What are the themes in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo?
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...
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