Portrait of a tragic hero.
The following thoughts and ideas are a summary and development of those contained in "Les Misérables - a booklet for students".
These are of course only my opinions and I would be delighted to hear from anyone who wishes to discuss them, or their own thoughts, further. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Jean Valjean is the product of the society he lived in, both in terms of the suffering 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 has also become accustomed to doing whatever is necessary to survive and has little thought of dignity and principle.
Thus, in reflex acts of desperation, he steals from the Bishop and the young chimney sweep. These acts, in direct contrast to the kindness shown to him by the Bishop, cause him to focus on what he has become - the very thing 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 can suffer what he has suffered, as the 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 creating a caring community.
There are numerous examples of his heroism and his selfless desire to help others, all tinged with, and accentuated by, tragedy as he is driven by a lack of self-respect and a sense of responsibility towards those whose lives he has touched. We are inspired as Valjean commits acts of heroism, both physical and moral, in helping Fantine, saving Fauchelevent and Marius, protecting Javert at the Barricades, offering to fund Thénardier, bringing up Cosette, and avoiding her wedding to protect her, etc., etc..
When Valjean discovers Cosette is in love with Marius he becomes almost insanely jealous until he realises Marius reciprocates Cosette's feelings and he understands he has no right to intervene. He sees that 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 the run.
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. Shortly before his departure 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. After a brief period of reflection he heads for the barricades, but Hugo 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.
The tragedy is that Valjean does not appear to recognise the merit of his own actions, or at least that they do not compensate for what he "nearly" became. He is driven by the guilt he felt on stealing from the Bishop and the chimney sweep. He is ashamed not so much of the 19 years he spent in prison, but rather that on his release he was willing to prey upon those who were weaker than himself in order to survive. He works endlessly to compensate for his "misdeeds" and shows himself little of the sympathy and understanding he is willing to bestow on others. While he recognises that the structure of society was partly responsible, he has learned the importance of humility and accepting responsibility for one's actions, learning from it, and then setting about rectifying the situation.
At the end of his life Valjean tells Cosette and Marius that the only thing that really matters is love. It is tragic, then, that Valjean appears to have found love and forgiveness in his heart for nearly everyone except himself.
It has been suggested, and I have often thought, that there are strong links between various elements of Les Misérables and the Christian Bible.
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.
I'm sure there are countless other similarities to be quoted or thus interpreted, but surely such points of similarity cannot be purely coincidental.
Hugo was apparently a profoundly religious man. There are certainly countless references to the church, faith, God, fate and destiny not just in Les Misérables, 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?
Valjean is no superhuman or Heaven-sent figure, indeed his appeal is in his decidedly human (and fallible) 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 one another, and love and respect.
For notes on a comparison of Valjean and Javert, please click here.
I hope you found this interesting and helpful.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page.