thénardier, whom he continues to think is worthy of receiving help in return for saving his father, Colonel Pontmercy, despite all evidence to the contrary. Both men are also willing to die for love; Marius makes a narrow escape, but Jean Valjean dies because of his love for Cosette and the couple's rejection of him.

In Les Misérables how is the plaster elephant in which Gavroche takes up residence a symbol of the deterioration of the French Republic?

The plaster elephant was a precursor of a bronze monument commissioned by Napoleon, meant to commemorate the emperor's status as a world conqueror. The elephant was intended to stand where the famous Bastille prison had stood before it was torn down during the French Revolution. The Bastille remained a symbol of the absolutism and repression of the French monarchy. Napoleon's monument was never built, and the world conqueror was exiled for good in 1815. Meanwhile, his elephant moldered on the Place de Bastille in 1832, just as the dream of French democracy languished for years. In 1830 the uprising against the first Restoration was stopped when the moderate, Louis-Philippe, took the reins of government, replacing the more repressive Charles X. And in Hugo's day the elephant was gone, just as the Second French Republic had disappeared under the authoritarian rule of Napoleon III. Thus, the street urchin Gavroche uneasily sleeps in the rat-infested "house of France" with his two younger brothers, under a government that does nothing for the plight of the working classes, even as the bourgeoisie bow to a regime that has handed them a little more power—but still far short of the promise of republican democracy.

In Les Misérables what is the narrator's view of violent revolution?

When the narrator speaks of revolution, he presents Victor Hugo's view. The narrator has ambivalent views about revolution and believes it would be much better to create change through the process of voting, for example, which he mentions in Part 5, Book 1. The narrator talks about the Revolution of 1848 as something that had to be stopped before it went too far, describing it as "the biggest street war history had ever seen," calling it "a revolt of the people against itself." Yet, three years later, Hugo had fled France because he was in opposition to the regime of Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III), whom he initially supported after the Revolution of 1848. The author himself fought on the barricades, and he portrays the revolutionary Enjolras in a rosy light. Yet the narrator says that, with "civic murder ... if there is such a thing, the remorse of having struck a man surpasses the joy of having served the human race." Thus, the narrator/author (essentially the same when the narrator leaves the events of the story and lapses into commentary) has mixed feelings about violent revolution and fluctuates in his support of such actions to change civil society.

How is the portrayal of Napoleon in Les Misérables unlike his portrayal in Tolstoy's War and Peace?

Napoleon is portrayed in Les Misérables as a heroic figure who went too far and who to some degree supported revolutionary ideals and was on the side of progress. Many historians give Napoleon credit for helping spread democratic ideas throughout Europe, and most of the French saw him as having a role in France's march forward toward democracy. In Part 2, Book 1, when allied forces under the English Duke of Wellington finally defeated the French emperor for good, Hugo implies Napoleon's loss was the result of bad weather. Moreover, he claims his loss was in some way an act of God because "the excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the equilibrium." In contrast, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace depicts Napoleon as an overrated megalomaniac and calls him "the executioner of the peoples," someone who was proud of the fact that of the "hundreds and thousands of men who perished, there were fewer Frenchmen than Hessians and Bavarians." In Tolstoy's sprawling novel, which is similar in length and scope to Hugo's Les Misérables, the only true villain is Napoleon, the man who unsuccessfully tried to conquer Russia.

How does Christianity inform the moral choices of the major protagonists in War and Peace and Les Misérables?

The major protagonist of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, learns his Christianity from Monseigneur Bienvenu. It is close to the pure doctrine of Jesus, in which the religion's founder exhorts his followers to love one another, return insults and attacks with kindness and love, take care of the poor, and love one's neighbor as much as one loves oneself. The main character in War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov, longs to live a spiritual life but has a harder time achieving it than does Jean Valjean. He is first stymied by his agnosticism and later tripped up by a pastiche of Christian belief served up by the Masons, with whom he gets deeply involved. Pierre finally meets an Eastern Orthodox Christian, a peasant called Platon, who teaches him a mystical form of Christian teachings. Platon emphasizes disinterested love toward all and the avoidance of personal attachments.

In what ways does Les Misérables extol the virtues of enlightened capitalism?

Although Les Misérables is a social novel, calling attention to the ills of a society that neglects the poor and does not provide them with adequate services, it is by no means a socialist novel. At heart Victor Hugo was a bourgeois who supported capitalism and believed it was incumbent on individuals, and by extension business enterprises, to ensure society took care of its most vulnerable citizens. A prime example of this view in the novel can be seen in Jean Valjean's spectacular rise in Montreuil-sur-mer, described in Part 1, Book 5. He becomes an entrepreneur and businessman after discovering a manufacturing process to more cheaply and efficiently produce the town's "black goods," even as he improves the quality of these beads and black trinkets. Jean Valjean as Monsieur Madeleine becomes the mayor and the most highly respected person in the town. This is because he gives a large amount of his money away, builds schools and hospitals, and provides charity for the poor. His factory employs hundreds of people, and the standard of living for all is elevated through his efforts. In this example Hugo emphasizes his faith in the capitalist standard.

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