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.
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon

The characters in the novel live in a world of consistently harsh judgment. Convicts and the poor are considered to be the dregs of society, while the rich, in turn, are assumed to be greedy and worth only as much as they can be tricked out of giving away. Women, especially, are subjected to difficult standards, placed on a pedestal of purity but easily and hastily condemned for diverging from this norm, while men who are promiscuous or simply carefree are celebrated rather than judged. Into this framework, the act of mercy enters as a powerful counterweight, at times shocking its recipients into a new way of life, but at other times proving overwhelming in its radical reversal of social norms.

As the novel begins, Jean Valjean is used to being treated and judged as the convict he is. He is therefore dumbfounded by the mercy that Bishop D— shows him in letting him go free after his attempt to steal the bishop’s silver candlesticks. Valjean has no idea how to deal with the mercy shown to him—he is so confused, in fact, that his first move is to commit another crime of robbery, as he desperately tries to reaffirm the values of by which he’s lived for so long. It takes this final criminal act, committed almost as a reflex, for Valjean to repent and embrace the mercy that the Bishop has shown him. Accepting mercy, then, can be excruciating, and takes profound will and grit. Javert, conversely, doesn’t have such mental strength in the end. He finds he cannot live in the contradiction between the judgment he’s bestowed upon Jean Valjean and the mercy that Valjean has shown to him, and he kills himself as a result. As a life transformation, the movement from judgment to mercy can be very painful, the novel reveals, even as Hugo celebrates mercy as the morally correct way to live.

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Mercy vs. Judgment Quotes in Les Miserables

Below you will find the important quotes in Les Miserables related to the theme of Mercy vs. Judgment.
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 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 7 Quotes

The wild spectres who roam in this grave, almost beasts, almost phantoms, are not occupied with universal progress; they are ignorant both of the idea and of the word; they take no thought for anything but the satisfaction of their individual desires. They are almost unconscious, and there exists within them a sort of terrible obliteration. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery...

Page Number: 623
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator characterizes what he calls the "third lower floor" of human society. This phrase, originally used in the theater, designates certain traits and resentments that remain under the surface, before bubbling up at times of great strife. The "wild spectres" will soon be given names—they are the hardened criminals who will take on a more important role later on—but here, as earlier, the narrator takes the opportunity to paint a picture of the group as a social phenomenon and category. There seems to be a fascination in the passage about the very existence of such a group, one part of the amazing diversity of Parisian existence.

On one hand, this passage stresses how far apart this category lies from the optimistic ideals of progress and change that the novel has been advocating earlier. These people care far more about their own individual well-being than about anything larger than themselves. However, we also see that the "spectres" are not to be entirely condemned. As usual, we are asked to trace present action and character back to earlier moments and possible causes. "Ignorance" and "misery," which we are told are at the root of their actions, are personified and named as their "two mothers." The effect of this is to emphasize just how direct these roots are—as close, indeed, as the relationship of a mother to a child. Thus the "character" of this criminal underworld may be cruel and selfish, but it also stems from previous injustices and sufferings of which the criminals themselves are innocent.

Volume 3, Book 8 Quotes

The Jondrette lair was, if the reader recalls what we have said of the Gorbeau building, admirably chosen to serve as the theatre of a violent and somber deed, and as the envelope for a crime. It was the most retired chamber in the most isolated house on the most deserted boulevard in Paris. If the system of ambush and traps had not already existed, they would have been invented here.

Related Characters: Thenardier (Jondrette), Madame Thenardier, Eponine
Page Number: 674
Explanation and Analysis:

Marius has been spying on the Jondrette "lair" from the peep-hole of his own room, and he has been growing increasingly concerned that someone is in great danger, as the family is obviously plotting some kind of crime. In this brief digression, we learn how ideal indeed this hovel would be for a crime. Instead of studying human beings, whether as abstract "characters" or as individuals, here the narrator turns his sociological lens on a particular site within Paris. In some ways, he seems to be suggesting that crime is inevitable in such a place. But in other ways he is, once again, seeking to trace certain behaviors back to their origin—here, the dismal, poverty-stricken surroundings in which these characters find themselves. Rather than it being a question of condemning or withholding judgment, it is a question of seeking to understand and explain the source of these people's anger and criminality.

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 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 4, Book 6 Quotes

The bourgeois decked out in their Sunday finery who passed the elephant of the Bastille, were fond of saying as they scanned it disdainfully with their prominent eyes: “What’s the good of that?” It served to save from the cold, the frost, the hail, and rain to shelter from the winds of winter, to preserve from slumber in the mud which produces fever, and from slumber in the snow which produces death, a little being who had no father, no mother, no bread, no clothes, no refuge. It served to receive the innocent whom society repulsed.

Related Characters: Gavroche
Page Number: 825
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the story we have returned to the "gamin" Gavroche, whom we now learn sometimes works with the gang of Paris underworld criminals including Montparnasse. Gavroche lives in what he calls "the elephant," once a monumental project by Napoleon to build a 40-foot-tall wooden elephant with a tower perched on top. Most Parisians have forgotten about it by now, and those who do pass by and notice it are quick to scorn it as useless and ugly. They are not interested in the elephant even as a curious reminder of the past layers of Parisian existence.

However, the elephant shelter also has more profound meaning in this section. The narrator argues that the elephant is unfairly maligned for being ugly, and claims that its real strength is a moral one, in that it can provide for poor, hungry, lonely children whom society has otherwise "repulsed." The "good of that," a statement apparently meant rhetorically, is then shifted onto another register, one of ethics rather than economics.

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 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.