Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Jean Valjean
"Is there not in every human soul, was there not in the particular soul of Jean VaIjean, a primitive spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world, immortal in the next, which can be developed by good, kindled, lit up, and made resplendently radiant, and which evil can never entirely extinguish." (Hugo, p. 78)
Victor Hugo's 1862 epic novel Les Miserables ranks among the literary greats of the 19th Century. Despite its awesome length, it has remained as one of the most approachable readings of literature. The tale of Jean Va1jean, the hero in the novel, is a fascinating story that beckons readers to turn the pages at a finious, pace. Since the novel is divided into several segments with names of the characters as the titles, the reader will realize that Les Miserables is a novel exploring the relationship of personal and communal destinies. As we progress through the pages, we witness the transformation of our outlaw protagonist and his persistent strivings, to overcome his despair and egotism. The reader will feel from Vaijean's adventures, that the moral character can and does grow, no matter how his previous devastating experiences had hardened him. Since Valjean is the unifying centre of the action in the novel, his moral and spiritual growth through his interaction with characters in Les Miserables will give credence to the earlier proposition that the moral character can evolve.
To examine the moral growth of Jean Valjean, it would be useful to establish his initial mental shape and thoughts. From the moment he appeared in the novel, Jean Valjean was depicted as a man against himself Freed from prison after serving an unjust sentence of nineteen years for the theft of bread, he was a ticking time bomb ready to ignite and explode when he knocked on the bishop of Digne's house after many days treated with discrimination, disdain and ostracism by people. His criminal past weighed heavily upon him; his future was unknown. He had no kin or kith, having lost contact with his sister during the years in the galleys of Toulon. The unjust treatment he received had hardened him and he came out hating society for what it had taken from him. "He condemned society and sentenced it. He sentenced it to his hatred"(p.77). With no one to turn to and what to make of his newly found freedom after those dreary years spent in the galleys, his passage through Digne raised the questions he would pursue in the rest of his life: Who am I? Where am I headed?
He had tried to disassociate himself with his past, but his passport constantly served to cut him down to size and reminded him of his lowly status.(1) When the host of a tavem threatened, "shall I tell you your name? your name is Jean Valjean, now shall I tell you who you are?"(p.55), he exposed the possible inadequacy and inferiority of Valjean's identity. Therefore, arriving at the bishop's house after numerous surly rejections by inns and...