What is the theme of Les Misérables?
The novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo explores many themes of social injustice--including class conflict, human rights, and the role of transformation in the course of a life--through the lens of the revolution in Paris of 1832.
The book follows Jean Valjean, a man who serves nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family; four of those are for the original crime, and the other fifteen are a result of an escape attempt he made. This punishment all but destroys Valjean's life and is a testament to the monstrous way in which the judicial system worked at the time... punishing those who were the most underserved in the community (the starving, the poor, the homeless, etc.) for crimes that essentially were committed out of necessity.
This system is predicated on the oppression of the working class; as a result, the novel takes place amidst the backdrop of revolution, with students and workers uniting for the liberation of the poor and socially downtrodden.
We see Valjean's character shift over the course of the novel, beginning with the act of kindness of a bishop who forgives him after Valjean desperately steals again after his release from prison. Valjean goes on to try to lead an honorable life and to leave his conviction behind him, becoming a manufacturing titan, taking care of the young orphan Cosette, and serving the community. Despite the suspicions of Javert, the police inspector, Valjean manages a true transformation and maintains a life of good work and values.
The theme of Victor Hugo's novel is suggested by its title Les Miserables. If tells about the miserable lives of the poor. The thesis, however, is that one act of Christian kindness can change a man's character for the rest of his life. The entire novel illustrates this thesis. The remarkable kindness of Bishop Bienvenu when he saves Jean Valjean from returning to the galleys by giving him his silver candlesticks effects a transformation in the convict's character which transforms the lives of others, particularly that Cosette, the little girl he saves from the vicious Thenardiers, and that of Marius Pontmercy, the man Cosette ultimately marries. Valjean does good work wherever he goes. He sets up businesses which provide employment for many people. His nemesis Inspector Javert represents the antithesis in the story. His attitude must be that people cannot change. It is important to him to capture Jean Valjean and send him back to the galleys because it will validate his counter-thesis that men cannot be changed by the love and forgiveness taught by Christianity. In spite of its heavy romanticism, the novel is captivating because Victor Hugo was one of the greatest writers of all time.
The main theme of this work is that the human condition is universal, and that all humans are capable of compassion and all deserve dignity. The lives of the poor and downtrodden are portrayed in a way to show their innate nobility and strength of character, and even though society at large does not value them, they believe in their own worth. Their suffering and their ability to cope with int shows they are just as deserving of respect and dignity as the rich ad powerful in society. Many of Victor Hugo's works were concerned with the imbalance of power and status between rich and poor.