Western Philosophy


Period 1

9 May 2011

Les Miserables



Victor Hugo seems to detest greed and selfishness.  He believes that good people must learn how to think of others instead of themselves and forgive others for mistakes they have made in the past.  Hugo’s moral views are blatantly expressed through the stark differences between his characters in Les Miserables.  Thenardier, arguably one of the most horrible antagonists put on the page, is hated by everyone, and he brings misfortune to himself and others.  Jean Valjean, by contrast, is the opposite, in so much as he is devoted to helping others, even at the expense of his own well-being.  Bishop Bienvenu, like Valjean, is dedicated to God and to helping others.  There characters are a conduit through which the author offers moral lessons.


Thenardier is quite possibly one of the most selfish, cruel, conceited and uncaring characters imagined.  Everything he does is an attempt to increase his wealth, and everyone he encounters is a tool for his schemes.  He even uses his own daughters and puts them at risk if he thinks he can gain something from it.  His self-interest is not bounded by any consideration of his victims, no matter if they be good or bad, kind or unkind, even alive or dead!  At the Battle of Waterloo, he happened to save an officer, though not on purpose.  He had thought the combatant was deceased, and he was actually trying to rob him.  His thievery made an ally, although not by design.  Even when kindness is offered to him, it only entices him to leach on for more.  When Valjean (under a pseudonym) brings Thenardier clothing and money, Thenardier tries to exaggerate the poor state of the household in an attempt to exhort more funds out of his guests’ generosity.  After Valjean departs, Thenardier devises an elaborate plan to kidnap him and force more money out of him by threatening his daughter.  He feels no qualms about the fact that he is bringing great harm to somebody; it doesn’t matter as long as he gets money out of it.  Money is everything he lives for, and therefore everything else is a means of achieving it.  Hugo uses this character to demonstrate how greed can consume and corrupt a person, and affect those around him.


By contract, Jean Valjean cares little for money.  In fact, he would like nothing more than to give it away to those less fortunate than his own circumstances permit him to be.  Part of this want to give to others springs form a deep self-loathing.  Valjean is convinced that he’s worthless and doesn’t deserve anything.  The only reason he keeps the money he has amassed is because he wants Cosette, his adoptive daughter, to be happy and comfortable without concern for financial stability, and the only reason he was free to make a fortune from his factory is because the Bishop offered clemency rather than turn him over to soldiers’ years earlier.


When another man was at risk of being imprisoned for the crimes committed by Valjean, Valjean turns himself in after wrestling with his conscience.  He would have been free to life his life in peace without fear of being caught has he let this other fellow be convicted.  But he couldn’t allow himself to let this happen.  He couldn’t allow his own happiness to be at the expense of another’s misery.  Paralleling this was when Marius, a rival for Valjeans affections for Cosette (although a very different type of affection), went to the barricades.  Valjean went to protect Marius from the violence incurred through the rebellion.  He carried him through the sewers and back home, nearly dying in the process and confronting both Thenardier and Javert.  If he had let Marius die in the insurrection, he wouldn’t lose Cosette.  She would have remained with him in the absence of any competitor for her time.  However, he couldn’t allow himself to be happy knowing he had allowed the resultant suffering.  Later, when Marius was in search of his rescuer, Valjean would not admit to it because he didn’t want anyone to feel gratitude toward him or want to repay him.  Hugo uses Valjean to demonstrate vividly how must he value putting others ahead of oneself.


Bishop Bienvenu is not unlike Valjean in that he wants to help others.  But unlike Valjean, he is not burdened with self-loathing.  He is content in every respect.  In contrast to Thenardier, the Bistop is not at all selfish.  Whenever he can, he tries to give to those in need when the hospital was too small to hold all its patients. He told the hospital director to house the patients in his palace while he instead moved into the vacated, smaller hospital.  He gave ninety percent of his yearly income to the poor, keeping just enough to cover basic necessities in the home.  He lived without luxury, using his money only for what was necessary.  Rather than ride in a carriage like most Bishops, he would walk when he could and ride on a mule when he had to pass through the mountains.  The money that he was given for transportation was given to the poor.  His door was always unlocked, welcoming anybody in need at any time of day.


When Valjean was released from the galleys after nineteen years, he was not welcomed anywhere, a reflection of the rigid stratification of society.  Inns would displace him whether he had money of not.  The bishop was the only one who would take him in, citing his home as belonging to their common God, not to himself.  He is unconcerned about a person’s past, and more so is concerned about their present and future.  He only cares about whether he can help that visitor.  He believes in forgiveness and second chances.  By giving Valjean a loving place to stay where he will not be judged, he started a transformation which will eventually change the way in which Valjean viewed the world.  Hugo uses the Bishop to show the value of forgiveness and helping others selflessly rather than casting them away for something they have done in the past.


The desire for money or revenge can corrupt a person, making him cruel and uncaring.  It can take over his thoughts, making him blind to the needs of others and causing him to do things that others would find terrible.  Through the characters of Valjean and Bienvenu, Hugo shows how caring for others and forgiving those who are in need of forgiveness can help society.  They reside in stark contrast to the lecherous effect of Thenardier.

  Instead of letting the poor waste away, they should be helped.  Instead of driving away someone who may have made a mistake in the past, that person should be helped to learn from that mistake.  Otherwise, there is still a person wasting away, and there is still someone making the same mistake.



[1] ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Kim graduated from Phoenix High School (Phoenix, Oregon USA) in June 2012.  She went on to the University of Oregon