Les Miserables Victor Hugo Term Paper

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Les Miserables

Victor Hugo- Les Miserables

Victor Hugo, the most important French Romantic writer, managed to draw in his novels a faithful and realist representation of Paris as it was in the century of Napoleon, at the same time enfolding the representation in a rich coat of symbols and metaphors which make his novels true, aesthetic masterpieces. Hugo was moreover one of the most successful and popular authors of all times, both in his own century and afterwards. Nevertheless, as most of the writers of genius, he did not elicit only admiration but also harsh criticism from the public and from other writers as well. Writing in the aftermath of the great French Revolution, Hugo was inspired by its humanitarian and idealistic philosophy which pervades most of his work. His longevity, his ambition and his tumultuous personal life were also great influences on his writings. Hugo remains thus a dauntingly prolific writer who produced immortal sceneries and characters. His work is impressive through its vividness and through the absolute mastery of style. Its unique quality is the merger between realistic representation and Romantic digression and symbolism. While the picture of the nineteenth century is vividly displayed in Hugo's works, his propensity for idealism gives an almost utopian tinge to the representation of the plot and the characters.

Thus, Les Miserables intends to draw not only the picture of a few isolated characters, but that of the entire Parisian life towards the middle of the nineteenth century. The book is remarkable through its fusion of Realism and Romanticism into one unified whole. Despite the frequent and long digressions from the main plot and despite the impressive number of characters, the book is curiously unified. All the tangled meanders of the plot meet at certain points, then diverge again and finally resolve into a unified conclusion. With the story of each character in the novel, Hugo attempts a commentary on a different type of character in a certain situation. All the characters are notably victims of the great and absurd mechanism of society, which controls the destiny of its members to the greatest extent. Starting from a realist social picture of his characters, Hugo moves towards the essential and archetypal features in man. As the critics have argued, Hugo deftly fuses the realistic and Romantic representations of the same objects and situations. Thus, while the characters and the plot remain improbable, it is obvious that he aims at representing a more general and archetypal reality: "While the novel tries to represent 'real people' through the analysis, description, and evolution of character, the romance deals in archetypes and tends toward myth. Thus, while charges that Hugo's characterization is poor are accurate, they miss an important point: Hugo sought to represent a general, archetypal reality, more akin to myth than to modern novels."(Brosman, 172) Thus, the reality of the nineteenth century society is alloyed in the text with profound mediations on human nature and the human condition.

Jean Valjean is the main character of the entire work and one of the most unforgettable literary figures. Throughout the novel, he undergoes numerous metamorphoses and passes through dramatic destiny shifts. At the beginning of the novel, he is already in the throes of a moral transformation. As an ex-convict who had just been released after nineteen years of prison for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is a misanthrope who has lost his faith in humanity. At the opening of the book however he already meets one of the characters who would determine a crucial upturn in his life: Bishop Myriel. Myriel offers Valjean shelter when all the others reject him. Valjean is however too disturbed after being hunted and mistreated for so long for the petty theft he had committed so as to feed his seven brothers and sisters, and he repays Myriel by stealing his silverware and running away. He is soon caught however, but Myriel defends him and tells the police that he had given Valjean the silverware as a gift. After another attempt at moral impropriety- stealing a coin- he finally reverts to his natural goodness and tries to reform himself morally. He soon becomes rich and assumes a new identity, under the name of M. Madeleine. However, Valjean's fight against the immovable laws of society still continues throughout his life. While he is the impersonation of the oppressed individual, inspector Javert is the symbol of the implacable order of society which is ultimately indifferent to human sufferance and true justice. Valjean's fate is an explicit commentary on this. Valjean is one of the 'miserables', a social outcast belonging to the criminal ranks and the lower class of society. As an antithesis, inspector Javert should be the impersonation of law and order. Hugo however demonstrates how this superficial, social division does not reflect the true order of society. The conventional, 'good' members of society who try to follow strictly its laws are the ones who are forgetful of true humanity and love between people. A man as cruel and heartless as Thenardier enjoys great social esteem because he is seemingly a respectable and exemplary citizen: "I've been established in business, I've been licensed, I've been a voter, I'm a citizen." (Hugo, 579) at the opposite pole, the young Valjean who recklessly steals a loaf of bread to provide for the large family he had remained in charge of after his parents' death, is given a cruel and exaggerate sentence which changes the course of his life: "Jean Valjean was pronounced guilty. The terms of the Code were explicit. There occur formidable hours in our civilization; there are moments when the penal laws decree a shipwreck. What an ominous minute is that in which society draws back and consummates the irreparable abandonment of a sentient being!"(Hugo, 106) What Hugo ferociously condemns in Valjean's case is certainly the utmost indifference of society towards the true laws of humanity. Thus, in his digressions, the author openly condemns civilization as a savage regime rather than an orderly mechanism: "The cities make ferocious men because they make corrupt men. The mountain, the sea, the forest, make savage men; they develop the fierce side, but often without destroying the humane side."(Hugo, 106) the jungle of the modern world is faithfully represented in the mad pursuit of Valjean by his enemy Javert. Another person who changes his life completely after the Bishop is certainly Cosette, the orphan child he dedicates his life to. In this bond of love Valjean finally finds his redemption: "Beloved by Cosette, it was well with him! He asked nothing more! Had any one said to him: 'Do you want anything better?' he would have answered: 'No.' God might have said to him: 'Do you desire heaven?' And he would have replied: 'I should lose by it.'(Hugo, 946) Despite his jealousy and hatred for Marius as Cosette's lover, Valjean overcomes his egotism completely in saving the young man's life, during the insurgence, for Cosette's sake. As Grossman argues thus, Hugo promotes the true laws of the spirit over the arbitrary and indifferent laws of society: "Hugo's exemplary characters exhibit several common features. Above all, they reject the law of the jungle, by which only the strong survive, in favor of divine precepts. To do so is to adhere not to the letter but to the spirit of the law: mercy, compassion, tolerance, and universal benevolence."(Grossman, 119) the values put forth by Hugo are the ones identifiable in the uncorrupted and nevertheless wise characters in the novels, such as Bishop Myriel who is depicted as symbolically 'mining' for the true gold of human nature: "There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine."(Hugo, 77) Valjean's story is thus significant precisely because it is a token of the dramatic struggle between the individual or the archetypal man and the cruel mechanisms of modern society, which is dominated by discrimination, iniquity and injustice.

If Valjean was the prototype of a man caught up in the wheels of the social mechanism, Fantine, another crucial character in the text, is the prototype of the good, innocent but ignorant woman who becomes the victim of society. Hugo maintains one important detail in her story: she is also an orphan, who has no idea about her own origins. Her fate is even more tragic than that of Valjean, because of her increased fragility and vulnerability as a woman. Moreover, Fantine becomes an easy prey to injustice as she falls in love unwittingly and in her innocence, remains pregnant with the man who only takes advantage of her without sharing her affections. As such, Fantine is the symbol of the innocent and pure woman who is ignorant because she is uneducated, but at the same time extremely wise because she… [END OF PREVIEW]

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