Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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Light and Darkness Symbol Icon

At several points in the novel, the narrator claims that the whole thrust of the book is from social evil to social good, proving that progress, while slow and complex, is inevitable. One way this movement is symbolized is through the progression from darkness into light. Darkness symbolizes the various kinds of evil that are enacted, consciously or unconsciously, in society: the abandonment of children, the despicable treatment of women, and the lack of mercy shown to those who have broken society’s rules (like convicts). Light, on the other hand, comes to stand for knowledge, truth, mercy, and goodness—those who have “seen the light” no longer blindly follow society’s judgmental assertions and assumptions.

The narrator often uses the language of light and darkness to imply this progress from social backwardness into a progressive society. But light and darkness, in turn, also fill the scenes of the novel, allowing the reader to associate certain characters and places with evil or with good. The members of the Patron-Minette criminal gang in Paris, for instance, only ever go out at night, in the darkness, while the Bishop of D— is often described as lit up in his very demeanor. Other characters pass through darkness on their way to the light. Cosette’s moment of greatest despair comes as she wanders through the black forest at night to fetch water for the Thenardiers, while Valjean’s greatest challenge is to carry Marius, whom he hates for taking Cosette away from him, through the ominous, gloomy, underground sewers of Paris. This journey from darkness to light, however, is considered necessary—the only way to achieve mercy and goodness.

Light and Darkness Quotes in Les Miserables

The Les Miserables quotes below all refer to the symbol of Light and Darkness. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Canterbury Classics edition of Les Miserables published in 2015.
Volume 1, Book 1 Quotes

“The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow.”

Related Characters: Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel (speaker)
Related Symbols: Light and Darkness
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

The Bishop Bienvenu, the first major character to whom we are introduced in the book, is portrayed as a source of great wisdom and kindness, not to mention a figure who encapsulates much of Victor Hugo's social message. This quotation is part of a longer set of passages in which we learn of various extracts from what the bishop preaches to his congregation, as well as examples of the bishop's own actions throughout the community.

The bishop treats women and children, who are often dismissed as less important by much of society, with even greater care than others. Indeed, he insists that those who are looked down on by others, whether because of their own actions or because of social conventions, do not deserve that judgment. Instead, responsibility for their actions should be displaced onto those who have "created the shadow"—that is, those individuals and, more precisely, society at large, which have condemned certain groups of people to live apart from or as inferiors to others, thus making it nearly inevitable that those groups will fail or suffer at some point. The bishop is thus shown to have a broader sense of what injustice means, particularly on a structural level, than many others. Even other religious figures in France at the time—men who are supposed to be epitomes of mercy and forgiveness—often exhibit judgment, corruption, and injustice instead, and so Bishop Bienvenu acts as shining example of how the clergy can be a force for good in an unjust world.

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Volume 2, Book 4 Quotes

Only, as he was five and fifty, and Cosette eight years of age, all that might have been love in the whole course of his life flowed together into a sort of ineffable light. It was the second white apparition which he had encountered. The Bishop had caused the dawn of virtue to rise on his horizon; Cosette caused the dawn of love to rise.

Related Characters: Jean Valjean , Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel , Cosette
Related Symbols: Light and Darkness
Page Number: 379
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Jean Valjean's life is, as is often the case, portrayed as being divided into several stages, beginning with the darkness of his life in the galleys, before the “dawn” of his redemption through the Bishop. Now this dawn is further divided into two parts: that of virtue and that of love. Valjean, at 55 years old, has never had the chance to love someone as a wife, for instance, or as a child of his own. Cosette is almost too young to be his own daughter, and the wide age gap between them underlines how much Valjean has lived in the darkness without love or virtue in his life. However, his relationship to Cosette is meant to show that it is not, in fact, too late for him to gain some of what he has missed over the years. The “ineffable light” that characterizes his meeting with the child and will characterize his subsequent life with her suggests that there is, in fact, a possibility for Valjean’s past sins to be redeemed by taking care of someone who needs his help now.

Volume 4, Book 2 Quotes

Happy, even in the midst of anguish, is he to whom God has given a soul worthy of love and of unhappiness! He who has not viewed the things of this world and the heart of man under this double light has seen nothing and knows nothing of the true.

Related Characters: Marius
Related Symbols: Light and Darkness
Page Number: 744
Explanation and Analysis:

Marius has failed to learn much more about the young girl he immediately was drawn to, whom he now calls "the Lark," and has become so depressed that he has stopped working and has grown even poorer than he was before. However, he continues to grasp onto the idea that the Lark, who had glanced back at him shyly, might possibly have reciprocal feelings for him. Here the narrator suggests that there is a redeeming quality even to love that is as painful as what Marius is feeling. This kind of unhappiness is acknowledged as unpleasant, even excruciating. But the book will emphasize its own view on love—that it is worth loving not despite but because of the suffering, which allows people to glimpse what is true in the world. 

Volume 4, Book 7 Quotes

Slang is language turned convict. That the thinking principle of man be thrust down ever so low, that it can be dragged and pinioned there by obscure tyrannies of fatality, that it can be bound by no one knows what fetters in that abyss, is sufficient to create consternation. Oh, poor thought of miserable wretches! Alas! Will no one come to the succor of the human soul in that darkness?

Related Symbols: Light and Darkness
Page Number: 855
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of his digression on language and criminality, the narrator deals here with the particular kinds of language used by convicts, that is, slang. The narrator is deeply ambivalent about the use of slang: he admits that it can be a powerful tool for weak people, but he cannot bring himself to enjoy or approve of the dirty words and raucous mentality that goes along with using slang. But here, as elsewhere, the history of this linguistic phenomenon is shown to be more significant and more revelatory than a mere study of the people who use it. Those people are characterized as being "in the darkness," but that status also suggests that the darkness was not of their own making, especially since it is suggested that no one will come "to the succor" of their souls. Slang thus becomes a sign of a state of injustice more than of a character to be condemned.

Volume 5, Book 3 Quotes

As he emerged from the water, he came in contact with a stone and fell upon his knees. He reflected that this was but just, and he remained there for some time, with his soul absorbed in words addressed to God. He rose to his feet, shivering, chilled, foul-smelling, bowed beneath the dying man whom he was dragging after him, all dripping with slime, and his soul filled with a strange light.

Related Characters: Jean Valjean , Marius
Related Symbols: Light and Darkness
Page Number: 1108
Explanation and Analysis:

This entire section of the book is both an adventure story, as Valjean drags Marius through the grime and mud of the sewers in an attempt to save him, and a metaphorical journey, as Valjean relives the darkness of his earlier life in a heroic struggle to reach the light. This is the moment at which all seems lost, as Valjean begins to struggle amid the quicksand and is brought down to his knees, fearing he might be drowned.

At the last moment, he strikes a hard surface, a stone. For Valjean this is not just a lucky coincidence but a sign that he should thank God, a direct result of God's providence and of the possibility that he might, after all, be redeemed. The rest of the passage paints a stark contrast between Valjean's physical state and his emotional and spiritual experience. As he gets to his feet, he is cold and "foul-smelling." He does not even know if Marius will survive this monumental attempt to drag him through the sewers to safety. However, the "strange light" that fills him both reflects how Valjean feels he has been saved by God and represents the new strength he feels that will allow him to carry on until the end.

Volume 5, Book 4 Quotes

His supreme anguish was the loss of certainty. He felt that he had been uprooted […] A whole new world was dawning on his soul: kindness accepted and repaid, devotion, mercy, indulgence, violences committed by pity on austerity, respect for persons, no more definitive condemnation, no more conviction, the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, no one knows what justice according to God, running in inverse sense to justice according to men. He perceived amid the shadows the terrible rising of an unknown moral sun: it horrified and dazzled him.

Related Characters: Javert
Related Symbols: Light and Darkness
Page Number: 1129
Explanation and Analysis:

We had been introduced to Javert as a man of principles, two principles in fact: love of authority and distrust of rebellion. Now, he has recognized that Valjean, the rebellious, anti-authority criminal that he has been chasing all throughout the novel, is actually a profoundly good person. Almost without thinking, Javert has let him go free, after seeing how he was solely concerned with bringing Marius to safety. Now the careful, principled life that Javert had created for himself is suddenly dissolving. He begins to realize that there are other principles worthy of being followed that he had never believed suitable before. Rather than rules of law and punishment, these are also rules of mercy, forgiveness, and respect.

However, the realization of such a different "moral sun" is not a relief for Javert: on the contrary, it is the source of panic and confusion. It is not that Javert has lived as a criminal himself his entire life, and is only now seeing the "light," but rather that the life he thought was occupied with justice now appears to be entirely unjust. But Javert has not made the step of embracing this new system either. Instead, he is left in a kind of moral void, one that is excruciating because it makes him feel as if nothing is certain, nothing justifiable.

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Light and Darkness Symbol Timeline in Les Miserables

The timeline below shows where the symbol Light and Darkness appears in Les Miserables. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Volume 1, Book 1: A Just Man
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
...a respectable woman, not pretty, but deeply good, though her goodness seems to make her light and transparent, merely a conduit for her soul’s eventual ascent to heaven. (full context)
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
...entire day with him, speaking with and consoling him, until he is able to “see light.” The next day the Bishop mounts the scaffold with him, and the man seems calm... (full context)
Volume 1, Book 2: The Fall
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
...But all is silent, and he slips into the Bishop’s bedroom. The Bishop’s face is illuminated and seems satisfied, hopeful, and content—almost divine. These emotions terrify Valjean and his uneasy conscience.... (full context)
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
...the Bishop, and he himself seems to shrink and then vanish in the Bishop’s magnificent light. As Valjean weeps, light enters into his soul, and he is able to examine his... (full context)
Volume 2, Book 1: Waterloo
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
...well-known, so the narrator doesn’t feel the need to describe him. History is a pitiless light, the narrator states, and the shadows of the tyrant often mingle with the brilliancy of... (full context)
Volume 2, Book 3: Accomplishment of the Promise Made to the Dead Woman
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
After Cosette makes it past the stalls, the light vanishes. But she pauses at the last house before the open fields, gazing at them... (full context)
Volume 2, Book 5: For a Black Hunt, a Mute Pack
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
...it was only in the Rue Pontoise that Javert positively recognized Valjean, thanks to a lamplight. He then asked for more reinforcements and followed the pair across the bridge, surrounding him... (full context)
Volume 3, Book 1: Paris Studied in Its Atom
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
...grace, but also is a kind of social disease that can only be cured by light: by education, science, and the arts. The gamin expresses Paris, which expresses the world in... (full context)
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
...states, is the price of progress, and accounts for one of humankind’s great sources of light. (full context)
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
...is to depict the city in all its types. The narrator beseeches philosophers to spread light among this populace and determine what use to make of principles and virtues in bettering... (full context)
Volume 3, Book 8: The Wicked Poor Man
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
...the young girl for the entire scene. She seemed like a kind of vision in light. When she departs, his sole desire is to follow her, but he realizes that M.... (full context)
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
...Jondrette then sends his wife downstairs to keep watch. His own scowling, conniving face is illuminated by candlelight. (full context)
Volume 4, Book 3: The House in the Rue Plumet
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
...clothing is battered and ragged, their faces blotchy and grim. As the sun rises, the light seems to set fire to this mournful procession, which suddenly makes it more jovial, and... (full context)
Volume 4, Book 5: The End of Which Does Not Resemble the Beginning
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
...and suddenly sees Marius. He is thinner and paler, with shadowy eyes but a face illuminated by the sunset. Cosette backs away, but he asks for her to forgive him: he... (full context)
Volume 4, Book 13: Marius Enters the Shadow
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
...city, beginning with the Halles quarter, an enormous dark hole in the center with no light or movement. All around it, swords and bayonets might be seen to gleam. The darkness... (full context)
Volume 5, Book 1: The War Between Four Walls
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
...will be as if history had ended. If they die here, they’ll die in the light of the future. (full context)
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
...of June 6th, the Luxembourg is sunny and charming, the statues robed with shadow and light. The abundance of light is somehow reassuring, and the recent rain seems to make everything... (full context)
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
...from its love of artistic beauty, another way of saying its ability to see the light. In the future, art will be supported by science and both will work for social... (full context)
Volume 5, Book 2: The Land Impoverished by the Sea
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
...a hiding place for thieves. The narrator calls it the “conscience of the city,” with shadows but no longer secrets. All civilization’s filth is laid bare, rather than concealed as above... (full context)
Volume 5, Book 3: Mud But the Soul
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
Chapter 1 It is in these sewers that Valjean finds himself, passing from midday light to pure darkness. He is blinded by it, but slowly grows accustomed to the dark.... (full context)
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
...a hundred paces, he raises his eyes, and at the end of the vault sees daylight. No longer is Valjean conscious of his fatigue or of Marius’s weight. He reaches the... (full context)
Volume 5, Book 6: The Sleepless Night
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
...Marius say their vows, their torments seem to come back to them, now converted into light—their suffering redeemed. They return home to a wedding party and begin to eat dinner. At... (full context)
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
...receive his blessing. A little after midnight, all have left, and the narrator notes that light shines on such houses on wedding nights, for God can be found in the joys... (full context)
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
...how many times we’ve seen Valjean struggle against his conscience, beg for mercy, and resist darkness. He feels he is now passing through a final combat between good and evil. He... (full context)