Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Themes


Law versus Justice

In an unjust society the law excessively punishes the poor and is neither fair nor just. The novel is filled with examples of how the law is unfair and crushes those with little power or means. Moreover, the law makes mistakes, and often the punishment does not fit the crime. It is unjust that Jean Valjean cannot make enough money to support his family, and society errs again in giving Jean Valjean a sentence of five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. His attempts to escape are his protests against the unfair sentence, but his defiance of the law only makes things worse for him, as he ends up serving 19 years for his original crime. He continues to be persecuted by the system as an ex-convict who can never be free of criminal status, since the law relentlessly pursues him with the yellow passport and the insistence that, as a parolee, he stay in one place.

The law is ready to punish an innocent man, Champmathieu, based on the false testimony of three witnesses, and he goes free only because of Jean Valjean's intervention. A just system might have considered the extenuating circumstances of Jean Valjean's exemplary life as Madeleine and his choice to come forward to save an innocent man. But the rigid system can have no other solution than to send the hero back to jail. The fate of Fantine is also unjust. She loses her job for one mistake she has made, but her punishment doesn't fit the "crime"—amounting to a death sentence. Javert is the epitome of law that is blind to justice and mercy and oppresses society's most vulnerable citizens. When Javert finally learns the truth about the law, which he has defended without question, he ends up killing himself rather than face the fact that Jean Valjean is good and the law is bad in his particular case.


Compassionate and unselfish love has the power to redeem even a hardened criminal. Jean Valjean is a bitter and angry man, and when the bishop takes him in, he has no compunction about stealing his silver. To him the bishop represents just another iteration of the power structure, but Monseigneur Bienvenu is no ordinary bishop: he is the living embodiment of a Christlike love. His love is selfless and nonjudgmental. When he extends his compassion to Jean Valjean, who has experienced nothing but abuse from the power structure, he violates social norms and upends Jean Valjean's expectations that he will be punished again for his misdeeds. The bishop gives the ex-convict a second chance and tells him to sell the silver and use it to build a righteous life. Jean Valjean, filled with the grace emanating from the bishop, is redeemed by love and compassion.

Jean Valjean is also redeemed by his love for Cosette. Finally he has an opportunity to break out of his self-preoccupation and live for another. His desire to be a good father to Cosette also keeps Jean Valjean on the righteous path, and everything he does is at least partly so he can hold up his head with his daughter and never feel ashamed for the choices he has made. Thus Jean Valjean has two saviors—the bishop and his adopted daughter.

Eponine is another example of a seemingly hopeless character who is redeemed by love. She spent much of her life as an abused child, without enough food to eat, clothing to wear, or even sufficient shelter. Her family goes without fuel, and when they first arrive in Paris live under a bridge. Her father teaches her his criminal ways and enlists her help in his schemes to swindle people and extort money from them. Yet, when she falls in love with Marius, she sees the possibility of a different kind of existence. Just like Jean Valjean after meeting the bishop, Eponine looks toward Marius as an example, and she wishes to put aside her criminal life to be better for him—even though her love will remain unrequited. She saves Jean Valjean and Cosette from the Patron-Minette gang, and she takes a bullet for Marius, dying on the barricade so he might live. Thus Eponine is spiritually redeemed by her love for Marius.

Conversely Javert is not redeemed, because he cannot love. The only thing that gives Javert's life meaning is the law. But he doesn't even love the law—rather he bows down to it, as to an idol. When he learns the law is not perfect and the criminal he has been pursuing is more like a saint, he cannot bear it. The law ends up having serious limitations as a support for his existential meaning, and without love in his life to get him through this crisis, he takes his life.


To survive the trials of life, people need faith—a belief in something or someone that gives meaning to their striving. The narrator concedes that faith does not have to be in a deity, although faith in the Infinite is portrayed as the most enduring and reliable idea to get people through a crisis. Faith in the Infinite allows the bishop to go through life unafraid and gives him the courage to extend his compassion to all. Faith allows him to believe even a seeming unrepentant criminal might find a new life with the support of Christian virtue. Similarly, Jean Valjean's faith in God allows him to get through his terrible trials, and even when he is at his lowest, he feels the presence of God in his life and knows he has not been abandoned. He views his sufferings as trials that have been sent by God to test and purify him. At the end of the novel, when Cosette finally arrives, he says God is showing him he has not been deserted.

Enjolras also has faith, but it is secular in nature. He believes in revolution and its power to move the human race forward. He believes the establishment of truly democratic governments will bring a paradise on earth, even if this dream is realized long after he dies. When he speaks to the citizens on the barricades, he echoes Rousseau's ideas about a civil society in which each person gives up only as much freedom as is necessary not to harm others. Together, the people form a Republic in which the power to govern is derived from consent of the governed. Enjolras predicts that, when all this comes to pass, people will be happy and "harmony will be reestablished between the soul and the star." Thus Enjolras goes to his death without fear, thinking his blood will pay for the happiness of future generations.

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