The first sixty pages of Les Misérables is dedicated to describing the personality, actions, sayings, and values of Bishop Myriel, a character who does not appear in any other part of the book. Why do you think the author chose to do this?
Though Bishop Myriel does not appear in any other part of this book, he is a model for moral behavior. A major theme of Les Misérables is the moral journey of the soul from selfishness and darkness to compassion and light. Bishop Myriel's life story offers an example of this journey, which is detailed in the first sixty pages of the book: he was born wealthy and powerful, but lost everything he had after the French Revolution, and became devoted to helping the poor. Though the biography of Bishop Myriel is long, it is not dull and it is not filler material. Many of the episodes described (Myriel's interaction with the bandits of rural France, his compassion towards a condemned criminal, and so on) offer engaging examples of how to live a good life in a less-than-perfect world.
Much of the book is dedicated to describing the plight of the poor in 19th century France. Victor Hugo distinguishes between a few different types of impoverished people. Identify a few of these different types, then compare and contrast them.
There are at least three different types of impoverished people in Les Misérables: the pitiful poor, the purified poor, and the wicked poor. The pitiful poor are those who are so beaten down by unjust and undeserved poverty that they cannot even defend themselves from cruelty of suffering; poverty has stripped everything away from them. Monsieur Mabeuf and Fantine are two examples of this type of poor. Another type is the purified poor. For this type, poverty has resulted in an improvement on the character, removing all excess and deepening their compassion for their fellow humanity. Marius and Gavroche are two examples of this type. The third, the wicked poor, are pushed into depravity and cruelty to other human beings; they reason that because no compassion was shown to them, they have no reason to have compassion towards others. Thénardier is an example of the wicked poor. Each of these types has a moral lesson: the pitiful poor inspire our compassion; the purified poor invite our imitation; and the wicked poor demand sanctions. In each case, Hugo endeavors so inspire a sense of action.
Many impoverished characters in Les Misérables suffer in different ways. How does the gender of each character influence the difficulties they must overcome?
Because she is poor and a woman, Fantine is eventually forced to resort to prostitution, which Hugo describes as one of the greatest of all forms of suffering. In her situation, a man might have been able to sell his labor, but her only option is to sell her sexuality. Fantine's death is directly influenced by her work in prostitution. On the other hand, Jean Valjean endures the difficulties of masculinity. He is originally sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread - this is the only way he can be a provider to his sister's children.
What is Hugo's perspective on justice? How is it similar to and different from the legal definition of justice? Are there characters that embody these differing ideas of what justice means?
Hugo emphasizes a justice that is dependent on mercy. His protagonist is an ex-convict who goes on to commit identity fraud after his imprisonment ends. Another novelist with a different idea of justice might have made a villain out of Jean Valjean, but for Hugo, Valjean's journey toward compassion and righteousness is a hero's journey. Valjean does have respect for laws, but he also sees how they fail - particularly among the poor. Javert embodies a different idea of justice. Javert is rigid in his adherence to the law, and when he is confronted with a situation that cannot be neatly resolved within the existing justice system, he kills himself.
Les Misérables is well known for its large cast of characters. Who is your favorite character, and why? How does Hugo develop this character's personality in the narrative?
Enjolras is my favorite character. When he is introduced along with the rest of the ABC Society, he is described as the leader, but the reasons for this are not fully clear until the last stand on the barricade. Enjolras is simultaneously a compassionate idealist and fierce zealot, and these qualities are vividly illustrated in the way that he treats one of his men who murders an innocent civilian. With a grand speech explaining that the revolution must bring in a world of new and fairer values, he executes this man. But Enjolras does not rejoice in death. At another point, he shoots an officer in the French army and weeps that he must kill his brother. Enjolras' reactions to these complicated situations reveal a complex character.
Though Les Misérables is strongly informed by its historical context, it also contains timeless themes. What is one incident, character, or idea that remains particularly pertinent today?
One idea that remains relevant today is that of the good man who becomes a victim of an unjust legal system. Especially in light of high levels of incarceration and police violence, it is not always clear that every judicial decision is actually just, or that the justice system actually creates justice. In some cases, poor people seem to be penalized unfairly. In the book, Jean Valjean was originally imprisoned for stealing a tiny bit of food to feed his sister's children, and he faced enormous barriers to rejoining society after his release. We can imagine Jean Valjeans in our own society, and ask what happens to prisoners after they are released, and what forces push them into recidivism (i.e. committing more crimes).
Do you think Javert is justified in going to such lengths to pursue Jean Valjean? Why or why not?
I think he is justified in pursuing Valjean. The reader knows what a moral and righteous character Valjean is, but Javert does not have the same perspective; all he knows is that an ex-convict has gained a position of great social power in Montfermeil. Valjean is remarkable for his incredible strength and his high intelligence, two characteristics that would make a particularly dangerous criminal, if Valjean decided to pursue that life.
Les Misérables contains many cases of people discovering someone's hidden identity. Describe one such episode, and explain its significance in the narrative.
One revelation of hidden identity comes when Javert discerns Valjean's true identity when he saves Fauchelevent from the overturned carriage. Valjean is posing as Monsieur Madeleine at the time, but Javert still suspects that he is the vanished ex-convict. Valjean's choice to save Fauchelevent through the use of his incredible (and very easily recognizable) physical strength despite the fact that it will allow Javert to identify him more easily is a mark of Valjean's moral progress: he is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. In this instance of sudden recognition, it is a particular quality that reveals the hidden person; in other places in the novel, there is less explanation about how and why people are recognized.
Why do you think Hugo chose to write about the unsuccessful uprising of 1832 rather than other, more successful insurrections? Successful insurrections could include the uprising that removed the Bourbon kings from power or the French Revolution itself. What themes in the narrative does this focus support?
I think Hugo focused on this uprising to emphasize its courageous yet tragic nature. The men on the barricade knew that they were going to die, and in the end they knew that little political change would come out of it. In this way, Hugo can use the event as a way to highlight the struggles of the poor and their dreams for the future. The revolution remains unfinished and full of promise, rather than a difficult or dreary reality. Hugo likes to focus on the small events in history; though he makes mention of Waterloo and the Restoration, he spends much of his time focusing on the lives on individual characters. The uprising of 1832 was a similarly small event; it had enormous impact in the lives of individuals but relatively little impact on history, though it did lay the groundwork for the later uprising that removed Louis-Philippe from power.
Éponine is perhaps one of the most memorable characters in the novel. Do you think her actions are primarily selfish or selfless?
I think her actions are selfish - but they are still admirable. It was very selfish of her to put off sending Marius' final letter to Cosette, and to entice Marius to a death on the barricades. She seized this chance to have Marius all to herself and to push him away from Cosette; this is the very definition of selfish. However, in the end she rejected these actions and sacrificed her life to save Marius. But this may also be selfish - she was so in love with Marius that she did not want to live in a world without him, and she may have been thinking more about herself than him when she put her hand in front of the gun. Despite her selfish actions, Éponine remains one of the most complex and likable characters in the book.