I did this analysis on the book Les Misérables because I really need some practice identifying themes of a story, and this book is such a beautiful and emotional story. I recently watched the BBC Les Mis, as well as the musical version. Sadly, the book I read is abridged (which I discovered too late), but it’s good enough for now. Here is my analysis on three themes that stood out to me.
Accepting forgiveness leads to redemption.
Two characters exemplify this theme: Jean Valjean and Javert. Jean Valjean represents the man who accepted forgiveness, and Javert rejected it. I’ll first start with Jean Valjean.
Unlike the movie, where Valjean breaks down at the chapel after the bishop treats him with such love, there is no specific point in the book I read where Jean Valjean “repents” from his wrongdoing and vows to be a better person. However, at one point the weight of all his misdeeds becomes clear to him.
“His past life, his first offence, his long expiation, his brutal exterior, his hardened interior, his release made glad by so many schemes of vengeance, what had happened to him at the bishop’s, his last action, this theft of forty sous from a child, a crime meaner and the more monstrous that it came after the bishop’s pardon, all this returned and appeared to him, clearly, but in a light that he had never seen before.Hugo 43 (Fawcett Premier 1961)
In fact, after the encounter with the bishop, Jean Valjean proceeds to steal a forty sous piece from a little boy. He attempts to right his wrong afterward, but then realizes the extent of how much he’s hurt himself by his deeds.
He beheld his life, and it seemed to him horrible; his soul, and it seemed to him frightful. There was, however, a softened light upon that life and upon that soul. It seemed to him that he was looking upon Satan by the light of paradise.”Hugo 43 (Fawcett Premier 1961)
The next chapter where we meet Jean Valjean, he is Monsieur Madeleine.
“Father Madeleine employed everybody; he had only one condition, ‘Be an honest man!’ ‘Be an honest woman!'”Hugo 51 (Fawcett Premier 1961)
This book doesn’t show a dramatic change, but there’s a clear contrast between the old Valjean and the man he’s become. At some point, he made a choice to accept redemption and he continually changes through the novel. Redemption is a process. It isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you accept, that is messy, that takes time and pain. That in fact is the beauty of redemption.
One thing had astonished him, that Jean Valjean had spared him, and one thing had petrified him, that he, Javert, had spared Jean Valjean.
Where was he? He sought himself and found himself no longer.Hugo 282 (Fawcett Premier)
Javert is a rule follower. Laws and rules are the foundation in his life, and he is out to be justice and impose justice. Throughout his entire life, he has pursued criminals like Jean Valjean so that the law will be appeased.
Born in prison to criminals, Javert suffers from shame as he grows up. To him, the one constant in his life is the law. He lives by it and dies by it; there is no compromise. He even tries to get Monsieur Madeleine to fire him when he fails his duty.
When Jean Valjean spares Javert’s life, his world is turned upside down. He has a “does not compute” moment. As perfectly captured in the quote above, Javert “found himself no longer”. In his confusion of the meaning of mercy, he despairs and ends his life. It’s a tragic end to what happiness he could have found, had he only accepted forgiveness and mercy.
Sacrifice is the greatest form of love.
Sacrifice is a huge topic in Les Mis. First, the bishop sacrifices his safety and money, when he gave Valjean food, shelter, and the unnecessary gift of the silver. This action is a major turning point in Valjean’s life, leading him to reform his ways later on. There is no reason someone would be so vulnerable and forgiving unless they were full of love.
Fantine sacrifices greatly for her daughter Cosette. Although the abridged book does not say explicitly that Fantine turned to prostitution, it’s highly probable that she did so. At least, it is clear she did all she could to give Cosette a good life. In the end, she died in the hopes that Cosette would live a happy life, with no thought for herself. It’s clear that she loves her daughter.
Later on in the book, Cosette and Marius fall in love. To Valjean, this is a fear he has dreaded. To him, Cosette’s love was the one bright spot in his life. When she began to love Marius, he had no one to love him.
This is a sacrifice Valjean struggles with. He battles with this throughout a good part of part two of the book, and in the end, he makes the sacrifice. He could have let Marius die at the barricade but instead sacrificed his safety and feelings to rescue Marius. In this act, he is loving Cosette by respecting her love.
This whole idea is summed up at the end of the novel when Marius and Cosette burst into Jean Valjean’s room as he is dying. Marius did not understand why Valjean kept secret that he was the one who saved him, the one who saved Javert, and the same as Monsieur Madeleine.
Living in light of heaven only makes sense to those who see the light.
“But you!” exclaimed Marius, with a passion in which veneration was mingled, “why have not you told it? It is your fault, too. You save people’s lives, and you hide it from them! You do more, under pretence of unmasking yourself, you calumniate yourself. It is frightful.”Hugo 328-329 (Fawcett Premier 1961)
This is a huge theme in Les Mis that is strongest in the conclusion, at Valjean’s death. It’s truly the most beautiful, moving death scene I’ve ever read in a book. (And this was the abridged version! I’ll probably sob reading the original!)
This theme—living in light of heaven only makes sense to those who see the light—is a wordy sentence, but there’s no other way to put it. It is a statement true of many Christians. When a life has been reborn in Christ, that person is completely different, down to desires, hopes, and ambitions.
As Marius stands at Valjean’s deathbed with the full realization of all the good things Jean Valjean has done in secret, he cannot fathom this idea. No doubt Jean Valjean, many years before, would have had Marius’ reaction as well.
The bishop lived in light of heaven—his deeds made no logical sense to Jean Valjean. After encountering the bishop’s kindness, Valjean began to live in light of heaven. His hope was in the world to come, not in himself. His own sacrifices were nothing, because he knew true sacrifice.
There’s no better way to explain this than a passage from the book.
Jean Valjean, almost without ceasing to gaze upon Cosette, turned upon Marius and the physician a look of serenity.
Suddenly he arose. These returns of strength are sometimes a sign of the death-struggle. He walked with a firm step to the wall, put aside Marius and the physician, who offered to assist him, took down from the wall the little copper crucifix which hung there, came back, and sat down with all the freedom of motion of perfect health, and said in a loud voice, laying the crucifix on the table:
“Behold the great martyr.”Hugo 330 (Fawcett Premier)
There’s so much more I could say about this book. I could get into the side story about Eponine, but for now this is what I can write. I hope to read the original unabridged Les Misérables someday, but it’s 2000 pages! I’m sure it will be worth it though.