Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face in the French flag

Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo

Start Free Trial

How does Jean Valjean's life in Les Misérables support the theory that men are equal and the poor are crushed by societal prejudice?

The theory: men are essentially equal; the poor are crushed by the prejudice of organized society.

Quick answer:

Jean Valjean is a good man. As a young man, he helped to care for his sister and his sister's children. He was uneducated, however; he was a pruner as his father had been, and because of his poverty, was not able to see and know more of the world. Thus, when tragedy struck in the form of a bad winter, he could not find a solution in organized society. He stepped out, he stole, as millions have. He suffered for his hunger. Only when benefitted by the gift of the Bishop's silver is Valjean able to rise above his desperation and seek new ways of doing things.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jean Valjean was a good man. As a young man, he helped to care for his sister and his sister's children. He was uneducated, however; he was a pruner as his father had been, and because of his poverty, was not able to see and know more of the world. Thus, when tragedy struck in the form of a bad winter, he could not find a solution in organized society. He stepped out, he stole, as millions have. He suffered for his hunger.

Only when benefitted by the gift of the Bishop's silver is Valjean able to rise above his desperation and seek new ways of doing things. As an ex-convict, poor, and mean in appearance, he is pushed away from every place, once again denied food because of society's prejudice. Once wealthy, however, he is accepted, embraced, and finally able to seek the education needed to not only excel personally but to benefit many others. As mayor, he provides stability to a town, and industry and charity to those less fortunate.

Javert and Valjean are intellectual equals. Javert lives within the organized society; Valjean lives on the edges. Javert suffers, having been poor as a child. He becomes cold and bitter in order to prosper in the world. Valjean flouts the rules, but he is more at peace, rising above prejudice.

In Valjean's life, he continually meets men and women who are his equal, but are struggling always against a society that restricts them.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial