Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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Love and Redemption Theme Analysis

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.
Love and Redemption Theme Icon

In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is transformed from a hardened criminal into a paragon of virtue. He ultimately sacrifices himself so that his adopted daughter Cosette might attain happiness with Marius, even as it devastates Valjean to “lose” her to the man she loves. In many ways, Jean Valjean is redeemed by his acts, which constitute penance for the wrongs he committed earlier in life. While generated and accelerated by love, redemption—according to the novel—does not take place on a straightforward path. Instead, it is understood as a process to be constantly fought for.

Redemption seems to take place on two major axes in the novel (which also correspond to Christian theology): selfless love and good works. Jean Valjean fulfills the second through his work as mayor of M.-sur-M., as a philanthropist, and as a man of simple tastes and lifestyle. His love for Cosette is another way he redeems himself for his past wrongs. However, Valjean never seems able to fully emerge from the burden of the evil he’s done. Internally, he struggles with whether or not he’s really a good person—whether his actions and love are no more than a façade concealing his true character, which may never be able to be modified. His past continues to haunt him in the external world as well: in his attempt to lead an ethical factory town, he is partly responsible for Fantine’s downfall, and by freeing another man wrongly accused of being Jean Valjean, he is convicted once again and M.-sur-M. falls back into wretched poverty.

By choosing to center his account on a relatively minor failed revolt—June 1823—rather than the 1789 French Revolution, July Revolution of 1830, or Revolution of 1848, Hugo emphasizes the difficulty for French society itself (and not just individual characters) to redeem itself for past violence, inequality, and social ills. Love for one’s neighbor seems to be the key to undoing these ills, though there isn’t much optimism that, in society at large, love will in fact conquer all—at least in the short term. Nevertheless, Hugo portrays his subjects generously and sympathetically, suggesting that the novel lays claim to the possibility of redemption even while starkly depicting the complications in attaining it.

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Love and Redemption Quotes in Les Miserables

Below you will find the important quotes in Les Miserables related to the theme of Love and Redemption.
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 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 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 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 3, Book 8 Quotes

He had found him at last, and how? His father’s savior was a ruffian! That man, to whose service Marius was burning to devote himself, was a monster! The liberator of Colonel Pontmercy was on the point of committing a crime whose scope Marius did not, as yet, clearly comprehend, but which resembled an assassination! And against whom, great God! What a fatality! What a bitter mockery of fate!

Related Characters: Thenardier (Jondrette), Marius
Page Number: 683
Explanation and Analysis:

Having eavesdropped for some time at the peep-hole, Marius finally hears Jondrette's true name, Thenardier—the name of the person that his father begged him to thank one day, since he had (supposedly) saved Marius's father on the battlefield. Now Marius has to come to terms with the fact that he both knows this man to be a despicable criminal, and knows him to be his father's savior and hero. This series of exclamations register Marius's shock—it is, of course, a great coincidence—and his scrambling attempts to determine what to do.

To Marius, this new revelation is a "mockery" of how fate ought to be because, after having spent his life pursuing his father's savior to thank him, he finds himself with no good solution: either Marius betrays his father and calls for Javert to barge in and arrest Thenardier, or Marius risks the safety of Leblanc, an innocent man. Neither way seems particularly ethical or high-minded, and so he is caught having to make an impossible decision. Marius had always assumed that his love for his father would ensure that he he could fulfill his father's dying wish: now it seems that no such redeeming action is possible.

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 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 3 Quotes

When Cosette went out with him, she leaned on his arm, proud and happy, in the plenitude of her heart. Jean Valjean felt his heart melt within him with delight, at all these sparks of a tenderness so exclusive, so wholly satisfied with himself alone. The poor man trembled, inundated with angelic joy; he declared to himself ecstatically that this would last all their lives; he told himself that he really had not suffered sufficiently to merit so radiant a bliss, and he thanked God, in the depths of his soul, for having permitted him to be loved thus, he, a wretch, by that innocent being.

Related Characters: Jean Valjean , Cosette
Page Number: 769
Explanation and Analysis:

Cosette and Jean Valjean have settled into yet another new life, this time on the Rue Plumet, and this time with Valjean going by the name of Ultime Fauchelevent. However, this time Valjean truly does allow himself to believe that he might be given the chance to love Cosette and to enjoy living with her, rather than having it all be snatched away from him as it nearly has so many times. 

Still, Valjean continues to feel a great unworthiness, a sense that he has not "suffered sufficiently" in order to be able to at last enjoy great happiness. The difference, here, is that he has chosen not to despair over the evil that has lurked inside him, but instead chooses to be grateful for the small loving family that he now has with Cosette. He may not believe that he has redeemed himself for past actions, but he simply enjoys what he has while it is present.

“Father, are they still men?”

Related Characters: Cosette (speaker), Jean Valjean
Page Number: 786
Explanation and Analysis:

Cosette and Jean Valjean are on one of their early-morning walks, when they come across a sorrowful procession of men tied to each other on their way to the galleys although when the light hits their faces they grow more jovial and begin to sing. Cosette doesn't understand what she is seeing, but she is frightened by the sight anyway. Valjean does explain to her who the men are and where they are going: it is at this point that she asks if they are "still men." Such a question is obviously excruciating for Valjean, who has lived through what the men they now watch are going through, although he can never tell anyone about this. Cosette's question reveals her own innocent but also immature mind, as well as the prejudices of society that have already influenced her, as she questions the very humanity of the prisoners. Still, Valjean ends up answering "sometimes" to her question, suggesting that one's humanity can be lost when condemned to the galleys. Cosette seems afraid rather than malicious or gleeful like other observers of the prisoners, but Valjean can now only wonder what she would think of him should she know his own past.

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.