Essentially a detective story, Les Misérables is a unique combination of melodrama and morality. It is filled with unlikely coincidences, with larger-than-life emotions and giantlike human beings, yet it all manages to ring true and to move the reader. An epic of the people of Paris, with a vital and fascinating re-creation of the swarming Parisian underground, the novel suggests the crowded, absorbing novels of Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski. The main theme of humanity’s ceaseless combat with evil clearly emerges from the suspenseful plot, while the book as a whole gives a dramatic picture of the ebb and flow of life.
Victor Hugo claimed that the huge book was a religious work, and certainly religion does play an important part in the story. The struggle between good and evil is foremost in the tale. Another theme of equal importance is that of fate or destiny. To whatever extent one attempts to chisel the “mysterious block” of which one’s life is made, Hugo writes, the “black vein of destiny” reappears continually. One can never be certain what fate has in store until the last breath of life disappears. Mortals never are safe from the tricks of destiny, from the seemingly endless struggle.
The breathless pace of the novel probably has accounted for its tremendous popularity. The story is filled with dramatic and surprising action, many of the scenes ending with suspenseful episodes. Despite its digressions, the story moves quickly and with excitement, as the characters race across the countryside and through the narrow streets and alleys of Paris. The characterizations, while on a grand—even epic—scale, are lifelike and believable. Many of the characters seem possessed by strange obsessions or hatreds, but Hugo makes it clear that they have been warped by society and their earlier lives. Although a Romantic novel, Les Misérables has much in common with the naturalistic school that came into being a few decades later.
Perhaps the most terrifying and fascinating of all the characters who populate the book’s pages is Inspector Javert. Javert is clever but not intelligent. He is consumed by the malice that often dwells within the narrow, ignorant individual. He can conceive of no point of view other than his own. Sympathy, mercy, and understanding require an insight that he does not possess. For him there is no such thing as an extenuating circumstance. He clings with mindless, insane tenacity to his belief in duty. At his hands, justice is warped beyond recognition. Through him, Hugo shows the dark side of virtue.
The casual reader may be moved by the author’s search for justice in Les Misérables, and still others may admire the novel’s complex structure. Like so many of the greatest literary works, Les Misérables can be enjoyed many times by different kinds of readers, and on many different levels.
An important, if implied, theme of Les Misérables is the attainment of salvation through good works. Many of the characters of the novel give charity to those less fortunate. The dramatic opening scenes in which the convict Jean Valjean learns of goodness through the charity of the priest establishes the importance of this theme. Later, Valjean and Cosette give anonymous charity to others. Marius, in his goodness, gives charity to the disreputable Thénardier family.
Other biblical virtues are dramatized in the novel, but none so effectively as love. By love, Hugo means not only romantic love but also love of humanity, the love of a kindhearted human being for another human being, the love that must be connected with genuine charity. Valjean learns what love is during the course of the novel. “The bishop has caused the dawn of virtue on Jean’s horizon; Cosette worked the dawn of love.” Hugo makes it clear that one cannot exist without love, for if one tries, that person becomes warped and less than human. Valjean grows as a person, and he becomes a good and honorable man after he has found the love of the helpless little girl. By devoting his life to her, he finds the necessity of a meaning outside his own life. Valjean comes to value his own existence more because the girl is dependent upon him and loves him.
The novel covers a time span of more than twenty years—from the fall of the first Napoleon to the revolts of a generation later. The most exciting scenes, described with breathless precision and dramatic flair, are those at the barricades. The characters are swept up in an action bigger than they are. Skillfully, Hugo weaves Marius, Javert, Eponine, and the others into the battles along the streets of Paris. Always, Hugo’s eye catches the details of the passing spectacle, from the old woman who props up a mattress in front of her window to stop the stray bullets to the dynamic flood of humanity coursing down the boulevards. It is here that Hugo’s skill as a master of narrative is fully displayed. Never, however, does he lose sight of the pathos of the individuals’ struggles; the reader never forgets the principal characters and their plight amid the chaotic scenes. Hugo balances between the two elements that compose his masterpiece. The final scenes of the novel move relentlessly to their conclusion. Perhaps Dostoevski probed deeper or Dickens caught the humor of life more fully, but Hugo was their equal in his ability to portray the individual heartache and tenderness, the human struggle of those caught up in the forces of history.
Hugo knew how to write effectively and with simplicity of the common joys and sorrows of the average man and woman. His poetry and novels have always been popular, although they have at times been out of critical favor. The public mind was much moved by the generosity of his ideas and the warmth of their expression; Les Misérables is still a favorite book with many people around the world. Much of Hugo’s poetry and drama is no longer read or produced, but Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) will endure.