A primary focus of the novel is the glory and importance of France. Hugo characterizes the country as exhibiting all the finest qualities of humanity - though it also encompasses all of its worst features. The novel makes frequent references to historical French persons and events, and the events of the novel are shaped by the French socio-political landscape. Hugo also spends a great deal of time describing the places and people of France, painting a vivid portrait of the country in the early 19th century.
The Dignity of the Poor
Many of the characters in Les Misérables are impoverished or outcast. Jean Valjean is an ex-convict; Marius and the ABC Society are impoverished students; and both Fantine and the child Cosette live in the direst poverty. Yet the novel suggests that even the most impoverished and trodden down maintain a sort of dignity: despite her status as a prostitute, Fantine retains a kind of purity because she does this for her daughter; Marius' poverty inspires him to greater heights of moral goodness.
Even Monsieur Mabeuf, who faces hideous poverty, maintains his humanity. His situation eventually leads him to make a last stand on the barricades that inspires the other revolutionaries. Throughout the novel, Hugo emphasizes the dignity of the poor and outcast.
Morality and Righteousness
Les Misérables offers a number of moral lessons, evident through the decisions of the characters. When Champmathieu is wrongly identified as Jean Valjean, the real Valjean decides to intervene; though it will mean a return to prison, Valjean cannot live with himself if he allows an innocent man to go to prison in his stead. On the other hand, the Thénardiers offer an example of an immoral path; they constantly trick and cheat everyone they meet, but they eventually end up in the most squalid kind of poverty. Hugo suggests that morality is eventually rewarded, but immorality is always punished.
The Suffering of the Poor
Though Hugo emphasizes the dignity of the poor, he also describes their suffering in great detail. Éponine, for example, is poor not because of her own actions, but because her parents have plunged the family into poverty through their selfish actions. Still, she suffers terribly: though she is only sixteen, she has lost several teeth and wears thin tattered clothing even in freezing weather. Mabeuf cannot even afford food for himself and his servant, and he subsists on only an egg a day. The poor suffer in a myriad of ways; poverty is the source of many horrors.
Perhaps one of the most important themes in the novel is progress, including moral, political, and spiritual progress. In the course of the novel, Jean Valjean makes the journey from an angry ex-convict who despises the world to the loving adopted father of Cosette; he journeys from ignorance and darkness to love and light. Hugo also emphasizes the political progress of the day, which is part of the reason he highlights the uprising of 1832. At the time, France was progressing from a political system based on the divine right of kings to a democracy in which every person has a voice. For Hugo, these differing types of progress are all intertwined, and symbolize the progression towards God.
The Redeeming Power of Love
Love can redeem even the worst characters in Les Misérables. It was the brotherly love shown by Bishop Myriel that pulled Jean Valjean out of his misanthropy following his release from prison, and it was Cosette's love that further encouraged him along his path to progress. Éponine, who participates in criminal activities and could easily have followed her parents' path of dissolution, is redeemed by her love of Marius and dies a heroic death on the barricades. Love brings out the best qualities of each person, and encourages his/her progress.
Religion and Faith
Religion and faith are central themes in the novel. Hugo often references God as the goal of all progress, and it is Bishop Myriel and the nuns of the Petit-Picpus convent who inspire Valjean to continue his moral journey. The most sympathetic characters in the novel (Valjean, Cosette, even Enjolras and Marius) have some sort of religious leanings, exemplified by their tendency to pray or to reference God. Interestingly, Hugo is not necessarily hostile to atheists (he often mentions Voltaire, a famous atheist writer, in glowing terms), nor does he believe that organized or institutionalized religion is always correct. Instead, he emphasizes a gentle, humanistic form of spirituality focused on God and rooted in good deeds.
Les Miserables Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Les Miserables is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Valjean is an ex-convict who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, he finds that he is treated like an outcast everywhere he goes in Paris. Nobody will give him work and he finds himself starving and walking the streets.