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.
Love and Redemption ThemeTracker
Love and Redemption 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“Father, are they still men?”
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.