Character studies for "Les Miserables"

 

Companion site at http://www.stuartfernie.com .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to my page of character studies for Les Miserables.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below, you will find some outlines for the main characters in Les Miserables. Some are much briefer than others, and some are little more than extracts from my main page on Les Miserables.

Hopefully you will find them of some use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jean Valjean

 

 

Identity is a very complex matter and is dependent on a number of factors, though primarily character and experience. Jean Valjean is the product of the society he lived in, both in terms of the social conditions that led to him stealing a loaf of bread, and the excessive sentence he received as punishment for his crime. He went into prison a simple and devoted brother and uncle, and left it filled with despair, hopelessness, bitterness and anger at the injustice of his treatment. He also became accustomed to doing whatever was necessary to survive, with little thought of dignity and principle.

 

Thus, in reflex acts of desperation he stole from the Bishop and the young chimney sweep. These acts, in direct contrast with the kindness shown to him by the Bishop, cause him to focus on what he has become - the very creature he was accused of being all these years before, and which he has resented for so long. This realisation, combined with the realisation that any man could suffer what he has suffered as a result of social injustice, inspires him to treat people with tolerance and understanding. He has seen what can become of men as a result of their circumstances and experience, and is determined to help others by providing a reasonable standard of living for the workers in his factory, and the creation of a caring community through the construction of schools and hospitals.

 

It should be noted, however, that it was only as a result of his act of theft, his imprisonment and degradation, and of course his pivotal encounter with the Bishop that he developed into this wise and selfless benefactor.

 

We are told that as a young man Valjean was honest and hardworking, but otherwise quite unremarkable. He was a woodcutter by trade - a path he would doubtless have pursued for the rest of his life but for the crime that was to change the direction of his life forever.

 

Apart from experience and the people whose paths we cross on our travels, our identity is dependent on our character, and what sets Valjean apart from others who might have shared similar experiences is his determination not to allow the bitterness of the past to cast its shadow on the future. This, combined with a willingness to accept responsibility for his actions, allows him to accept the past, learn from it and go on to help others avoid situations similar to those he has encountered. Nor would he have become this man without having met Monseigneur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne whose kindness saved and inspired him. It is essential to note that an ordinary man serves as Valjean's inspiration. It is not God, it is not because he is a man of God, but it is a man displaying extraordinary kindness in exceptional circumstances whom Valjean takes as his inspiration, and it is this kindness and understanding that he, in turn, will show to others he perceives as being in need.

 

Valjean has become an independent thinker - he professes a belief in God, but does not spend his time pondering the unfathomable and waiting for divine inspiration. What defines Valjean is the fact that he has learned from his experience and acts on it. He tries to help people by his own initiative. He sees what is needed, takes control, and sets about creating circumstances which will help resolve the situation.

 

There are any number of examples of Valjean's "heroism" (a willingness to help others, even at his own expense), all inspired by love and a sense of responsibility. Yet these acts are tinged with - and accentuated by - tragedy, as Valjean is driven not only by a sense of responsibility, but by a lack of self respect. He is motivated by the need to compensate for his "misdeeds" of the past. He is ashamed not so much of the nineteen years he spent in prison, but rather that on his release he was willing to prey on those weaker than himself in order to survive.

 

While he learned the importance of understanding and learning from the past to improve the future, Valjean shows himself little of the sympathy and compassion he is willing to bestow on others. He has seen his own dark side. He has seen what he could become in the right circumstances, and he knows that suppressing this selfish creature to selflessly help others requires effort and determination.

He continues to be a prisoner of his past and decides to withdraw, largely, from Cosette's future in order to protect her from potential disgrace and embarrassment. Valjean undertook to care for Cosette out of a sense of duty - that is now fulfilled, as her husband will take his place as her protector, and as he has no legal or moral right to remain in her life, it is better to protect her and withdraw.

Valjean ended up in prison as a result of the questionable system of justice in operation at the time. He committed a relatively minor infringement of the law in trying to help his starving family, and paid the same price as one accused of a major crime. This situation, combined with a number of extensions to his original sentence as the result of a number of failed escape attempts, leads Valjean to question the fairness and validity of the system of justice, and indeed the very foundations of the structure of society.

Deprived of hope and freedom, these doubts turned to bitterness and resentment. It is only after meeting the Bishop that Valjean is able to see a way forward to help others who might also have fallen foul of a society which was not always sensitive to the needs of all its members and was dismissive of those who committed any infringement of its rules, with no heed given to circumstance, and no offer of compassion or understanding.

In Valjean we see a man who has all but lost his self-respect and who is tempted to become the creature others accuse him of being. He is saved by one man's kindness and compassion, and sees that there is another way to lead one's life, based on respect and love. Love to Valjean is essentially a spiritual affair. He has no physical loves, but gives of himself quite freely, allowing others to maintain the self-respect and dignity he himself had lost. He shows paternal love for Cosette, and even before that he shows devotion in stealing bread to feed his sister's child. Sadly he has little or no love for himself, choosing instead to devote himself to the provision of materials for others. He considers himself a thief, unworthy of others' affection, and spends his life trying to redeem himself - in his own eyes. He feels he has a debt to pay - not to society, but to himself, for he has seen what life can be like without honour, dignity, and love, and is determined that he at least will make a stand against such a life, both for himself and others. Although he has been twisted by his experience in prison, Valjean is saved by love and shows that love, combined with determination, can lead to change in man and also, by extension, in society.

Javert, and a comparison to Valjean

Both Valjean and Javert spent a considerable length of time in the "bagne" (penal colony) - Valjean as a prisoner and Javert as a warder. In Javert's case he was born in prison as his parents were both criminals. He has therefore grown up in an environment where the laws of the land are held as sacrosanct. Inmates were sent there to learn respect and acceptance of the law and so there was no room for discussion or debate. In this environment there was also a clear division between "them" and "us", the plunderers of society and its protectors, thus encouraging an unequivocal attitude with right being clearly on one side and certainly not on the other. One even wonders if Hugo saw prison as a metaphor for society itself with the imposition of its rules and restrictions, and more importantly the imposition of a frame of mind which cannot function out with these rules and regulations.

Thus convinced of his parents' wrong-doing, Javert sets out to prove himself worthy of society's appreciation rather than its condemnation. He is determined to rise above his background and pursues his ambition through a rigid application of society's rules, which he accepts totally and without question.

This is in stark contrast to Valjean who learns to question the nature of justice in society and appreciate the value of tolerance through his experiences, while Javert is determined to uphold the values of society without recourse to thought and consideration.

Both, then, wish to help and make a worthwhile contribution, though in markedly different ways. Javert seeks to protect society from the criminal element, while Valjean has firsthand knowledge of what can bring problems about and sets out to help avoid these problems. For Javert society remains something of an abstract notion, while Valjean is more concerned with the individuals who make up society.

In Montreuil, Valjean sets about helping the townsfolk through employment at his factory (where he insists on a reasonable standard of wage), but also in the building of a school and hospital. Javert also tries to help in his own way, through the strict application of the law and in trying to protect members of society from criminal elements. It is as the result of this fundamental difference in stance that there arises conflict between the two.

Fantine is known to both Valjean and Javert - Valjean feels responsible for her situation and is determined to help her as he feels he has contributed to her "fall from grace" (by allowing her to be fired from his factory). Javert has also played a part in her degradation, by arresting her on flimsy grounds and insisting on imprisoning her for six months. Once again the fundamental difference in attitude between them brings them into conflict, yet both are doing what they consider "right" and just. Valjean recognises his responsibility towards her and wants to act to alleviate her suffering, while Javert is interested in protecting society from what he sees as an irredeemable criminal.

Javert has total faith in the system of rules he represents, and by extension, total faith in himself. Unfortunately he is a man who allows his faith in his principles to overwhelm him. There is no place for doubt, thought, or understanding in his world. Such considerations would only threaten the very fabric of the society he is sworn to protect. He chooses to follow the letter of the law, not its spirit, thus displaying his complete faith in God and his own principles.

Valjean, on the other hand, doubts and questions himself at virtually every turn. His strength of will is derived from the fact that he feels he has seen his own black side - he knows what he is capable of, given the right circumstances, and because he has seen an alternative, he is determined to avoid any repetition of this "black side".

When Valjean releases him at the barricades, Javert is forced to call in to question his own judgment (and that of the whole of society). Javert, however, doesn't have the tolerance or forgiveness to accept his own mistakes and move on. He sees that he may have been mistaken in his judgment of Valjean, but because his philosophy is based on application of rules rather than thought and consideration, he sees no way forward for himself - for him it is a choice between believing in what is "right", or believing in nothing. Doubt may lead to clarification, but Javert sees no alternative to his principles which he has just seen overturned. He has, in effect, lost faith in his own ideals and cannot accept an alternative based on nothing more than respect for fellow human beings.

Javert is frequently viewed as Valjean's evil adversary, but this is a quite erroneous interpretation. He is a highly principled and well-intentioned officer of the law, but he is dogmatic and rigid in his thinking. His death is a tragedy for he had much to offer society, but in a changing world, with an increasing emphasis on compassion and accountability, Javert and his like no longer fitted. Total faith in the hierarchy and the rule of law in society meant that he was unwilling to reflect and see the bigger picture. While his devotion and dedication to duty are entirely admirable, his stance (and by extension that of the governing bodies of France) was becoming philosophically, morally and even politically unacceptable.

Valjean's transformation and redemption are underpinned by love and tolerance, qualities which Javert fails to embrace in his life. Javert cannot understand a world without guidance or some kind of standard set by a higher power. He hasn't enough love or respect for others to see that a system of conduct and morality may be based on humanity. For him there must be some authority, and when that authority is challenged and is shown to be fallible, the whole basis and purpose of his life is shattered.

Because he represents the law he feels he must rise above the common people he serves to protect. He forgets common humanity in favour of playing the part of a policeman in society. In many ways he becomes his role, abandoning sympathy and compassion which he regards as weaknesses in his task to protect society from the criminal element.

The Thenardiers

Valjean and Javert, though poles apart, share a belief in something greater than themselves. Thenardier, however, appears to believe in nothing and is a prime example and warning of the dangers of egotism and a refusal to recognise the needs or rights of others, whether through plain humanity or respect for values based on God's reported word and "morality".

If others act or change as a result of love and respect for others, Thenardier is in direct contrast to this. Intelligent, cunning and scheming, Thenardier is willing to manipulate the (genuine) feelings of others in order to make a buck. He believes in nothing but himself and his own survival.

In the book, beneath his cunningly ingratiating surface there beats a black and selfish heart. He is quite a darkly frightening character, but in the show he is (rightly) used for some comic relief to lighten the piece; however the threat of darkness should always be present and will come to the fore especially in "Dog eats dog", where his true nature is revealed.

In the book, Madame Thenardier more or less follows her husband's instructions, perhaps reflecting the perceived place of women in early 19th century French society. She goes along with his schemes more or less unquestioningly and they appear to deserve one another. Just as Thenardier's role has largely been developed as one of comic relief in the show, Madame's role has been similarly developed, taking in to account more modern sensibilities (comic complaints about her husband and his inadequacies, possibly suggesting intellectual superiority), yet retaining the essential compliance and complicity of the original.

Fantine

 

 

In many ways "Les Miserables" is an early feminist work, presenting a sympathetic and admiring picture of women and what they have to tolerate in society. This is exemplified by Fantine and her suffering. She is seduced and then cold-heartedly dropped by her bourgeois boyfriend, more or less as an experiment. Pregnant, she must find a means of supporting herself and her child in a society that dismissed unmarried single mothers as scum. In order to obtain a job she must entrust her daughter to the care of a couple she meets on her travels. At this time there was no social security, no welfare system, no adoption checks - it was a matter of survival and it was each man (or woman) for himself. Through Fantine, Hugo bemoans the plight of young women and unwanted pregnancies, and condemns society for its superior (and hypocritical) moral stance.

 

Eventually Fantine loses her job because of her child and she is forced into prostitution to pay for the upkeep of her daughter. She has therefore been transformed by society into the very thing it haughtily accused her of being in the first place.

Fantine represents maternal love and the lengths to which a mother may be prepared to go to in order to protect and save her child. Although she abandoned her child Cosette, this was done with the best of intentions and was the result of pressure applied by society in the form of prejudice and hypocrisy. She is, in her way, devoted to her child and is willing to sacrifice her own wealth, health and dignity in order to protect and save Cosette. Her efforts to raise money to pay for the upkeep of her child indicate a selflessness few could contemplate, suffering as she does any number of physical and psychological indignities before losing her life to illness (brought on as the result of poor living conditions).

She goes from being idealistically naive and open-hearted to being treated as one of the dregs of society, through no fault of her own, yet she remains devoted and pure of heart despite being abused and vilified by a society happy to seize upon the situation and weaknesses of others in order to boost their own position and self-esteem.

 Eponine

 

 

Eponine is the victim of a harsh upbringing, but is saved and made selfless by her (unreciprocated) love for Marius. Love forces her to choose between loyalty to her family (the Thenardiers) and their way of life, and her desire to impress her beloved Marius. Love also brings to the fore her positive quality of giving selflessly. All of this is tinged with tragedy as her love is not returned, but this only accentuates the depth of her love for Marius and her selflessness as she is willing to act against her own interests in order to help Marius.

 

Intelligent and understanding, she is fully aware of the impossibility of her position, but she persists in her actions to help Marius perhaps because love has helped her rise above her experience and upbringing.

 

Gavroche

 

 

Usually regarded as a loveable little rascal, Gavroche survives alone in life. Though it is not made clear in the show, he is the son of the Thenardiers. Perhaps because he has escaped their corrupting influence, he is spirited, good-hearted, wise beyond his years, and yet he retains a youthful loyalty and faith in his friends the students with whom he shares the principle of wanting to help his fellow man. He may represent Hugo's belief that man is good by nature, and is only corrupted by society and experience.

 

Cosette

 

 

Through young Cosette, and also Gavroche and the young chimney sweep (in the book), we see the abuse of children apparently abandoned by parents, and who are virtually slaves, deprived of education and forced to work long and arduous hour for an often unsympathetic "master". Again Hugo implies criticism of society in tolerating these conditions and practices toward children.

Cosette can also be viewed in broader terms as representing the future of society. Children are the key to the future and it is the responsibility of those living in the present to endeavour to improve the lot of those who will eventually inherit society and what we have made of it.

The best/most effective means of changing society is through education, and Valjean sets out to provide Cosette with the best education he can provide, both in terms of schooling and as a father, emphasising the value of compassion and understanding.

Cosette shows youthful high spirits, and perhaps as a result of her education and experience she is sincere, genuine, devoted and loyal. She is the kind of daughter most fathers pray for, indeed she is likely to be a cross between an idealised version of Leopoldine, the daughter Hugo lost in a drowning accident nearly twenty years before publication of "Les Miserables", and his wife Adele who was also his childhood sweetheart.

Marius

In Marius and the adult Cosette we see youthful passion and undiluted love. Two young people who have found their first, their only, their all-consuming loves. They are totally devoted to one another to the point of being able to think of little else. Their youthful exuberance causes problems in other areas of their lives - Marius appears, until the last minute, more concerned with Cosette than with helping his friends on the barricades, and Cosette begins to question her father's authority. Distraction and challenging of parental authority are of course natural consequences of falling in love and will be familiar to the majority of readers, inspiring a degree of compassion and even complicity Hugo might not otherwise have achieved, especially when placed against a background of heroic struggle against repression, adding even more to the pathos and apparent impossibility of their situation.

Marius is idealistic, naive and something of a dreamer. He may well be based on the youthful Victor Hugo, though his politics are clearly influenced by the views of the older Hugo.

He is much more complex in the book where great emphasis is laid on his belief in principle and keeping his word. He has given up considerable wealth to follow a life of relative poverty in a stand against family pressure. He is perhaps not quite as committed as his other student friends are to their cause as he is quite a dreamer and a romantic. When he meets the adult Cosette it is love at first sight. He is not hardened, selfish or cynical and gives in to his emotions rather easily.

However, reality and the imminent attempted rebellion force him to grow up and make a choice - the cause or love - and he opts for the cause, yet this also brings his love into a more mature focus.

The loss of his friends and his own survival cause him to grow up quickly. He realises that politics is not a game and that it has real consequences and causes real regrets.

When he accepts responsibility for the protection of Cosette he treats Valjean quite badly in the book. He is treated more kindly in the musical, but the point of this process is to show that Marius grows and gains confidence. By the end he has become an independent thinker and does what is right when he discovers Valjean was his saviour at the barricades. 

Enjolras (and students)

 

 

Poor living and working conditions led to the attempted uprising of June 1832 when idealistic young students tried to rouse the people to rebellion. Hugo himself was in favour of revolution if this was the only way to change things for the better, for it was quite clear that those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo were unlikely to change things of their own volition. Thus Hugo calls in to question not just the appropriateness of the punishment to fit the crime (through Valjean's imprisonment), but also the appropriateness of the government to fit the people.

In the students at the barricades we witness love of a different sort - love of a cause. They put belief in a principle above their own self-love. So immersed are they in the battle for social justice that they are willing to lose their lives to act as examples for others to follow. In this respect they prove to be tragically mistaken as few of the people they are trying to assist are willing to offer them any kind of support. This only serves to accentuate their courage, strength and idealism as they battle with government forces in an attempt to stir the people into action.

Spurred on by the contemporary ideology of challenging the whole basis of the government's authority and the demand for accountability, emotions spilled over into rebellion and an attempted uprising.

Tragically, the students did not receive the support of the very people they tried to defend. The people may not have had much, but they had too much to lose and memories of chaos in the aftermath of the revolution were still relatively fresh. The unwillingness of the people to join the students' stance serves to make the students' actions all the more heroic.

Enjolras is an idealistic and charismatic young leader who is politically aware, intelligent and "fired up". He is willing to fight and die for the cause he believes in - that of social justice. He is also practical and caring - he knows what fighting for this cause will mean for at least some of his friends. 

Bishop of Digne

 

In the Bishop of Digne we see pure, spiritual love. The Bishop is entirely devoted to God and his works. He is determined to see only the potential good in man, believing this to reflect God's wishes and intentions for mankind. The Bishop follows the spirit of the Bible, not the letter of the written word. Nor does he follow the example of other eminent ecclesiastics - he has renounced wealth to the point of renouncing almost all comfort. He has within him a love for God, but also an innate love for man, according him a respect not always shared by others. He is an optimist and sees himself merely as an instrument of God's will. He is also a man who acts on his principles rather than one who merely preaches and expects others to act on his words. He practises what he preaches and as such he is an inspirationally good man.

 

For a more amusing and entertaining take on the characters and plotline of "Les Misérables", just click on the image below to go to From The Box Office and their bluffers guide:

 

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope it was of some use to you. I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

 

Stuart Fernie

 

Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. So far, this includes discussions of “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.

 

 

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