Multiple systems of justice and injustice coexist in the novel. The characters—as well as the morally conscious narrator—must negotiate among all of them in attempting to assign responsibility to certain characters, and in determining how the ethical choices of each one of them compares to the others. No one system of justice triumphs for good in the novel. This is a somewhat radical move for Hugo, who, while embracing a Christian worldview, is less interested in simply parroting official Church authority than in trying, through fiction, to figure out the meaning of right and wrong.
One way of comparing justice to injustice is through the legal system, personified by Javert and illustrated in the various courts, juries, and policemen that appear throughout the novel. Yet by creating in Valjean a protagonist who is an escaped convict—one who, in fact, can only continue to do good by remaining outside the law—Hugo challenges the notion that legal justice is just at all. Of course, this notion is complicated, given that the novel doesn’t portray those seeking legal justice as entirely evil or malicious. Instead, people like Javert are imperfect, perhaps overly zealous followers of the law who fail to understand that this authority can, in some cases, be unjust.
A potentially higher system of justice is the one developed by the Church—a system of justice that embraces mercy, as explained in an earlier theme. But this system also coexists with a system of individual morality, in which characters like Valjean have to weigh imperfect options. The most striking example of this is Valjean’s choice to tell the truth and free a wrongly accused convict, even while accepting that this will lead to the downfall of M.-sur-M., rather than saving himself and the town by sacrificing the convict. In this context, what “justice” even means is less clear.
Through the diverse systems and examples employed in the book, Hugo develops a surprisingly modern understanding of morality, one in which justice depends on the person, the moment, and the stakes involved. What does “crime” mean when it is committed by someone whom society has abandoned—whom society has, to put it differently, committed its own crime against? In this context, justice and injustice are reversed, and it is up to the characters, and the reader, to establish their meaning.
Justice and Injustice ThemeTracker
Justice and Injustice Quotes in Les Miserables
“The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow.”
“Let us never fear robbers nor murderers. Those are dangers from without, petty dangers. Let us fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers. The great dangers lie within ourselves.”
After having judged society, which had caused his unhappiness, he judged Providence, which had made society, and he condemned it also.
This man was composed of two very simple and two very good sentiments, comparatively; but he rendered them almost bad, by dint of exaggerating them—respect for authority, hatred of rebellion; and in his eyes, murder, robbery, all crimes, are only forms of rebellion.
Judges, clerks, gendarmes, a throng of cruelly curious heads, all these he had already beheld once, in days gone by, twenty-seven years before; he had encountered those fatal things once more; there they were; they move; they existed; it was no longer an effort of his memory, a mirage of his thought; they were real gendarmes and real judges, a real crowd, and real men of flesh and blood: it was all over; he beheld the monstrous aspects of his past reappear and live once more around him, with all that there is formidable in reality.
The scaling of that wall, the passing of those barriers, the adventure accepted even at the risk of death, the painful and difficult ascent, all those efforts even, which he had made to escape from that other place of expiation, he had made in order to gain entrance into this one. Was this a symbol of his destiny? This house was a prison likewise and bore a melancholy resemblance to that other one whence he had fled, and yet he had never conceived an idea of anything similar.
Encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.
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?
War does not become a disgrace, the sword does not become a disgrace, except when it is used for assassinating the right, progress, reason, civilization, truth. Then war, whether foreign or civil, is iniquitous; it is called crime. Outside the pale of that holy thing, justice, by what right does one form of man despise another?
He who despairs is in the wrong. Progress infallibly awakes, and, in short, we may say that it marches on, even when it is asleep, for it has increased in size. When we behold it erect once more, we find it taller. To be always peaceful does not depend on progress any more than it does on the stream; erect no barriers, cast in no boulders; obstacles make water froth and humanity boil. Hence arise troubles; but after these troubles, we recognize the fact that ground has been gained. Until order, which is nothing else than universal peace, has been established, until harmony and unity reign, progress will have its revolutions as its halting-places.
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.