It is amazing
how in most literature, there is a strong sense of right and wrong firmly placed
at the heart of every tale. There is always a hero, a villain and a story that
ends with good prevailing in the end over the treacherous evil. In the timeless
novel Les Miserables, the notion of moral absolutism is skewed to say the least,
and in its stead, confusing identities are placed upon every character, scene
and page in this book. Perhaps it is the chaos and the mystery riddled in this
story that’s keep the reader wanting more, because what are they searching for
but an answer to the biggest dilemma on each page? The haunting questions that
egg us on to read just one more page are simply these; who is truly good in this
book? Who is evil? And who are truly les miserables.
First of all, it can become unclear at times what the motives and beliefs are of most every character in this book due to internal conflicts influencing their Thoughts and actions. This begs us to ask the question, do someone's actions reflect their state of mind and their general goodness? Or does their state of mind affect their actions? These questions seem to burn in the readers mind as they are hooked into each Aspect of each characters life (and death for that matter). During several points in this book we see the protagonist, Jean Valjean struggle with moral conflicts in varying situations. For example, when Jean Valjean commits his first “crime", he steals bread to feed his impoverished nieces and nephews. In doing this, Valjean marked just the beginning of his Robin Hood like career of taking from the fortunate to give to the needy. It also earned him sixteen years in prison. Would this be considered a crime, though it is virtually victimless? Is the law in fact the grey area of personal morals that is trodden across so often in this novel? We can all see Jean Valjean’s true colors when someone being convicted under his name for crimes that he had committed so long ago. The rather ignorant and innocent man is on the verge of being put away or worse, killed, when Valjean, under an assumed name, bursts into the courtroom and reveals his true identity. One can only imagine the amount of guilt and anxiety Valjean must have felt when deciding not only whether or not to help the mis-convicted criminal, but taking his own life into his hands, along with all that he had earned for himself and throwing it all away. Shortly before all this, the deathly ill and desperate Fantine lay terrified and barely breathing with the hopes that Valjean will bring her beloved daughter, Cosette. Valjean is pressed with the decision of whether to help the wrongly accused or save the horribly mistreated.This seems to be a recurring theme in his life. Yet again we see this conflict when Valjean is deciding whether or not to go to the barricades to save Marius, the love of Cosette's life though Valjean desperately wants her for himself as his innocent daughter.
Perhaps the time period had an overall effect on what was considered evil. To say the least, our justice system now is vastly different than of that in the early 1800’s. Today, stealing an apple would be frowned upon and perhaps a slap on the wrist and a frown would bestowed upon the thief, and that person would more than likely be able to go about his day like anyone else. In the early 1800's it is apparent that most of what was seen as criminal was less than severe. It also did not matter the type of crime committed to begin with. Every person who had committed even one heinous act was and would forever be a criminal. No room for redemption, salvation or forgiveness and absolutely no exceptions. How can one not fall into a pattern of self-hatred after being told year after year that they are bad, unjust and criminal? Jean Valjean is perhaps the best example of questioning oneself that one could think of. His decisions play a major role in the fate of numerous characters throughout the book and truly make the reader wonder who is doing the wrong and who is receiving it.
While focusing on the theme of self-sacrifice, along with Jean Valjean, there is one other character whose commitment to the ones she loves challenges all others and their prejudice beliefs. The character Fantine, fooled by the inviting light of passionate love and then broken with nothing left but her sweet child, Cosette, and sadly, even she is lost to her distraught mother. Fantine is obviously challenged with the idea of leaving her child, so that she can work without the scrutiny that comes along with raising a daughter out of wedlock. Some might say that leaving her daughter Cosette with the notorious Thenardiers was the worst thing Fantine could have done to Cosette, when in fact it was truly the only way to save her from a life of pain and hunger. One can only imagine the struggle between Fantine’s brain and heart when making that final decision to place her daughter into the money grabbing hands of the Thenardiers. It is sad sometimes to think that someone with such pure intentions can still endure so much suffering. One can only suppose that bad things really do happen to good people. Fantine’s character deeply emulates the works of Plato’s allegory of the cave. A life of mistreatment and shadowy situations has left her naive, confused and generally blind. It is the kind and trustworthy Valjean that truly brings Fantine into the light, and shows her that man made chains are helpless to hold back the love of a mother or the redemptive power of a misguided man..You could say that these two have much more in common than a longing for freedom. Despite Fantine’s untimely death, the question begs to be asked; could that pair of blind souls led each other into the light of love and salvation without ever knowing what true acceptance feels like?
It is even more frightening to think of that interpersonal conflict coupled with a life of confusion is what led Inspector Javert to commit suicide. Jean Valjean shows that he is purely interested in the safety and welfare of others when he sets Javert free at the barricades rather than getting revenge on him for all the pain he has caused over the years. From that moment, Javert is sent spiraling into a hurricane of self-speculation. He is stuck asking himself if he should pursue Valjean and uphold the law, or let him free and destroy his past beliefs, therefore destroying the law and himself. His choice becomes obvious when Valjean proves his goodness once again and returns to be arrested after taking the nearly fatally injured Marius to a safe place where he can heal. Javert then sees he has no choice and kills himself to avoid dealing with a lifetime of misguided "good deeds". This point in the novel truly represents a deeper more shocking aspect of internal conflict. Sometimes the only thing standing between a person’s mind and their thoughts is in fact their actions, and in the case of Inspector Javert, the barricade in his mind became so grand, that when it fell, he couldn't bear to watch any longer.
Though some characters in the novel like Fantine and Javert more directly affect the story with their interpersonal battles, it is peculiar that the some of the most influential characters in this story don't seem to have conflicting feelings about anything at all. These are the true symbols of good and evil in this novel, the ones that are so sure of their own belief that not even their own thoughts can shake them. On the darker side of the spectrum, we find the Thenardiers, so enveloped in their own greed, that they are immune to sympathy, love and most of all, charity. It is safe to say that such a powerful symbol of evil as the Thenardiers has never graced the pages of any other novel or bedtime story. For the purpose of finding the purest, or rather most impure, example of evil in this book, we will delve primarily into the deceitful life of Mr.Thenardier. This perfect example of a Hobbesian man, emulates every negative aspect of human nature. From embezzling money from a sick and impoverished mother to abusing the innocent and unknowingly orphaned Cosette, this man's hatred knows no bounds. He is plagued with evil, aggression, thievery and hate, but the one thing that this man does not seem to be diseased with, is guilt. But how? The reader may ask, can someone who does so much wrong to so many good people, feel not a shred of guilt or even a smudge of sadness? Perhaps it is those who become jaded to all human emotion that become better off in a world where so much wrongdoing is committed every day. Are the miserable those who are evil and untroubled? Or those who are just and guilt ridden who truly deserve the title of the miserable?
The only comfort in knowing characters as dark and evil as Mr. Thenardier, is knowing a character that stands in direct moral opposition to him. Cosette is a woman whose pure light could be enough to chase the shadows from the walls of any cave. It only makes sense that the human ideal of kindness and beauty would be represented by such a lovely, kind and young women. Her first and perhaps most difficult accomplishment was softening the heart and soul of Jean Valjean. When Valjean first rescued her from the abusive home of the Thenardiers, he was hardened to the world, resentful of himself, and even God. Years later, Valjean is faced with even more dire and pressing matters than in the beginning of the novel, and that is when we truly see how much Valjean really needs something to fight for and care for as his own. Cosette seems to embody the strongest moral navigation accompanied by great ease in maintaining an innocent and good natured disposition. It would be hard for one to even fathom a character that goes about life with such a knowing and kind air. The only conflicts that we see Cosette endure, are those involving the love of her life, a young revolutionary named Marius. The strange thing is, Cosette seems jaded, or in some cases protected from, much of what her father is fighting against on a regular basis. The first and only time we see Cosette show any signs of internal conflict is when debating whether or not to meet Marius one last time before his dangerous mission to make the voice of the revolution heard. Until this point, Cosette appears as a timid woman, who does not let her emotions dictate her actions. It would appear as though Cosette only began to question her own goodness, when she learned of the hatred and ill will around her. As we read on, it becomes difficult not to wonder, is being a truly good person being able to know the wrongs in the world, and make our own good in spite of them? or is the only true way to human bliss in fact ignorance?
In conclusion, saying that is difficult to truly identify any of the characters in this novel, is an understatement. never has a book been written that can make us want to fight for what we love and question ourselves in doing so as much as les Miserables. The diversity of characters and their moral standings is incredible, and to even completely figure out the thought process of one character could take a lifetime of thought. Perhaps this is what makes the novel so real and raw; that we can feel each emotion and worry as it passes through the minds of each of these characters. Whatever the cause, this book truly causes us to look deeply into ourselves, and search for what we truly believe to be good and evil in our society. We can clearly see the immense amount of pain, conflict and crime in the world every day, and we are all, consciously or not, fighting battles within our hearts and minds with each passing moment. It is thoughts like these that keep us wondering if it is us who are truly Les Mserables.