A contemporary of Victor Hugo's, Charles Dickens felt that society was a prison. Certainly this perception is applicable to Les Miserables. For, Hugo's grand novel is a plea for social justice. The main character, Jean Valjean suffers in the prison of society as he first starves and acts out of desperation, actions for which he is unjustly punished. After his release, Valjean steals a coin out of desperation, and is, then, obsessively pursued by police inspector who becomes obsessed with his capture; Valjean is never able escape his past despite his business success and all his charitable deeds. Hugo's description of the Paris rebellion in 1832 is a metaphor for this class struggle for human rights which Valjean undergoes.
So, themes in Les Miserables are Social Justice/Human Rights, Class Conflicts that result from this struggle, the existential theme of the Meaning of Life, and Justice/Injustice.
- Human rights - In the beginning of the novel, Jean Valjean and his sister's family are starving and struggling to live. When Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing bread to feed the children, he is given four years in prison. After he tries to escape, his sentence is increased to fourteen years. When he is finally released, he can find no work because he must carry a card identifying him as a convict. His human rights are violated as are those of Fantine who is abandoned by the man she loves. In desperation to feed her daughter, she turns to prostitution, sacrificing everything. When she is assaulted by a bourgeois gentleman, the police arrest her. She later dies, and Valjean takes her daughter, Cosette, another victim. Later in the novel, Eponine Thenardier becomes another victim in the struggle for human rights as she dies trying to prevent Marius's being shot during the Parisian street riots. She represents the degradation of human life when subjected to poverty:
What it came to was that in the heart of our society...two unhappy mortals had been turned into monsters at once depraved and innocent, drab creatures without name or age or sex, no longer capable of good or evil, deprived of all virtue, freedom, and responsibility; souls born yesterday and shriveled today like flowers dropped in the street which lie fading in the mud until a cartwhee comes to crush them. [Here the reader is reminded of Oliver Twist's poor little friend left behind at the Workhouse; a pathetic creature at the mercy of cruel fate, he dies shivering.]
- Class Conflict - The conflict of the Police inspector and Valjean is not just one of Justice vs. Injustice, but also one of class. Had Valjean not been one of the impoverished, he might have been able to regain respect from Javert after he owned his own successful business. Instead, Javert pursues him relentlessly, allowing Valjean no redemption. [This conflict reminds the reader of the injustice shown the convict Magwitch because he, too, is of lowly origin.] Marius and his grandfather come into conflict when Marius joins the rebellious students for civil liberty; the grandfather is a staunch aristocrat and opposed to the giving of rights to plebians.
- The Meaning of Life - The narrative of Hugo's novel raises the question of Valjean's search for meaning, a search that resolves itself in love. With the love of the innocent child, Cosette, Valjean finds purpose in his life. He even risks his own life to save Marius, whom Cosette loves. He tells Marius and Cosette, "Love one another....There is nothing else that matters."
- Justice/Injustice - Again like a theme of Dickens which he presents in A Tale of Two Cities as people are sentenced to death for minor crimes, the question arises if the system of justice in Paris really is equitable. Indeed, the punishment of Valjean and pursuance by Javert seems grossly unfair. Valjean questions "whether human society had the right to... grind a poor man between the milestones of need and excess--need of work and excess of punishment. Concluding that his punishment is excessive, Valjean develops a hatred for the government and society. Fantine suffers an inequitable fate, also, when she seeks redress through the law. There is a justice for the rich and another justice for the poor. It is this unjust system that causes Javert's suicide as he realizes that he has pursued the man who has saved his life. All that he has lived for has been a parody of an ideal that has never really existed.