How does "Les Miserables" prove or disprove that man is more a product of his environment than of his intrinsic nature?"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a predecessor of his, Victor Hugo, who also believed in the innate goodness of man, wrote,

I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred.  That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables.

Very much a social/political protest novel, "Les Miserables" chronicles the pitiable state of a desperate man who is forced to steal in order to provide for his relatives.  His crime of stealing the bread is severely punished because the store owner lives behind the store.  Then, when Jean Valjean is released from prison, he is again forced into stealing since he cannot obtain work because he must always present the yellow card that identifies him as a criminal.  Even when he is provided a chance to turn around his life by the saintly bishop who refuses to claim that the former convict has stolen his silver candlesticks, Valjean has the looming shadow of the law in the form of Inspector Javert constantly behind him.  But, he remembers the words of the venerable bishop for the rest of his life.

Thus, as a novel of moral redemption, Valjean is stalwart in his faith in humanity, continuing to help others such as Fatime and her daughter Cosette, and Marius, as well as refusing to return to crime even when he has the opportunity to rid himself of Javert. 


giorgiana1976 | Student

Hero and also the central pivot around whom the narrative plans articulate is Jean Valjean, whose tragic destiny turned irretrievably into a nightmare when, for stealing a loaf of bread, was sentenced to prison.

 Even after ten years of penal servitude, he is forced to hide under false identities of relentless persecution of the policeman Javert, unable to see beyond the law, the complexity of the human soul.

Convinced of his mission, inspired by Dante, to make from reality a hell, novelist structures in the sequence of epic scenes,the adventures through the hero passes  to save his life and to protect Cosette,daughter of a prostitute,which he considered his own daughter,who Valjean saved her from the house of Thénardier's, where she was subjected to inhuman treatment.

Without being a vindictive human and without trying to replace human or divine justice, Jean Valjean is following his troubled existence on the road to continuing ascent to absolute ethics. The thread of his biography is  woven with other destinies,entered also in the context of the same age, which makes from the novel building a true social fresco.

Surrounded by characters from all social circles, Jean Valjean has to overcome obstacles related to the history or the dual nature of man, varying as human being between good and evil; his path, although often interspersed with setbacks, is ascendant and triumphant in the moral order.

This world of "miserable", gathered around its representative echo,is including other characters, as vivid and credible in their dramas as Jean Valjean. The first episode is surprising Fantine- a young forced to abandon his daughter after the student who seduced her, dropped her - which bears on her forehead, as predestination,the stigma of  anonymity and pain. Little Cosette, reached in the hands of the couple Thénardier, reddit mother's story to share with readers the message the society of that time, that suffering is possible at any age.

Hugo's novel confirms his greatness by that it addresses the major issues of his century, human degradation caused by the pressing society.

mkcapen1 | Student

To prove the theory that man is a product of his environment let us look at Cosette’s mother. She lived during a time when women without husband’s had no real means for supporting themselves if they were poor. Once her boyfriend rejected her she was put out on the streets.  She is pregnant. She became a prostitute to support herself and her child. She becomes ill.  She gets beaten and mistreated with no help afterwards.  She was a product of her environment.

Our protagonist in the story is a man, Jean Valjean, who had stolen bread to feed his sister’s children because they were too poor to buy any.  He was imprisoned and the likelihood of him ever overcoming his acquired violent behaviors was slim.  However, he rose above all of that to become a good and honest man who deeply loved his adopted daughter, Cosette, and who dedicated his life to her.  His exposure to religious people who lived their faith helped him to make the transition.  He proved to demonstrate that a man can become more than a product of his environment.