Reflections on Victor Hugo's
I hope you find this page interesting and helpful. I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
A few years ago I became interested in "Les Misérables" and I added one of the film versions to my collection. In 1998 I
went to see the musical, largely to please my wife (I generally don't like musicals!), and I came out of the theatre a devoted
fan! I was quite stunned by the emotive music and the sheer strength of the narrative.
I went on to study the book with my Higher French class, but I quickly realised my pupils would need some kind of guide to
help them through the text, and so I produced a booklet of notes and ideas - a sort of study guide - which formed the basis
of the present web page for a number of years. However, a mere five years later(!) I reworked it to produce a fuller version
which now replaces that original.
Please remember these are only my own ideas, and I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss this
booklet or "Les Miserables" itself. I hope you find the booklet useful and interesting.
The storyline Hugo's inspiration A symbol of its time Jean Valjean Javert, and a comparison to Valjean Justice
and society Love Tolerance Death Hope for the future Writing style and symbolism Coincidence Film
versions The musical Further reference
A video presentation of this page (in five parts) is
available by following these links: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Jean Valjean was an honest man who, through force of desperate circumstance committed the relatively minor crime of
stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, and paid a price out of all proportion with the severity of his crime.
Captured and sentenced to a term of five years' imprisonment, Valjean spends nineteen years doing hard labour as a result
of four failed escape attempts. He emerges from prison on parole, a hardened and bitter man, having encountered little
kindness in the course of these nineteen years, and having adapted to the company he was forced to keep.
Because of his criminal record he encounters problems in finding employment, lodgings, and indeed any place in society.
Exhausted and demoralised, he finds comfort and accommodation at the home of the Bishop of Digne who shows Valjean
kindness and compassion. However, during the night Valjean surrenders to his experience and degradation of the previous
nineteen years which, combined with a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness he has felt since his release, lead him to
behave as he has been condemned to do - he steals the Bishop's silverware.
He is captured and returned to the Bishop who, contrary to Valjean's expectations, not only tells the police that he gave
Valjean the silverware, but insists that Valjean should take two silver candlesticks as well.
This is the first act of kindness and generosity Valjean has encountered in all those nineteen years. Accustomed to having to
fight for his very survival, this act of compassion and understanding (whose existence he has long since abandoned and then
forgotten) causes him confusion and bewilderment.
While still dazed by his meeting with the Bishop, Valjean reacts once again in an animal-like fashion, doing what he feels he
has to do in order to survive, when he steals a coin from a passing young chimney sweep.
This act, contrasting violently with the kindness he has just been shown, brings home to him just what he has become and
how far he has fallen.
With a clarity missing for some nineteen years, he sees he has a choice to make - continue on the path of petty crime and
self destruction upon which he is set, or start afresh and follow the example set by the Bishop. He can view people as a
means to an end, as potential victims in his quest for survival, or he can live by compassion and understanding, offering help
to others, just as he received help from the Bishop.
He determines to start a new life, adopting a new identity and a new mentality in the process.
While Valjean is clearly the principal character and our tale is largely concerned with his efforts to lead a worthwhile life, his
destiny is inextricably linked with a whole gamut of characters whose lives become intertwined. This is equally the story of,
among many others, Javert (the policeman who pursues Valjean in order to protect society from someone he regards as a
dangerous criminal), Fantine (the tragic factory girl who sacrifices herself for the upkeep of her daughter), Cosette (the
daughter of Fantine used and abused by the innkeepers into whose care her mother entrusted her), the Thenardiers (the
self-centred innkeepers and petty criminals), Eponine (the daughter of the Thenardiers and victim of unrequited love),
Marius (an idealistic student who falls in love with the adult Cosette), and the revolutionary students (who seek to incite
rebellion against a heartless and uncaring government).
The scope, then, of "Les Miserables" is vast.
Hugo invites his readers to reflect upon the spirit, morality, justice in society, the very structure of that society and its values,
love, faith, tolerance, youth, age, parenthood, conscience, duty, change in the light of experience, and many other facets of
It is difficult to characterise "Les Miserables". This is not an escapist adventure story, but a novel about life and how people
live it in the guise of a tale of adventure. Reading the book is essentially a spiritual experience as we are led on the same
journey Valjean himself undertakes, and we are invited to learn Valjean's lesson and treat others with compassion and
The first point to make concerning the writing of the book is the fact that it is far from being a work of pure fiction. Indeed it
is based largely on historical fact (the attempted student uprising of 1832 is quite genuine), incidents lifted from Hugo's life,
and characters Hugo met in the course of his life.
The Bishop of Digne was based on a genuine Bishop, and Javert was based on a high-ranking policeman of Hugo's
Valjean was based largely on Claude Gueux (see chapter on justice and society), and doubtless several other convicts Hugo
met during his frequent prison visits.
The adult Cosette is clearly based on Hugo's wife Adele, while Hugo himself served as a model for the love-struck young
The incident involving Fantine and the Bourgeois she strikes is taken from a genuine incident witnessed by Hugo in which a
young prostitute was to be summarily sentenced to six months' imprisonment after striking a "gentleman" in self defence.
Hugo stepped in and explained the facts to the police, using his fame and position to help free her.
With a little research many of the multitude of characters in "Les Miserables" could doubtless be traced back to people
Hugo met on his travels, but what purpose does this device serve?
By using genuine events and characters, then mixing them with situations and characters of his own fabrication, Hugo has
created a particularly real and affecting story in which character traits are recognisable and convincing as his characters face
a variety of challenging (though realistic) circumstances. It is especially by trying to evoke familiarity and an emotional
response that Hugo hopes to persuade his readers of the need for change in society at that time.
A symbol of its time
To truly understand some of the main points of the story, I'm afraid a brief historical and philosophical digression is
The eighteenth century was a time of philosophical turmoil and growing political unrest, with increasing awareness of social
injustice fuelled by the published works of radical and challenging writers such as Voltaire, David Hume, Jean-Jacques
Rousseau and Rene Diderot. The ideas contained in their works encouraged their readers to challenge the very core of
society and its foundations, leading indirectly to the French revolution and the Napoleonic era which form the backdrop and
historical context for the events of "Les Miserables".
These events may well be considered a reflection of further political, social and indeed philosophical change in the course of
the nineteenth century. This was a period of continued profound change in society summarised, perhaps, by the move from
faith and tradition to reason and social conscience. This was a society in revolution as it veered from dogma, rigidity and
heartlessness toward a more human, caring and tolerant approach.
This movement was called the "Enlightenment Movement" and it evolved into a more extreme form in the twentieth century,
Although a satisfactory and complete definition of the ideas behind these movements is virtually impossible to find, these are
concepts which are essential to the understanding of a great deal of nineteenth and twentieth century French literature.
Very roughly the suggestion is that God and therefore morality do not exist (at least not in their traditional biblical form), and
so the only truth is that we are morally free. However, this freedom brings with it its own restrictions. If we are free then it is
"wrong" for anyone to deprive us of that freedom, yet we all exercise influence on others virtually every moment of every
day, often by virtue of the mere fact of our existence.
What implications does this have for the way we live?
Hugo appears to suggest we start by recognising our responsibilities toward others, both individually and collectively as a
society, and act upon this recognition. After all, society is nothing more than the sum of its individual parts and if each
individual saw and accepted his impact on others, society may well become more thoughtful and caring.
The world of "Les Miserables" is peopled by a vast array of characters, most of whom have varying degrees of influence on
the events of the novel. All are so well drawn that even if at first one has difficulty in seeing what import they will have for the
narrative, one becomes interested in their story perhaps before we are shown their connection to the main narrative.
The life of each character is influenced and affected by several other characters. Their destinies are entwined and to some
extent at least, they are dependent on one another.
Hugo appears to be suggesting that our destinies are not set in tablets of stone, but are instead changed most profoundly by
what may be chance encounters. People exercise influence on one another - that is inevitable, but the key issue lies in the
recognition of one's influence and the acceptance of responsibility for it.
Valjean feels he is responsible for Fantine's fall from grace and sets out to make amends by taking her daughter Cosette
under his wing.
Taking the argument one step farther, Valjean endeavours to ease the burden of the less fortunate by undertaking good
deeds (the building of schools and hospitals, and providing a good standard of pay) for the benefit of the common people -
thus helping them to avoid situations such as he and Fantine have known.
In this way Hugo does not limit his theory of responsibility to the individual, but extends it to the whole of society. It is surely
better to offer preventative measures than to wait until one is in need of help.
If "Les Miserables" is a plea for and a symbol of philosophical, social and political change, nowhere is the difference
between the old and the new better encapsulated than in the clash between Javert and Valjean. Javert is frequently viewed
as Valjean's evil adversary, but this is a quite erroneous and simplistic interpretation. He is a highly principled and
well-intentioned officer of the law, but he is dogmatic and rigid in his thinking. He may well represent the Ancien Regime,
with its authoritarian and hierarchical, if ultimately divisive, approach to government, based on the principle of the superiority
of the wealthy ruling class who believed they had divine authority to govern.
Valjean, on the other hand, may represent the Enlightenment Movement which invited people to question the very existence
of God, morality and therefore the very authority of those in power. Valjean is no revolutionary - he deals only with people
and events which touch him personally, yet he represents a danger to the established order because he has learned to
challenge the traditional view of justice, both legal and social, as the result of his imprisonment and his encounters with a
variety of characters. He offers an alternative to traditional thought in the form of reason (as opposed to dogma), and the
promotion of compassion and humanity (as opposed to a rigid social order).
Hugo is generally regarded as a champion of the Romantics, a literary movement which promoted freedom from traditional
forms and rules of writing (and their inherent restrictions), and laid greater emphasis on psychological depth and
understanding of characters. Clearly, with its constant emphasis on such elements, "Les Miserables" is the very embodiment
of this move towards an age of understanding and compassion, and a step away from a time of rigidity and dogma.
Identity is a very complex matter and is dependent on a number of factors, though primarily character and experience. Jean
Valjean is the product of the society he lived in, both in terms of the social conditions that led to him stealing a loaf of bread,
and the excessive sentence he received as punishment for his crime. He went into prison a simple and devoted brother and
uncle, and left it filled with despair, hopelessness, bitterness and anger at the injustice of his treatment. He also became
accustomed to doing whatever was necessary to survive, with little thought of dignity and principle.
Thus, in reflex acts of desperation he stole from the Bishop and the young chimney sweep. These acts, in direct contrast
with the kindness shown to him by the Bishop, cause him to focus on what he has become - the very creature he was
accused of being all these years before, and which he has resented for so long. This realisation, combined with the
realisation that any man could suffer what he has suffered as a result of social injustice, inspires him to treat people with
tolerance and understanding. He has seen what can become of men as a result of their circumstances and experience, and is
determined to help others by providing a reasonable standard of living for the workers in his factory, and the creation of a
caring community through the construction of schools and hospitals.
It should be noted, however, that it was only as a result of his act of theft, his imprisonment and degradation, and of course
his pivotal encounter with the Bishop that he developed into this wise and selfless benefactor.
We are told that as a young man Valjean was honest and hardworking, but otherwise quite unremarkable. He was a
woodcutter by trade - a path he would doubtless have pursued for the rest of his life but for the crime that was to change
the direction of his life forever.
Clearly the potential for good must have been contained within him, but what becomes of us depends on various catalytic
factors such as the choices we make at different times, the influence of others on our lives, and events which occur around
us, over which we have no control. Thus it can be argued that Valjean would almost certainly not have fulfilled his potential if
he had not been condemned to an unjust term of imprisonment and suffering, as a result of which he learned to truly
appreciate the value of compassion and understanding.
Apart from experience and the people whose paths we cross on our travels, our identity is dependent on our character, and
what sets Valjean apart from others who might have shared similar experiences is his determination not to allow the
bitterness of the past to cast its shadow on the future. This, combined with a willingness to accept responsibility for his
actions, allows him to accept the past, learn from it and go on to help others avoid situations similar to those he has
encountered. Nor would he have become this man without having met Monseigneur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne whose
kindness saved and inspired him. It is essential to note that an ordinary man serves as Valjean's inspiration. It is not God, it
is not because he is a man of God, but it is a man displaying extraordinary kindness in exceptional circumstances whom
Valjean takes as his inspiration, and it is this kindness and understanding that he, in turn, will show to others he perceives as
being in need.
If who we are and what we become is in good part dependent on experience and the influence of others, there is clearly an
element of chance in our destinies, or is it perhaps fate, with some influence being exercised over our lives?
The events of Hugo's tale are open to both interpretations and the way in which we choose to interpret these events will
depend largely on our own convictions. It is said that god works in mysterious ways and the numerous coincidences and
encounters in the narrative may indeed derive from God's influence as He guides certain events, but whether these events
are due to God's influence or are due simply to happenstance is really quite irrelevant. What matters is the way in which we
react to these circumstances.
Valjean has become an independent thinker - he professes a belief in God, but does not spend his time pondering the
unfathomable and waiting for divine inspiration. What defines Valjean is the fact that he has learned from his experience and
acts on it. He tries to help people by his own initiative. He sees what is needed, takes control, and sets about creating
circumstances which will help resolve the situation.
There are any number of examples of Valjean's "heroism" (a willingness to help others, even at his own expense), all inspired
by love and a sense of responsibility. Yet these acts are tinged with - and accentuated by - tragedy, as Valjean is driven not
only by a sense of responsibility, but by a lack of self respect. He is motivated by the need to compensate for his "misdeeds"
of the past. He is ashamed not so much of the nineteen years he spent in prison, but rather that on his release he was willing
to prey on those weaker than himself in order to survive.
While he learned the importance of understanding and learning from the past to improve the future, Valjean shows himself
little of the sympathy and compassion he is willing to bestow on others. He has seen his own dark side. He has seen what he
could become in the right circumstances, and he knows that suppressing this selfish creature to selflessly help others requires
effort and determination.
When Valjean discovers Cosette is in love with Marius he becomes almost insanely jealous. He is enraged by Marius's
"interference" in his life and his "theft" of his happiness. Indeed Valjean rejoices at the prospect of Marius's death.
However, after a brief period of reflection during which he realises Marius reciprocates Cosette's feelings, he understands
he has no right to intervene. He sees Cosette and Marius must fulfil their destinies together and he has no right to expect
Cosette to sacrifice her future for him. He therefore sets about ensuring Cosette's future happiness by setting out to protect
and save Marius at the barricades, but at the expense of his own happiness.
This existential realisation triggers a second, and perhaps more far-reaching reaction in Valjean. He is reminded of the truth
of his situation, that he is not, in fact, Cosette's father and has no moral right to impose his will upon her. He sees that he has
no right to expect happiness, or that the happiness he has known need not necessarily continue. He sees also that all that he
has achieved is the result of a tissue of lies and falsehoods - he remains an ex-convict who has broken his parole and is on
He continues to be a prisoner of his past and decides to withdraw, largely, from Cosette's future in order to protect her from
potential disgrace and embarrassment. Valjean undertook to care for Cosette out of a sense of duty - that is now fulfilled, as
her husband will take his place as her protector, and as he has no legal or moral right to remain in her life, it is better to
protect her and withdraw.
It is interesting to note that Hugo offers no real explanation of Valjean's feelings as he leaves to protect Marius at the
barricades. He offers no insight into Valjean's change of heart at this point, nor at any other point in his involvement in the
action on the barricades. Perhaps he is emphasising Valjean's shock, and certainly his guilt, at his realisation he had revisited
the selfish and reactionary member of the chain gang he had left behind all these years before.
Perhaps Hugo had no need to describe Valjean's feelings at this point as he had already effectively described them shortly
after Valjean's theft of the coin from the passing chimney sweep - shock at what he had almost become, and determination
to redeem himself.
Thus reminded of his past, he is equally reminded of his present and his purpose in life - Cosette. Her happiness is all that is
important to him. He appears to deny himself any self-centred emotion or thought of danger for himself as he helps those
wounded at the barricades. Hugo is careful to point out that Valjean does not participate in the battle, but instead helps
those who have fallen, culminating in his rescue of Marius. Valjean does not have the arrogance to participate in a fight
which would involve the imposition of his will upon others.
Valjean ended up in prison as a result of the questionable system of justice in operation at the time. He committed a
relatively minor infringement of the law in trying to help his starving family, and paid the same price as one accused of a
major crime. This situation, combined with a number of extensions to his original sentence as the result of a number of failed
escape attempts, leads Valjean to question the fairness and validity of the system of justice, and indeed the very foundations
of the structure of society.
Deprived of hope and freedom, these doubts turned to bitterness and resentment. It is only after meeting the Bishop that
Valjean is able to see a way forward to help others who might also have fallen foul of a society which was not always
sensitive to the needs of all its members and was dismissive of those who committed any infringement of its rules, with no
heed given to circumstance, and no offer of compassion or understanding.
Javert, and a comparison to Valjean
Both Valjean and Javert spent a considerable length of time in the "bagne" (penal colony) - Valjean as a prisoner and Javert
as a warder. In Javert's case he was born in prison as his parents were both criminals. He has therefore grown up in an
environment where the laws of the land are held as sacrosanct. Inmates were sent there to learn respect and acceptance of
the law and so there was no room for discussion or debate. In this environment there was also a clear division between
"them" and "us", the plunderers of society and its protectors, thus encouraging an unequivocal attitude with right being clearly
on one side and certainly not on the other. One even wonders if Hugo saw prison as a metaphor for society itself with the
imposition of its rules and restrictions, and more importantly the imposition of a frame of mind which cannot function out with
these rules and regulations.
Thus convinced of his parents' wrong-doing, Javert sets out to prove himself worthy of society's appreciation rather than its
condemnation. He is determined to rise above his background and pursues his ambition through a rigid application of
society's rules, which he accepts totally and without question.
This is in stark contrast to Valjean who learns to question the nature of justice in society and appreciate the value of
tolerance through his experiences, while Javert is determined to uphold the values of society without recourse to thought and
Both, then, wish to help and make a worthwhile contribution, though in markedly different ways. Javert seeks to protect
society from the criminal element, while Valjean has firsthand knowledge of what can bring problems about and sets out to
help avoid these problems. For Javert society remains something of an abstract notion, while Valjean is more concerned
with the individuals who make up society.
In Montreuil, Valjean sets about helping the townsfolk through employment at his factory (where he insists on a reasonable
standard of wage), but also in the building of a school and hospital. Javert also tries to help in his own way, through the strict
application of the law and in trying to protect members of society from criminal elements. It is as the result of this
fundamental difference in stance that there arises conflict between the two.
Fantine is known to both Valjean and Javert - Valjean feels responsible for her situation and is determined to help her as he
feels he has contributed to her "fall from grace" (by allowing her to be fired from his factory). Javert has also played a part in
her degradation, by arresting her on flimsy grounds and insisting on imprisoning her for six months. Once again the
fundamental difference in attitude between them brings them into conflict, yet both are doing what they consider "right" and
just. Valjean recognises his responsibility towards her and wants to act to alleviate her suffering, while Javert is interested in
protecting society from what he sees as an irredeemable criminal.
Javert has total faith in the system of rules he represents, and by extension, total faith in himself. Unfortunately he is a man
who allows his faith in his principles to overwhelm him. There is no place for doubt, thought, or understanding in his world.
Such considerations would only threaten the very fabric of the society he is sworn to protect. He chooses to follow the letter
of the law, not its spirit, thus displaying his complete faith in God and his own principles.
Valjean, on the other hand, doubts and questions himself at virtually every turn. His strength of will is derived from the fact
that he feels he has seen his own black side - he knows what he is capable of, given the right circumstances, and because he
has seen an alternative, he is determined to avoid any repetition of this "black side".
When Valjean releases Javert at the barricades, Javert is forced to call into question his own judgment (and that of the
whole of society). Javert, however, doesn't have the tolerance or forgiveness to accept his own mistakes and move on. He
sees that he may have been mistaken in his judgment of Valjean, but because his philosophy is based on application of rules
rather than thought and consideration, he sees no way forward for himself - for him it is a choice between believing in what
is "right", or believing in nothing. Doubt may lead to clarification, but Javert sees no alternative to his principles which he has
just seen overturned. He has, in effect, lost faith in his own ideals and cannot accept an alternative based on nothing more
than respect for fellow human beings.
Javert is frequently viewed as Valjean's evil adversary, but this is a quite erroneous interpretation. He is a highly principled
and well-intentioned officer of the law, but he is dogmatic and rigid in his thinking. His death is a tragedy for he had much to
offer society, but in a changing world, with an increasing emphasis on compassion and accountability, Javert and his like no
longer fitted. Total faith in the hierarchy and the rule of law in society meant that he was unwilling to reflect and see the
bigger picture. While his devotion and dedication to duty are entirely admirable, his stance (and by extension that of the
governing bodies of France) was becoming philosophically, morally and even politically unacceptable.
Valjean's transformation and redemption are underpinned by love and tolerance, qualities which Javert fails to embrace in
his life. Javert cannot understand a world without guidance or some kind of standard set by a higher power. He hasn't
enough love or respect for others to see that a system of conduct and morality may be based on humanity. For him there
must be some authority, and when that authority is challenged and is shown to be fallible, the whole basis and purpose of his
life is shattered.
Because he represents the law he feels he must rise above the common people he serves to protect. He forgets common
humanity in favour of playing the part of a policeman in society. In many ways he becomes his role, abandoning sympathy
and compassion which he regards as weaknesses in his task to protect society from the criminal element.
Justice and society
Hugo prefaces his book with a statement in which he says that as long as there remains ignorance and misery on the Earth,
books such as his will not be useless. He also suggests that many of the problems facing men women and children in society
are created by the very laws and traditions of that society.
Society is a man-made structure and as such has the same capacity as each and every man for achieving great heights, but
also for plumbing considerable depths. By working together and showing understanding and tolerance toward one another
great things may be achieved. However, the result may be quite the opposite if divisive and arbitrary laws and customs are
introduced and accepted by those who stand to gain, and who may hold the balance of power.
Society in nineteenth century France appears to have been sharply divided between the "haves" and the "have-nots", with
the ruling bourgeois class happy to make as much profit as they could from the relatively poorly paid, but hard working,
factory workers who saw healthy profits go into the pockets of the middle-class owners while the common people struggled
to get by on the pittance they were paid.
The sense of injustice had come to a head in the late eighteenth century and resulted in the French Revolution. Now,
although conditions had improved to some extent, the aristocracy had been replaced by the middle classes (who
undoubtedly aspired to the position and power of the late aristocracy), and who proved little better in terms of the provision
of living and working conditions for the working class, than those they replaced. The King himself even dressed like a
member of the middle class. Worse, they showed the same haughtiness and indifference towards those they considered their
The whole question of justice in society is closely linked to the very structure of that society. How can the principles of
objective justice be served if society itself is divided into the rulers and the workers, with laws being formulated and
administered by the self-serving ruling class?
In his book, Hugo sets out to depict circumstances and situations to challenge the thinking and attitudes of the time (but
which, sadly, may still apply today).
He was particularly preoccupied by the issue of the appropriateness of the punishment to fit the crime, the social reasons
that may lead to crime in the first place, and of course the treatment of inmates in prison. He made regular visits to prisons
and discussed such matters with inmates whom he befriended. Clearly he would take a keen interest in cases he would
consider miscarriages of justice, and indeed he was inspired to produce a booklet about the case of Claude Gueux, a
convict executed by guillotine in Troyes in 1832. Gueux was executed because he killed one of his warders while in prison,
and while we may not wish to condone this act, Hugo's telling of his story reveals a far more morally complex case than is
suggested by a rapid look at the facts of the case.
Hugo gives us a picture of an unemployed man who burgled a house to steal bread in order to feed his starving family.
Captured, he was condemned to several years' hard labour and was persecuted by one of the warders who told Gueux his
wife had resorted to prostitution to make ends meet and, seeing he had forged a special friendship with one inmate in
particular, he separated them. He refused to reunite them, even after Gueux pleaded with him and so, pushed beyond the
limits of his endurance, Gueux committed the act for which he was eventually guillotined.
In telling this story, Hugo produced an element of doubt and a desire to consider the justice not only of the final outcome,
but also of the whole series of events leading to his arrest and imprisonment in the first place.
Clearly Gueux's story contains some of the base elements for "Les Miserables" and in telling his tale we see an early
example of Hugo's preoccupation with justice and society.
As a factory owner Valjean is ahead of his time, offering reasonable wages and conditions to his workers and doing much to
improve the standard of living for the entire town. In this respect Valjean might even be seen as something of a forerunner of
a socialist, recognising the need for mutual respect and support between proprietor and worker. This of course is in stark
contrast with the attitude which was prevalent at the time.
Poor living and working conditions led to the attempted uprising of June 1832 when idealistic young students tried to rouse
the people to rebellion. Hugo himself was in favour of revolution if this was the only way to change things for the better, for it
was quite clear that those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo were unlikely to change things of their own
volition. Thus Hugo calls in to question not just the appropriateness of the punishment to fit the crime, but also the
appropriateness of the government to fit the people.
In many ways this is an early feminist work, presenting a sympathetic and admiring picture of women and what they have to
tolerate in society. This is exemplified by Fantine and her suffering. She is seduced and then cold-heartedly dropped by her
bourgeois boyfriend, more or less as an experiment. Pregnant, she must find a means of supporting herself and her child in a
society that dismissed unmarried single mothers as scum. In order to obtain a job she must entrust her daughter to the care
of a couple she meets on her travels. At this time there was no social security, no welfare system and no adoption checks -
it was a matter of survival and it was each man (or woman) for himself. Through Fantine, Hugo bemoans the plight of young
women and unwanted pregnancies, and condemns society for its superior (and hypocritical) moral stance.
Eventually Fantine loses her job because of her child and she is forced into prostitution to pay for the upkeep of her
daughter. She has therefore been transformed by society into the very thing it haughtily accused her of being in the first place.
Through young Cosette, and also Gavroche and the young chimney sweep, we see the abuse of children apparently
abandoned by parents, and who are virtually slaves, deprived of education and forced to work long and arduous hour for an
often unsympathetic "master". Again Hugo implies criticism of society in tolerating these conditions and practices toward
It is particularly in its depiction of love, and ultimately its appeal for tolerance that "Les Miserables" excels. Love is perhaps
the key theme in the book. Love is depicted in many different forms, and is shown as the principal means of fulfilment and
redemption. In the same way, the lack of love leads to unhappiness and misery.
In the Bishop of Digne we see pure, spiritual love. The Bishop is entirely devoted to God and his works. He is determined
to see only the potential good in man, believing this to reflect God's wishes and intentions for mankind. The Bishop follows
the spirit of the Bible, not the letter of the written word. Nor does he follow the example of other eminent ecclesiastics - he
has renounced wealth to the point of renouncing almost all comfort. He has within him a love for God, but also an innate
love for man, according him a respect not always shared by others. He is an optimist and sees himself merely as an
instrument of God's will.
Fantine represents maternal love and the lengths to which a mother may be prepared to go to in order to protect and save
her child. Although she abandoned her child Cosette, this was done with the best of intentions and was the result of pressure
applied by society in the form of prejudice and hypocrisy. She is, in her way, devoted to her child and is willing to sacrifice
her own wealth, health and dignity in order to protect and save Cosette. Her efforts to raise money to pay for the upkeep of
her child indicate a selflessness few could contemplate, suffering as she does any number of physical and psychological
indignities before losing her life to illness (brought on as the result of poor living conditions).
In Marius and the adult Cosette we see youthful passion and undiluted love. Two young people who have found their first,
their only, their all-consuming loves. They are totally devoted to one another to the point of being able to think of little else.
Their youthful exuberance causes problems in other areas of their lives - Marius appears, until the last minute, more
concerned with Cosette than with helping his friends on the barricades, and Cosette begins to question her father's authority.
Distraction and challenging of parental authority are of course natural consequences of falling in love and will be familiar to
the majority of readers, inspiring a degree of compassion and even complicity Hugo might not otherwise have achieved,
especially when placed against a background of heroic struggle against repression, adding even more to the pathos and
apparent impossibility of their situation. Cosette, like Esmeralda in "Notre Dame de Paris", serves as the catalyst for events
and emotions. Also like Esmeralda, her character is perhaps less important than the emotions she provokes in others and the
events for which they, in turn, are responsible. Neither Cosette nor Esmeralda actually contribute a great deal to the
advancement of the narrative, but serve instead as the inspiration for others.
In Eponine we see the tragic consequences of deep but unrequited love. Eponine is devoted to Marius, but his heart belongs
to Cosette, and he is hardly aware of Eponine's existence beyond that of a friend. Eponine's love for Marius takes on heroic
proportions when she dies at the barricades, having selflessly delivered a message to him from Cosette. She dies wishing to
be near her love, and it is this love which has led her to escape the self-centred mentality of the Thénardiers and commit
selfless acts of love and devotion.
In Valjean we see a man who has all but lost his self-respect and who is tempted to become the creature others accuse him
of being. He is saved by one man's kindness and compassion, and sees that there is another way to lead one's life, based on
respect and love. Love to Valjean is essentially a spiritual affair. He has no physical loves, but gives of himself quite freely,
allowing others to maintain the self-respect and dignity he himself had lost. He shows paternal love for Cosette, and even
before that he shows devotion in stealing bread to feed his sister's child. Sadly he has little or no love for himself, choosing
instead to devote himself to the provision of materials for others. He considers himself a thief, unworthy of others' affection,
and spends his life trying to redeem himself - in his own eyes. He feels he has a debt to pay - not to society, but to himself,
for he has seen what life can be like without honour, dignity, and love, and is determined that he at least will make a stand
against such a life, both for himself and others. Although he has been twisted by his experience in prison, Valjean is saved by
love and shows that love, combined with determination, can lead to change in man and also, by extension, in society.
In the students at the barricades we witness love of a different sort - love of a cause. They put belief in a principle above
their own self-love. So immersed are they in the battle for social justice that they are willing to lose their lives to act as
examples for others to follow. In this respect they prove to be tragically mistaken as few of the people they are trying to
assist are willing to offer them any kind of support. This only serves to accentuate their courage, strength and idealism as
they battle with government forces in an attempt to stir the people into action.
Valjean and Javert, though poles apart, share a belief in something greater than themselves. Thenardier, however, appears
to believe in nothing and is a prime example and warning of the dangers of egotism and a refusal to recognise the needs or
rights of others, whether through plain humanity or respect for values based on God's reported word and "morality".
Perhaps the most interesting and complex character when viewed from the point of view of love is Javert. While the others
are driven principally by love, Javert is driven mostly by duty. Love, and by extension respect for others, is an alien concept
to Javert. Indeed he appears to be striving to gain or maintain some degree of self respect throughout the book. He
endeavours to achieve this through applying the letter of the law - the law which was flouted by his own mother and father.
He was born in prison and appears to spend his entire life trying to make up for the deeds of his parents. In many ways he
resembles Valjean - he is faced with similar problems of trying to live with his past and he is driven by a sense of duty. What
is missing is any feeling of love - for himself or for anyone else. When faced with the same situation as Valjean -facing his
past mistakes, and given the opportunity of seeking redemption, he lacks the strength of character and respect for others to
be able to achieve "salvation". He cannot see a way forward for he cannot grasp that a code of conduct may be based on
mutual respect and love. An openness to respect and love would have allowed him to see man's potential for good, but his
upbringing and consequent attitudes have denied him that possibility and he chooses to commit suicide rather than face the
errors of his past and attempt to change.
If love is a key theme of the book, its overall purpose is surely a heartfelt plea for tolerance and understanding.
Hugo raises awareness of various aspects of society which contributed to the gulf separating the haves from the have-nots,
and perpetuated the cycle of division and resentment which fired thoughts of rebellion and social revolution.
These problems were based largely on intolerance and a lack of willingness to recognise the common thread of humanity we
all share. We are all responsible for the society which we share by virtue of the fact that our actions (or inaction) impact on
In drawing attention to the consequences of examples of intolerance in society, Hugo hopes we will see the importance of
exercising tolerance and understanding.
In the course of his book Hugo discusses, among other examples, living and working conditions, social reasons for
committing crime, the treatment of convicts and the plight of ex-convicts who seek to rehabilitate themselves in society, the
frustration of working women and the victimisation of those who fall foul of society's moral code, and of course the abuse of
children deprived of education and forced into virtual slavery.
Perhaps the best and most touching example of political intolerance lies in the killing of the rebellious students on the
barricades. These are idealistic young men who seek to improve the lot of common working people. This is in stark contrast
to those in positions of authority willing to profit by others' efforts, but who refuse to acknowledge the plight or concerns of
the common people.
Spurred on by the contemporary ideology of challenging the whole basis of the government's authority and the demand for
accountability, emotions spilled over into rebellion and an attempted uprising.
Tragically, the students did not receive the support of the very people they tried to defend. The people may not have had
much, but they had too much to lose and memories of chaos in the aftermath of the revolution were still relatively fresh. The
unwillingness of the people to join the students' stance serves to make the students' actions all the more heroic.
If society's ills (based on intolerance and lack of compassion) are not to be perpetuated, man must learn to move forward
and be willing to forgive.
Hugo provides us with an example of forgiveness when Valjean releases Javert at the barricades (and saves him from
certain death). So, why does Valjean show tolerance toward Javert when he could so easily have taken revenge for all that
Javert made him suffer?
The answer to this question surely lies in what Valjean learned from his encounter with the Bishop of Digne. Valjean
discovered a different way of looking upon one's fellow citizens. Accustomed to having to fight for every scrap of dignity he
could muster, Valjean was shocked to be treated with kindness and respect simply because he was there. The Bishop
sowed the seed of humanity and compassion in Valjean as he realised that life did not need to be as hard, cruel and
egocentric as his experience had taught him. Here was another way to live. A way based on understanding and a desire to
offer a helping hand - be it due to God's will, or through recognition of a common bond between men. Hugo does not make
it entirely clear whether it is God or more simply a "good" man who was responsible for this transformation, but either way
this encounter changed Valjean's life and attitude toward his fellow men.
Valjean faced his past, recognised his wrongs and the wrongs done to him, but moved on, learning from his experience.
Javert faces a similar situation when Valjean releases him at the barricades, and he is forced to call into question his own
judgment (and that of the whole of society). Javert, however, doesn't have the tolerance or forgiveness to accept his own
mistakes and move on. He sees that he may have been mistaken in his judgment of Valjean, but because his philosophy is
based on application of rules rather than thought and consideration, he sees no way forward for himself - for him it is a
choice between believing in what is "right", or believing in nothing. Doubt may lead to clarification, but Javert sees no
alternative to his principles which he has just seen overturned. He has, in effect, lost faith and confidence in his own ideals
and cannot accept an alternative based on nothing more than respect for fellow human beings.
By having the vast majority of his characters die in a variety of ways, Hugo is emphasising not only the inevitability of our
demise, but also the importance of life and what you do with it.
Death is the ultimate demonstration of our lack of control over our destiny - whether it is by God's will or through force of
circumstance, most of the characters meet their end unexpectedly or with regret. They die in the pursuit of their principles or
in the name of love - except Javert who seeks his own death as a result of the overturning of his principles.
Their death can be seen almost as a reflection of a positive aspect of their character, though ultimately their death may have
no obvious positive effect, calling into question the meaning and value of life in the broader sense.
What matters is what each person has made of his or her life and the worth they have given it through their actions.
Most of Hugo's characters, including Fantine, the students, Eponine and Gavroche, die as a result of selfless love, and their
actions and motivations are to be admired.
In the end Valjean dies of a broken heart, the result of his selfless devotion and heroic actions to promote Cosette's
happiness. This is in stark contrast to Javert's death which, while tragic in its own way, is ultimately a selfish act and reflects
a life lacking love and genuine respect for others.
It is worthy of note that one of the few survivors is the totally self-centred Thenardier who goes on to thrive in that most
miserable and despicable of occupations, the slave trade. A long life, yes, but one that is worthwhile?
Our time on Earth is limited and we can choose, to a large extent, how we are going to lead our lives. Valjean and the
others set an example based on altruism and love. Death is inevitable and when the time comes to be judged, or perhaps
more importantly to judge ourselves, and there is no point in hiding from the truth, Hugo asks us to consider whether our
lives will have been worthwhile.
Hope for the future
Valjean devotes his life to bringing up Cosette. She becomes his focus, his purpose, his entire life.
Cosette can also be viewed in broader terms as representing the future of society. Children are the key to the future and it is
the responsibility of those living in the present to endeavour to improve the lot of those who will eventually inherit society and
what we have made of it.
The best/most effective means of changing society is through education, and Valjean sets out to provide Cosette with the
best education he can provide, both in terms of schooling and as a father, emphasising the value of compassion and
Parenthood is indeed central to "Les Miserables" - not just in the shape of Valjean doing his best to bring up the young
Cosette, but its importance is emphasised through Fantine and her selfless devotion to her daughter, the negative influence of
Thenardier on his offspring, the void left in Marius's life created by never knowing his father, his relationship with his
Grandfather (whom he calls "father"), and the shame Javert feels concerning his own parents. Valjean's own early life is
affected by the death of his parents, and he more or less takes the place as head of the family when his brother in law dies.
It was as a result of protecting a child that Valjean ended up in prison, and stealing from a child (the young chimney sweep)
led to his breakdown and resolution to change for the better. Children, then, are integral to the story and its "message". The
young are seen as innocents to be protected and nurtured, or as a means of hope for the betterment of society, and essential
to that end is education, upbringing, and of course love.
Hope is present also, and perhaps more obviously, in the very fact that Valjean recognises his shortcomings and problems,
and shows great resolve and selflessness in his pursuit of redemption. The suggestion is clearly that we need not submit to
our circumstances or past experience. The human spirit is such that, given strength of character, determination, and
sensitivity to the plight of one's fellow men, everyone is capable of extraordinary feats of compassion and tolerance.
Writing style and symbolism
As has already been suggested, the book is based largely on historical fact and incidents lifted from Hugo's own life or
witnessed by him. This adds a sense of depth and "realism" to the characters. There is a humanity pervading Hugo's
characters - we feel his descriptions more closely resemble observations of genuine personalities rather than products of his
imagination. Their thoughts and feelings are familiar to us all.
Another reason for the inordinate grip the novel exerts on us is the way in which Hugo describes each of his characters in
extraordinary detail. We cannot, we are not allowed to accept these people at face value. They are not simply used by
Hugo to advance the narrative which appears, at times, almost sidetracked in favour of exploration of the characters who
people it. We are made aware of the life and background of each of these characters so that it becomes more and more
difficult to react simply to an action, or judge it, when we have come to understand their motivations and inner feelings.
This is not to suggest that Hugo is not totally in command and leading us in the direction he wishes to take us. He knows
exactly what he is doing, but he is all the more successful because his characters are convincing and he encourages the
reader to have ambivalent feelings about some of them. We may not approve of Javert's pursuit of duty, but we can
understand it and may even experience a degree of sympathy for him. We are thus led to exercise tolerance and
understanding, the very qualities that Valjean himself strives to embrace.
Hugo is frequently accused of digression from the narrative, and it must be said, this is fair criticism. In later editions of the
book Hugo's lengthy digressions on Parisian slang and life in Convents were relegated to appendices, and while his
descriptions of the battle of Waterloo and the sewers of Paris remain an integral part of the text, it must be said they offer
little in terms of advancement of the narrative.
The very descriptions and characterisations, so rich in detail, which allow the reader to empathise and reflect on various
aspects of life, can also be tedious and frustrating as the progress of the narrative is sacrificed for increased knowledge and
understanding of the characters.
Hugo also adopts a certain moralising, almost paternal tone with his readers. He has very set ideas about what he wants to
say and where he wants to lead his readers, and frequently overstates a case to convince them, perhaps because he feels he
has considerable prejudice to overcome.
However, the book's various faults and difficulties in style are more than compensated by the power, depth and scope of the
narrative and its characters. We are gripped from the outset as Hugo unfolds his tale of love, faith, tolerance and redemption.
If the reader can overcome resistance to the style and learn to appreciate what is there, he will find it a most rewarding and
Hugo was first and foremost a poet. He was a wordsmith who used symbolism and imagery to express ideas and lend
clarity and poetic beauty to the events and characters he describes in "Les Miserables"
Part of the appeal of reading any even vaguely poetic work is the thrill of interpreting the writer's words and images - to feel
you have deciphered an almost hidden message which allows you to share an idea or see characters and events more clearly
through the author's use of simile or metaphor, which are devices intended to transmit ideas or emotions more effectively
than by verbal description.
Of course, because we (the readers) have to see and interpret the symbolism we feel greater ownership of the story and
characters. We feel part of the process intended by the author - the process of reading, which requires a great deal more
than the mere following of a story.
Hugo would, I believe, plan his writing very carefully and deliberately. This was a man used to choosing words and rhymes
with great care for his poetry - how could he not exercise similar care in his prose writing?
We shall look at (briefly) just a handful of events and the symbolism that can be inferred in them, primarily because to
discuss every possible interpretation of every event would require an entire book in itself, but also because to examine any
more would be to deprive the reader of their "ownership" or "participation" in the book.
Just about the best known event of the story of "Les Miserables" is the giving of the candlesticks to Valjean by the Bishop.
The significance of the candlesticks goes well beyond their monetary value and the very fact that they were given to him.
They may be seen symbolically as lighting Valjean's path through the darkness of his past to the path of goodness. Indeed he
is following a path when he meets the chimney sweep - the path to self-destruction as he steals the boy's coin, but he
chooses a different path (and therefore way of life) when he realises what he has done and symbolically tears up his yellow
passport, thereby turning his back on his past.
When he builds his highly successful business and becomes mayor of Montreuil sur Mer, it is under the name of Monsieur
Madeleine. Surely the resemblance to Mary Magdalene is more than accidental - she too was saved from a life of "sin" by a
The fact that Valjean was helped by a good man who also happens to be a Bishop introduces the whole question of fate
and spirituality. Is God working in a mysterious way to influence Valjean's life, or is Valjean influenced by nothing more than
the deeds of a good man? Hugo is, I think, deliberately ambivalent and leaves it to the reader's interpretation.
When Valjean meets Cosette for the first time and he lifts her water bucket, he is also alleviating her life of other burdens.
He is lightening her load with his friendship and help.
As has already been suggested, Valjean and Javert may even symbolise the very changes in attitude undergone in the course
of the nineteenth century.
"Les Miserables" contains some profoundly spiritual aspects - discussion of duty, conscience, humanity etc.. Hugo is also,
however, clearly opposed to ecclesiastical dogma and his works even contain passages on what Hugo regarded as the
unnatural and untenable roles in society of nuns and members of the clergy. This point is made very forcefully through the
character of Frollo in "Notre Dame de Paris", though it is toned down considerably in "Les Miserables" with the Bishop of
Digne who, Hugo points out, is atypical of the clergy and appears pure, inspired by Christ and uncorrupted by the dogmatic
Hugo appears to believe firmly in the power of the spirit and a code of morality based on humanity. He appears to believe in
God and may even be suggesting that dogma and tradition have derailed man from the true path of Godliness and goodness.
In keeping with this, it has frequently been suggested that Valjean may be viewed as something of a Christ figure.
Valjean was a woodcutter by trade. He goes to an Inn on Christmas Eve to see a child who is going to change his life. He
appears to have no association with the opposite sex, but has a relationship (of sorts!) with a prostitute. He even manages to
rise from the dead at one point! Though Valjean is not their leader, the students may be seen as disciples, and clearly Javert
represents the accepted (and threatened) order of things.
There are countless other similarities to be quoted or thus interpreted, but surely such points of similarity cannot be purely
Hugo was apparently a profoundly religious man. There are certainly countless references to the church, faith, God, fate and
destiny not just in Les Miserables, but in several of his other works. Yet so much of his work challenges the very core of
religious thought that it is hard to accept he was religious in the orthodox and accepted sense. It appears he believes in the
existence of some powerful force capable of exercising a profound influence on our lives, yet he does not appear to
subscribe to the traditional, ecclesiastical approach to God and worship. It may even be that he did not fully know or
understand exactly what he did believe in, but he was certainly opposed to the attitude and domination of the church and its
interpretation of faith and justice.
So why the similarities to Jesus?
Valjean is no superhuman or Heaven-sent figure, indeed his appeal is in his decidedly human nature. He is the product of
society, events, choices and of course his own character. His acts of heroism are accessible to us all and can thus serve as a
source of inspiration for us all without necessary recourse to the ultimate form of moral authority. Valjean may believe in
God, but he does not depend on Him for inspiration or authority. He does what he feels he has to do, based on
compassion, for the benefit of others. As such he is a model for what can be achieved in society without necessary reference
to the church and its orthodox concepts of morality.
Valjean does not deny God's existence, but he does not fully understand God's will, recognising only some form of Divine
influence. He gets on with the business of living and making his own decisions based on what he has learned in his life. If
there is a conflict, it is with the church and society's interpretations of God's will as they impose their interpretations through
organised religion, faith, law, order, and politics. In contrast, Valjean simply recognises the value of helping others, and love
Hugo believed in the perfectibility of man. He believed that man could rise above his experience to achieve selfless acts of
kindness. In Valjean we are presented with a model for such change - change which appears entirely feasible as we can
trace its evolution, but change which requires enormous willpower and determination. It is based on humanitarian inspiration
leading to spiritual enlightenment, while ecclesiastical, political and legal dogma is rejected.
"Les Miserables" is often accused of being over-dependent on coincidence, and this is undoubtedly true. The number of
coincidences does somewhat defy belief, but does this necessarily detract from the book as a whole?
Let us look at just a few of these coincidences before considering the effect.
The Thenardiers seem to crop up quite regularly and are links common to most of the main characters. It is with the
Thenardiers that Fantine leaves the young Cosette, later in Paris their neighbour happens to be Marius who is in love with
the adult Cosette and with whom the Thenardiers' daughter Eponine happens to be in love. Of course Marius feels he owes
a considerable debt to Thenardier who was credited with saving his father's life at the battle of Waterloo. The loveable
rogue Gavroche is their son, and two children Gavroche finds in the streets of Paris happen to be their offspring also. Being
in the criminal fraternity, the Thenardiers have come to know Inspector Javert who has also come to Paris to advance his
career. While escaping through the sewers after the failed coup, Valjean encounters not just Thenardier but Javert as well.
On the surface it certainly appears true that the book contains an excess of coincidences, but is Hugo not using these events
to accentuate points about the existential nature of our lives? These characters' lives are inextricably linked to one another.
Each has played, and continues to play a vital, indeed formative, role in the others' lives, in keeping with the theory of
Existentialism mentioned earlier. He may be overstating his case, but Hugo is emphasising the fact that our lives are not just
linked, but are dependent on one another.
Given what they stand for, it is inevitable that they will clash, and this is the other reason why coincidence is not overly
damaging to the whole - the main characters can be seen as metaphors standing for conflicting principles and so the clash is
less between the characters themselves than between their points of view. Let us not forget that Hugo was a poet, using
metaphor and symbolism to make his point.
Indeed that the book is accused of an excess of coincidence is a tribute to the strength of the writing since the characters are
so individual, well drawn and "realistic" that we find probability stretched beyond what we find acceptable. However, the
point is that we all influence one another and we all share a common bond by virtue of the fact we share our society and
indeed our lives.
There have been many attempts to bring the story of "Les Miserables" to life, with well over twenty cinema adaptations and
of course the world-renowned musical.
The quality of the cinema versions has varied considerably, naturally enough, with writers and directors focusing on certain
elements often at the expense of various others. In general the fuller the adaptation the more successful it is. However, to my
great surprise I have found the musical by Boublil and Schonberg (produced by Sir Cameron Mackintosh) to be the most
successful adaptation I have seen.
Below, you will find brief reflections on just a handful of the film versions and thoughts on why the musical has been so
Les Miserables 1934
I got my first glimpse of the 1934 version while watching the 1995 adaptation with Jean-Paul Belmondo. The clips to which
we are treated there intrigued me and after considerable rooting around the internet I managed to obtain a copy on video (to
the best of my knowledge it has never been released in Britain).
I was not disappointed. This is quite the fullest and most satisfying cinematic version of Hugo's extraordinary tale yet
Some may find the running time of around four and a half hours quite daunting, but I found that I hardly noticed the time pass.
The reasons for its success are manifold. Firstly the detail and therefore the strength of the original are largely retained.
Characters are properly fleshed out, and just as in the original we feel we share the characters' lives and get to know and
care about them. The depth and number of characters are not sacrificed to considerations of time and commerce.
Although some of the photography appears dated by modern standards, Raymond Bernard's literate script and direction are
stimulating and advance the narrative at a steady pace (despite the impression created by the running time). He is masterful
in the creation of atmosphere in both intimate and crowd scenes. For example the film is quite spectacular in its depiction of
the 1832 uprising, yet it is deeply moving in the scenes involving Valjean and the Bishop.
The music (by Arthur Honegger) has great dignity and is entirely apt to the tenor of the film and the themes it embraces.
However, if the real strength of the piece is in the depth and conviction of its characters, their cinematic success is due in no
short measure to the quality of the acting. Fantine (Josseline Gael) is perhaps a little melodramatic for modern tastes, and
Javert (Charles Vanel) lacks a truly tragic quality, but all told the performances are faithful to the original and convincing, and
none more so than Harry Baur as Valjean. His immense physical presence and slow, controlled delivery, combined with his
ability to express his inner feelings with little more than a look or a moment's hesitation command our respect and sympathy,
making him the perfect incarnation of the tormented but determined Valjean.
It wreaks sincerity and a genuine desire to transfer not just the story, but the spirit of the original onto the big screen.
Les Miserables 1935
Probably the best known of the cinematic adaptations, with Fredric March as Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert, this
is nonetheless a somewhat sanitised and flawed version.
Short on detail and lacking in grit, this is a fairly blinkered if well-intentioned version, concentrating on legal injustice and the
plight of released convicts. Even Marius delivers a speech criticising the State for its treatment of ex-cons rather than
broadening the canvas to discuss other social issues.
Fantine's lamentable situation is sanitised to avoid all mention of prostitution, and while we still feel considerable sympathy
for her, the "cleaning up" of her plight also has the effect of lessening the depth of our feelings for her.
The poetry and tragedy of the original are not well served as the storyline itself is cut short and characters disappear
completely or are significantly altered to suit the "new" framework.
Fredric March is sincere, but perhaps lacking in gravitas. Laughton (an actor I have greatly admired in other productions) is
just not right as Javert. Whether this is due to the script or his playing is open to debate, but to have Javert display emotion
(the trembling of the lip!), and to have him attempt to place blame on the law rather than accept responsibility for his actions
is to miss the point.
A more adolescent version than the altogether more rounded, complete, and adult French version which immediately
Les Miserables 1957
This version is the first widescreen and full colour adaptation of the novel (adapted and directed by Michel Audiard). It is
also the result of a Franco - Italian collaboration undoubtedly intended to broaden the appeal of the film throughout Europe,
but which may in the end have done it no great favours. The actors appear to deliver their lines in their native tongue and are
later dubbed into French, causing a certain lack of spontaneity in both the delivery of the lines and in the interaction between
Fairly theatrical in its conception, the film is rather heavy and has a somewhat "staged" feel to it, with little camera mobility,
and a general feeling that the subject matter is being treated with a little too much reverence or even awe.
That said, Jean Gabin is an excellent Valjean - he is quiet and thoughtful, giving the impression he has suffered but is handling
his torment with great dignity and stoicism. He is particularly strong in his scenes with Bourvil (Thenardier) and Bernard Blier
(Javert), lending authority and sincerity to the part.
Bernard Blier as Javert is convincing as a man devoted to his work and who believes utterly in the principles he defends, but
lacks any element of sympathy or tragedy when Valjean releases him from the barricades and when he discovers Valjean
has saved Marius by dragging him through the sewers. This turning point, marking Javert's doubts about the direction of his
entire life, is dealt with somewhat summarily in the film, and must be considered something of a weakness.
In contrast, we have perfect casting and playing in Bourvil as Thenardier. Here is a Thenardier who is at once amusing and
vicious, cunning and intelligent. It is to the director's great credit that Thenardier's part has not been as significantly reduced
as it so often is in film versions, and Bourvil certainly gets under the skin of the character.
There is much to savour and enjoy, but I find it a little staid and too self-aware for my taste.
Les Miserables 1978
Although much admired by some, I'm afraid I find this a rather workman-like production.
Produced as a television film by Sir Lew Grade in 1978, it shares the weaknesses of many of his other excursions into the
cinema in the late seventies and early eighties - a lack of sparkle and decent script. The whole production gives the
impression of going through the motions rather woodenly, rendering a well-intentioned and undoubtedly sincere version
which, sadly, is quite lacking in spirit. Perhaps this version also suffered from an excess of admiration, bordering on awe, for
the original, but for me the actors never really "become" their roles, but "play" them.
Richard Jordan is earnest and sincere, but is too young for the part and appears limited to just one register as Valjean ages,
while Anthony Perkins plays Javert as heartless and unbending, and lacks the spark of ultimate understanding and humanity
necessary to suggest tragedy rather than jubilation on his death..
Many of the other roles are played by well-known actors whose presence would appear to be of more significance than the
parts they play.
Once again Thenardier is almost non-existent, and various liberties are taken with characters and events, the most glaring
omission being Valjean's heartbreak and death (replaced by a happy ending!). The lack of emotion, however, is due
principally to the script which, while relatively faithful to a large number of the events of the book, does little to relay the
emotions aroused by these events. I felt the direction was uninspired and left the viewer curiously uninvolved.
For all that, it is an honest and genuine attempt at putting the story on the screen, and deserves credit as such.
Les Miserables 1995
Claude Lelouch's 1995 film is more an adaptation of Hugo's tale, rather than a filmed version of it. He explores the universal
themes of the book and the pertinence of Hugo's "message" to our history, here applying them to the French experience of
Nazi Occupation during the Second World War.
This is the story of Henri Fortin (an excellent Jean-Paul Belmondo - what a Valjean he would have made!), who sees
parallels between his own life and the stories of Valjean et al. It is also a tale of intolerance and love as told through the
experiences of a Jewish family forced to flee Nazi persecution, and how they are helped by Henri Fortin whose evolution
into a caring humanitarian forms the core of the film.
Told on a grand scale, Lelouch captures the essential humanity of his characters and has produced a gripping and moving
film which is a fitting tribute to the original, a tale which gives us the story of an era through the lives of a myriad of
characters, touching on themes of love, faith, revolution and tolerance, among others. He takes these universal themes and
creates parallels between his own characters and those of Victor Hugo while giving us the story of a different era, but one
which shares similar problems, thus emphasising the continued relevance and validity of Hugo's original.
Some parallels are more successful and complete than others - here, the Javert character blindly follows orders, and may
have doubts, but he is cruel and selfish, and it is difficult to have any sympathy for him. World War 2 replaces the 1832
attempted revolution, and the experiences of the original characters are mirrored in the experiences of the 1995 characters,
though not always by their direct equivalents. M. Lelouch succeeds in tapping our emotions better than most of the more
recent "straight" adaptations, and we have the fun of trying to "spot the parallel".
That Hugo's themes/points should be equally applicable to an era 100 years after that of the original is testimony to Hugo's
insight and the strength of his narrative. However, it can also be regarded as a sad reflection on 20th century European
The music by Francis Lai (among others) brilliantly captures and enhances the film's themes and emotions.
Les Miserables 1998
The most recent English-speaking version, Bille August's film is spectacular and lovingly produced, but the director has
taken various "shortcuts" (even liberties?) with both the characters and events.
Apparently filmed entirely on location, there is a coldness, even at times an unpleasantness, pervading the film.
The tormented but determined Valjean is well played by Liam Neeson, indeed the acting is of a high standard throughout -
my main quibble is with the "shortcuts" (made, perhaps, due to considerations of time and commerce?).
I find it hard to accept that Valjean would strike the Bishop - in the book he considered violence but shrank from it.
There should be no hint of romance between Valjean and Fantine - both are lacking in self-esteem, and Fantine is far too ill!
Javert would not beat Fantine - this is quite unnecessary as he is the law, and he would not allow such personal weakness to
affect his duties. Furthermore this encourages the audience to hate Javert, therefore losing audience sympathy and
understanding at his death.
Marius does not have the strength or ambition to lead the student revolt.
Thenardier has all but disappeared! This is a mistake common to most English-speaking versions. The removal of
Thenardier only accentuates the contrast between Valjean and Javert, diminishing our sympathy for Javert who is seen as
Valjean's evil enemy rather than the principled (if mistaken and flawed) defender of society he is.
The film ends with Javert's death, and there is little sadness or regret as Valjean witnesses the event. It is probably wrong to
have Valjean witness the event at all - Javert's suicide is the result of inner turmoil which is weakened by having him explain
himself to Valjean. It should also be recalled that Valjean had spared/saved his life at the barricades, and so he is unlikely to
accept Javert's death without argument or some attempt to dissuade him from committing suicide.
Having said all that, I found the film enjoyable in its own right, but I don't regard it as a very true or complete version of
Les Miserables 2000 (French Television adaptation)
One of my favourite versions, second only to the 1934 adaptation.
Six hours in length, Depardieu as Valjean, Malkovich as Javert, rich in detail and emotionally engaging - what more can one
As with the 1934 version, this treatment is very full, rich in detail, and therefore retains the strength of the original. It contains
a number of alterations to the narrative, but remains faithful to the essence of the characters, though I found Valjean's
obsessive behaviour toward Cosette a little exaggerated, and too little emphasis laid on his sense of duty, responsibility, and
lack of self-esteem, as his motivation. The direction is crisp, the script intelligent and engaging, and the acting convincing and
Depardieu is an excellent Valjean, articulate and ultimately tragic, while Malkovich is entirely convincing and unusually
"human" as Javert. Christian Clavier is splendidly scheming, selfish and low, while Virginie Ledoyen is suitably appealing as
This is a confident and intelligent production which is not afraid of its origins.
The 1934 version remains, and I suspect will always remain, my favourite. The key to "Les Miserables" is love, and the '34
version succeeds in appealing to the heart better than any other I have seen. It is undoubtedly melodramatic in places, but
this is perhaps a style which is not unsuitable for the recounting of Hugo's tale, and this may explain why more modern and
realistic versions have fared less well in transferring the story to the big screen. This may also account for the inordinate
success of the musical which appeals to the heart and the spirit.
In my opinion the musical version of "Les Miserables" is the perfect union of material and medium.
First and foremost this is musical theatre and not a "show" as such. Music is used by the authors to tell Hugo's tale, and it is
the story that remains the most important element in the musical version. This is no star or even character vehicle. It has
integrity and is so well structured that each scene advances the plot or deepens our knowledge of the various characters
involved. Many musicals have a few good scenes and songs, but seem to contain "padding" elsewhere. "Les Mis" appears
carefully crafted throughout so that each scene remains memorable and of interest and importance.
In some shows the players/singers remain fairly static, but in "Les Mis" there is considerable movement - movement which is
linked to the developing storyline. In other shows you may have quite spectacular and entertaining dance routines frequently
built around relatively flimsy storylines. "Les Mis" appears to have struck the perfect balance between storyline and
Above all, Hugo was a poet who wrote a book about society's ills, injustice, and the ways in which we (humanity) treat one
another. He deals with a huge variety of themes, but to achieve his goal he tries to engage emotion, invite reflection and
perhaps more than anything else, incite compassion and serve as inspiration.
Of all the film versions, really only the 1934 version with Harry Baur comes close to achieving Hugo's aims.
However, music is far and away the most effective means of communicating emotion and imparting the need for compassion
and love. Music can make you feel in an instant what it might take many words to impart, and if the key to "Les Miserables"
is emotion and compassion, surely the most effective means of expressing the story is in music.
This is, I think, why "Les Mis" has been so successful. The music and storyline complement one another perfectly to provide
an adult and reflective entertainment which touches the hearts of its audience and which inspires them to think about their
The musical creates atmosphere, informs the audience of the personalities, motivations and feelings of various characters,
and can even remind the audience of past events through the repetition of various themes - all through a few bars of (very
carefully crafted) music. Many find Hugo's rather verbose style difficult or unappealing, yet here they are immediately
seduced by his storyline which has simply been adapted to a different (and perhaps more immediate and compelling)
The musical is, indeed, a masterfully structured piece weaving artful songs and melodies with superbly crafted staging. But of
course there would be no show without Hugo's original material, material which was so strong it inspired Boublil and
Schonberg to produce their version.
This musical has touched many people's lives. It has inspired many, and continues to affect those who have seen it, and for
considerably longer than the duration of the show itself. It is an achievement of which Boublil, Schonberg, Sir Cameron
Mackintosh and all those involved in its production and performance can be rightly proud. It is also a rendering of which I
imagine Victor Hugo would heartily approve.
"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, available in original French or in translation by Norman Denny (Penguin Classics)
"Victor Hugo" biography by Graham Robb (Picador)
"Les Miserables: History in the making." by Edward Behr (Pavilion Books)
There have been over twenty filmed versions. The most notable adaptations include:
"Les Miserables" (1934) with Harry Baur
"Les Miserables" (1958) with Jean Gabin
"Les Miserables" (1982) with Lino Ventura (French television)
"Les Miserables" (1995) with Jean-Paul Belmondo
"Les Miserables" (1998) with Liam Neeson
"Les Miserables" (2000) with Gerard Depardieu (French TV adaptation)
The musical version by Boublil and Schonberg captures the essence of the book better than any of the filmed versions so far
It is available on CD in a variety of languages and on video/DVD in a concert version.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some use.
My thanks also to my wife for leading me to the water, and to Phil Cavill whose performance in Edinburgh was inspirational.
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