Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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Themes and Colors
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Les Miserables, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon

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.

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Justice and Injustice Quotes in Les Miserables

Below you will find the important quotes in Les Miserables related to the theme of Justice and Injustice.
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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“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.”

Related Characters: Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The Bishop has just received a gold chest filled with valuable items obviously stolen from cathedrals: it is a "gift" from Cravatte, a known bandit, meant to challenge and make fun of the Bishop. Rather than being upset or angry, though, the Bishop just smiles. Later that night he proclaims this message about the greater importance of fearing prejudice and vice than robbers and murderers. The Bishop makes a distinction between external and internal dangers: the former are "petty," and therefore not to be feared, while the internal dangers are the ones that can truly prove damaging.

This message is part of the Bishop's general emphasis towards acknowledging that everyone is sinful, that all have evil within themselves, and that all should be dealt with mercifully as a result. Rather than showing hatred or anger towards the person who attempted to threaten him, the Bishop greets his challenge with love, as well as disarming the challenge by claiming that it really doesn't represent a threat at all. As a truly sincere religious man ought to be, Bienvenu is more concerned with his soul than his physical health, and so fears his own prejudices more than external robbers. Unfortunately, the Bishop's high-minded ideas are not shared by the majority of society, as Hugo goes on to show in great detail.

Volume 1, Book 2 Quotes

After having judged society, which had caused his unhappiness, he judged Providence, which had made society, and he condemned it also.

Related Characters: Jean Valjean
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Jean Valjean had originally been sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread when he was starving; after multiple escape attempts and increasingly harsher sentences, he ultimately served a total of nineteen years in prison. The narrator asks the reader to pause for a moment and consider how Jean Valjean was transformed from a weak, desperate adolescent into a hardened criminal. He traces Valjean's actions over the course of his life, and asks us to seek to understand rather than judge Valjean immediately. Judgment, in fact, is the choice Valjean makes as a result of being disillusioned and hardened in the galleys. The narrator shows how Valjean, while initially acknowledging that he did wrong, came to question the severity of his sentence and, ultimately, to decide that society itself was worthy of condemnation—and, since God created society, Valjean would condemn all of the divine as well.

The narrator has a difficult task here, since it is necessary to show both that there was injustice in the sentencing of Jean Valjean, but also that the proper response to such injustice is mercy rather than further hatred. This second step, we are told, is where Valjean went awry—and yet even so, we as readers are asked not to judge him ourselves, particularly because his situation was so unjust, and because we have yet to get a measure of his true character.

Volume 1, Book 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Javert
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we are introduced to Javert, the policeman who will serve as Jean Valjean's nemesis for most of the rest of the novel. Yet even this antagonist is shown as not entirely evil, but rather subject to multiple, conflicting impulses that should be examined and understood before they are fully condemned. "Respect for authority" and "hatred of rebellion" are, according to the logic of the novel, not negative traits per se, since they can be mapped onto the understanding of justice that the novel has already begun to sketch. However, the problem comes when, as in Javert's case, these justifiable sentiments are exaggerated such that they come to obsess him and replace any other kind of moral standard. As a result, Javert sees all crimes only as forms of rebellion. He fails to see, as those like the Bishop do, that there may be other reasons, even understandable reasons, for people to commit such crimes. Javert's black-and-white way of viewing the world is proven to be dangerously inadequate, particularly in the complex world of misunderstandings, moral quandaries, and structural injustices that Hugo portrays.

Volume 1, Book 7 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Jean Valjean
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

Madeleine (Valjean) has been lurking behind the courtroom door, still undecided as to whether or not he will enter and reveal himself to be Jean Valjean, thus saving an innocent man from the galleys. Finally he bursts through the doors, only to witness a scene that makes him relive the most painful moments from his own time in the galleys and his own trial, events which remain acutely vivid to him even after 27 years. Through his new life of faith and good works as Father Madeleine, Valjean has convinced himself that he has paid for his past crimes, and that some kind of redemption exists for what he did in the past.

Now, it appears to him that what he has learned to think of as abstract, distant events are fully real and present. His past was not a dream or nightmare, but a reality from which he cannot escape. This powerful passage underlines for Valjean that, no matter what he does, the dream he has of redeeming his past sins remains tantalizingly out of reach. 

Volume 2, Book 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Jean Valjean
Page Number: 495
Explanation and Analysis:

As Jean Valjean settles into life with Cosette at the convent, he thinks back on how they have arrived at this life and what it means in light of his own past. The two landed in the convent purely by accident—in a frantic, tense escape from Javert and his men, Valjean had managed to scramble over a wall and cart Colette with him before falling into the convent garden.

Of course, the "barriers" and "efforts" that Valjean mentions are also metaphorical in nature: they stand for all his struggles to redeem his past sins. Valjean muses on the irony of the fact that this convent bears some resemblance to a prison, which he attempted to escape in a similar way (scaling walls, for example) so many times: both are places shut out from the outside world, with their own rules and assumptions, even if those in the convent have chosen to be there. Still, Valjean wonders if the convent is not after all a sign that he will have a chance to redeem himself—or if, instead, it will only underline how little his love for Cosette can change his past. Valjean thus also sees the convent as, like the prison, a house of judgment and a decider of what passes for justice.

Volume 4, Book 1 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 726
Explanation and Analysis:

In these "few pages of history," we learn some of the historical context of the years prior to the novel's action, particularly the years after the Revolution of 1830, known as the July Monarchy. This attempted compromise between democracy and royalty could never work, it is argued here, even though the king, Louis-Philippe, was well-intentioned. The narrator judges capitalism, communism, and socialism as means of ensuring progress for all, and considers only socialism to seek to remedy more than a single part of the problem. However, he expresses frustration with the priority of abstract ideals throughout this time period, as opposed to a focus on the real, material needs of the French people.

Here the narrator proposes some potential solutions of his own to the unjust, unequal state of society, solutions that in fact range from the abstract to the specific and from the radical to the widely accepted. His views on education, for instance, were shared by many around the time; his views on property, however, show an interesting if unusual compromise between communism, which wanted to abolish all property, and capitalism, which is built on the basis of private property. To "learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it" is shown to be not just the basis of material wealth: it is the source of the moral well-being of France, which is why so much time is spent on these material questions.

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 4, Book 13 Quotes

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?

Page Number: 965
Explanation and Analysis:

During the barricade, Marius fights valiantly, even as he is worried about Cosette and anxious that he will never be able to see her again. He also is ashamed when he thinks back to his father's heroic actions at war: when he compares those actions to his own fighting, he feels that this civil war is paltry compared to the significant battles of the past. But the narrator claims that instead of drawing a line between foreign and civil wars, one should create a distinction between just and unjust wars. A just war is one that fights for progress and for truth: an unjust one tries to take those things away, and is not only wrong, but a "crime." The narrator reiterates the book's argument that hate among people is not justifiable, and fighting among them is only necessary in the interest of movement towards justice, progress, and equality. 

Volume 5, Book 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Marius
Page Number: 1057
Explanation and Analysis:

The fighting at the barricades has been going on for a long time, and it is slowly becoming clear that the revolutionaries are on the losing side, and that soon they will be definitively defeated. Marius begins to despair, but here the book suggests that despair is not the correct attitude to take when loss seems inevitable. This is true if one takes one of the book's central themes to be correct: that is, that progress is inevitable, despite periodic setbacks and even what seem like damning failures.

Indeed, the narrator notes here that troubles are necessary to ensure that progress happens, for without turmoil and obstacles no change happens—and in addition, such change will happen for the better. Before this, the book has been somewhat ambivalent on the nature of revolution: the belief in the importance of respecting the humanity of others, of preventing violence, coexists uneasily with a desire for revolutions that require violence to even occur. Here, though, the narrator expresses the greatest good of revolutions, which is their status as stepping-stones towards progress and greater justice.

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.