Human Science
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==External Links==
==External Links==
*{{gutenberg|no=135|name=Les Misérables}}[[English language|English]] translation.
*''[ Les Misérables]'' available at Project Gutenberg. – English translation.

Revision as of 23:31, 21 June 2007

Commentary on the novel by Victor Hugo and films based on it

Les Misérables (translated variously from French as The Miserable Ones, The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, The Victims) (1862) is a novel by French author Victor Hugo, and among the best-known novels of the 19th century. It follows the lives and interactions of several French characters over a twenty year period in the early 19th century that includes the Napoleonic wars and subsequent decades. Principally focusing on the struggles of the protagonist—ex-convict Jean Valjean—who seeks to redeem himself, the novel also examines the impact of Valjean's actions for the sake of social commentary. It examines the nature of good, evil, and the law, in a sweeping story that expounds upon the history of France, architecture of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, law, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love.



  • Jean Valjean (aka Monsieur Madeleine): A poor man who steals bread for his starving sister and nieces. He is convicted, and upon being released from prison nineteen years later, is given a yellow ticket which identifies him as an ex-convict. After having his life turned around by the Bishop, he destroys his ticket and assumes a new identity. He becomes a Mayor named M. Madeline. He adopts and raises Fantine's daughter, Cosette. He dies at an old age.
  • Bishop Myriel (aka Monseigneur Bienvenue; Bishop of Digne): A kindly old priest who is promoted to bishop by a chance encounter with Napoleon. He convinces Valjean to change his ways, after Valjean steals some silver from him.
  • Javert: An obsessive police inspector who continuously hunts, tracks down, and loses Valjean. He goes undercover behind the barricade, but is unmasked. Valjean has the chance to kill him, but lets Javert go. Later Javert allows Valjean to escape. Unable to accept that a felon has shown him mercy, and that he in turn allowed that convict to go free, Javert commits suicide by jumping into the River Seine.
  • Fantine: A worker in Mayor Madeline's factory, she is unjustly fired by a foreman. Since she has no husband and must care for her daughter, Cosette, she begins working as a prostitute. She pays the Thénardiers owners of an inn, to care for Cosette. She later dies of tuberculosis.
  • Cosette: The daughter of Fantine, she is raised by Jean Valjean after her mother dies. She falls in love with Marius Pontmercy, and marries him at the end of the novel.
  • Marius Pontmercy: One of the main characters of the novel. In the first part is a "noble boy", then he joins the revolutionary ABC students and falls in love with Cosette.
  • Thénardiers: The thief, the bad poor. He raises Cosette in her first years.
  • Eponine: Thenardiers' daughter, is in love with Marius
  • Gavroche: Thenardiers' son and "Gamin de Paris", takes part in the revolution
  • Enjolras, leader of the revolutionary students.
  • Fauchelevent - Fauchlevent's life is saved by Valjean when Valjean is able to lift a carriage he is caught underneath. Fauchlevant later will return the favor by providing sanctuary for Valjean and Cosette at a convent, and by providing his name for Valjean's use.
  • Monsieur Gillenormand - Marius's grandfather. A Monarchist, he disagrees sharply with Marius on political issues, and they have several arguments. He attempts to keep Marius from being influenced by his father, an officer in Napoleon's army. While in perpetual conflict over ideas, he does illustrate his love for his grandson.
  • Mademoiselle Gillenormand - M. Gillenormand's daughter, she lives with her father.
  • Colonel Georges Pontmercy - Marius's father, and an officer in Napoleon's army. Wounded at Waterloo, Pontmercy erroneously believes his life is saved by M. Thénardier. He tells Marius of this debt.
  • Mademoiselle Baptistine - Bishop Myriel's sister. She loves and venerates her brother.
  • Madame Magloire - Domestic servant for the Bishop and his sister. She grumbles at the life of poverty the Bishop insists upon, and is fearful that he leaves the door open to strangers.
  • Sister Simplice - A nun who cares for Fantine on her sickbed.
  • Petit Gervais - A small boy who drops a coin. Valjean, lost in thought, puts his shoe over the coin, but doesn't hear the boy's protests. When he exits the reverie, and the boy is gone, he realizes what happened, and searches for the boy in vain.

Key Events

Fantine and Tholomyes

Fantine is orphaned, uneducated and innocent. She falls in love with a wealthy young man little realizing that for him it is only an amusing fling. Ultimately she gets pregnant and he abandons her. She is good hearted but unconscious and unaware of social realities.

Fantine meets the Thenardiers

Abandoned by her lover after giving birth to his child, impoverished Fantine has left Paris with Cosette to seek employment in M. sur M., her place of birth, which happens also to be the place where Jean Val jean has built a new life for himself. She knows she cannot take her child with her, since an unwed mother will be scorned by society, so she looks for someone to take care of Cosette. She sees Madam Thenardier sitting in front of her inn watching the play of her two small, lovely girls, and decided to ask the woman to take in Cosette.

Why of all people, is she drawn to such selfish, evil-minded and cruel people? The one thing the two women have in common is that both mothers feel genuine pride and affection for their girls. Fantine also shares the desperate need for money which prompts Thenardier to take in Cosette as a way to immediately get money to pay a pressing bill that is due. They are bound by their common poverty and pride in their children.

But in other ways the are so very opposite. Fantine is kind-hearted, innocence, gentle and naive. The Thenardiers are hard-hearted, crafty, violent and ruthless. Both have failed in life and fallen. While their temperaments differ, they share a very low consciousness which is in harmony.

We can say that Fantine's error was due to ignorance. Actually in spite of her suffering, Cosette does survive her life with the Thenardiers and see happier days. Ironically, it is Thenardier who has saved Marius' father after the Battle of Waterloo and so he is responsible for the life of Marius who ultimately marries Cosette. Cosette is repaid for the brutal treatment she received in this manner.


Fauchelevent is a peasant and ex-notary, whose business was in the earlier stages of decline. He was one of the few enemies who M. Madeleine had. The man was jealous that a simple workman could rise to become a successful businessman while a lawyer was reduced to being a carter with a cart and horse as his only possessions.

One day the horse died, the cart broke and Fauchelevent became trapped underneath and was in the process of being crushed to death. Javert sent for a jack-screw, but it was unlikely to come in time. Madeleine beseeched some men in the crowd to lift the cart, but none were willing even for a generous reward. Javert taunted that he knew only one man in the world, an ex-galley prisoner, who could perform such a feat. Finally, risking exposure as well as his life, Madeleine himself crawled underneath the cart, lifted it and saved Fauchelevent's life. Fauchelevent's shoulder has been broken. Madeleine pays him 1000 francs for his broken cart and dead horse and then gets him a position as a gardener is a Paris convent.

Soon after Madeleine becomes mayor of the M. sur M. True to the rule that helping a person with ill-will for you will cause trouble, Madeleine pays a price for helping a jealous enemy. Javert comes to suspect that he is really Jean Valjean and tries to expose him to the Paris prefect police. Perhaps because Fauchelevent is really not a bad man, but only one jealous out of misfortune, Madeleine is able to escape the blow when the affair of Champamathieu distracts Javert from his suspicions.

Trial of Champamathieu

Jean Valjean has risen from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of public approbation as M. Madeleine. He is wealthy, a highly respected mayor whose reputation is known even to the King, and worshiped as a saint by his employees and many other people in the town. It is eight years since he was released from prison and has begun a new life for himself. Now he takes initiative to help Fantine, taking her into a hospital ward in his own house for special medical treatment. He has sent money to the Thenardiers and is pressing them to return Cosette to her mother. He is even prepared to go to them in person to arrange it if necessary.

Within a short time, Javert brings word about the mistake arrest and prosecution of Champamathieu as Jean Valjean. The ex-convict Jean Valjean is still being hunted after eight years for having stolen the Bishop's candlesticks and for having stolen 40 sous from the Savoyard Little Gervais. Valjean has undergone a spiritual transfiguration after the meeting with the Bishop, but society continues to pursue him for the man he was. He is now presented with a unique opportunity and challenge. If he keeps silent, Champamathieu will be convicted as Jean Valjean and thrown back in the galleys. Madeleine will be freed for ever from the curse of the past. But to gain that unimagined freedom, he must allow an innocent man to suffer.

When he learns of the trial, he is thrown into a moral quandary. For eight years he has been pursuing two goals which were never in conflict -- to conceal his past and to be a good person. For years he has risked being exposed in order to do what he thought was right. He has preserved the candlesticks and even his old clothes, mourned the Bishop on his death, interrogated every Savoyard that passed through in search of Gervais, saved old Fauchelevent's life under the eye of Javert -- always accepting that his first duty was not towards himself. (236)

Now at the peak of his success, life presents him with a conflict that can only be resolved by chosing one of the two and sacrificing the other. His conscience will not let him keep quiet. His fear of losing everything and returnign to the galleys raises a horrible spectre before his eyes. It is precisely the situation Sri Aurobindo describes [1] in which circumstances the higher consciousness presents circumstances for the transformation of the lower consciousness by voluntary submission.

VJ is paralyze by the magnitude of the decision he has to make. He is unable to think. He cannot bring himself to inflict suffering on another. He recognizes clearly that he is completely master of the situation. It is his choice. He argues that what has happened is destiny, God liberating him from his past, but feels it is monstrous to allow another to suffer for his sins. To remain silent and passive would be sinful and cowardly. For the first time in eight years, evil thoughts cross his mind. he must chose to become infamous in the eyes of man in order to win sanctity in the eyes of God or vice versa. He takes the candlesticks and places them in the fire to remove all traces of his past, but a voice calls out in protest.

He arranged to go to Arras without deciding what he will finally do. Obstacles are cast in his way at each turn. No vehicle is available that can carry him so far in time for the trial. Finally he finds a small carriage with a single horse that can make the journey. The wheel is damaged in collision with the post carriage. He is urged to return. Instead he fashions a make-shift repair and proceeds. Along the way the carriage breaks down. There is no one who can repair it. He is urged to go back or wait for two days. He feels Providence is intervening to prevent him from proceeding. Then a small boy who overhead his predicament brings a woman who has another small cart. He is forced to proceed. He learns the road is blocked and a journey that should have taken five hours takes 17. He travels without eating and arrives at Arras at 8 pm, thinking he is too late for the trial. He learns it is still going on. He is told no one else will be admitted. He sends in is name and is allowed entry.

As a result, Jean Valjean will expose himself as a former galley slave, escape arrest, adopt the impoverished child of a street prostitute as his daughter, and go into hiding for years. The misfortunes of Fantine fall heavily on her benefactor. He loses his position, his safety and his peace of mind, since Javert will pursue him wherever he goes. In exchange he gets the one thing Fantine has to offer, the goodwill and affection of another human being, her daughter Cosette.


  1. The Life Divine, p. 714

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