Sure, Les Misérables has more characters than all the seasons of Supernatural put together. But our main man is Jean Valjean: it's his character growth—and Javert's inability to believe in it—that drives the plot of the book. (That, and Hugo's obsessive need to follow every thought as far as it takes him.)
So how does our unconventional hero go from sinner to saint? Let's find out.
When meet Jean Valjean, he is an ex-convict about to starve to death because no one will give him food, shelter, or a job. No one except saintly Bishop Myriel, that is, who's more than happy to invite Valjean into his home and treat him like a king. (Want to know more about this paragon? Check out Bishop Myriel's Character Analysis.) We get a clue to the torments Valjean has suffered when he shouts, "Supper and a bed, with a mattress and sheets! It's nineteen years since I slept in bed" (188.8.131.52).
Whew! He must have done something really bad to get himself locked up for nineteenth years, right? Not so much. The dude stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. That got him a few years; the rest were added on every time he tried to escape in order to … take care of his starving family. Are you outraged yet?
But let's not go too far in our sympathy for Jean Valjean. Victor Hugo admits that a hard life full of suffering can leave a person spiritually warped. As Hugo asks at one point, "Can the heart become misshapen and afflicted with ugly, incurable deformities under disproportionate misfortune, like a spinal column bent beneath a too low roof?" (184.108.40.206). The answer to this question seems to be yes, since Valjean has a very violent streak in him, as we find out through the fact that he robs Bishop Myriel and even considers murdering him. He holds back, but the incident is enough to let us know that the Valjean we meet at the beginning of the book hasn't walked away from nineteen years of prison life with a heart of gold.
He may not have a heart of gold, but he does have a spark of goodness in there—enough so that he goes through a complete transformation after experiencing the kindness of Bishop Myriel. Before Valjean meets the bishop, the narrator describes him like this:
He seldom spoke and never smiled. It took some extreme emotion to wring from him, perhaps once or twice a year, the sour convict-chuckle that is like the laughter of demons. (220.127.116.11)
That demonic laugh lets us know that there's something nasty living inside him. But just as cruelty can turn a good man bad, kindness can turn a bad man good. After meeting Bishop Myriel, Jean Valjean collapses on the side of a road and sobs over the kindness he's been shown. As the narrator tells us, "And as he wept a new day dawned in his spirit, a day both wonderful and terrible" (18.104.22.168).
This is a big moment because it'll drive everything that happens in the rest of this book, especially when he adopts the young orphan, Cosette. Jean Valjean has gone from being a warped ex-con to a man who'll devote the rest of his life to helping others, even though this devotion will land him in whole mess of trouble. The moral of this story? Grace and mercy—like the kind that Bishop Muriel shows Valjean—can redeem even the most hardened of sinners.
Valjean faces two major tests of his newfound moral courage. The first happens when Javert comes to confess to him that he (Javert) has wrongly suspected Valjean of being, well, himself. Turns out, Javert says, some other guy is actually Valjean, and he's about to be sent back to prison.
Cue major moral dilemma. Does Valjean let it happen, thus ensuring his own safety forever and not incidentally the prosperity of all the people who work in his factory and live in his town? Or does he tell the truth, get himself sent back to prison, and abandon all the people who depend on him?
These are tough choices. To be honest, Shmoopers, we're not sure we'd make the right call. But Valjean does. He remembers that he owes his first duty to God and makes a mad dash to the court in another town to reveal the truth.
Major moral test #2. When he reads Marius's letter saying that he's going to go die on the barricades, Valjean's first thought is, "Score! This little idiot is going off to die, and I don't even have to do anything about it!" (We paraphrased, but check out Part 4, Chapter 15 for the whole scene.)
Pretty soon, though, we find that Valjean is heading off the barricade. Although Hugo doesn't linger as long over this moral crisis, the issue is the same: if Valjean does nothing (the easy thing to do), then all his problems are over. Instead, though, he chooses to do the hard thing and take action. Let this be a lesson to all of us.
For much of this book, it looks as though Jean Valjean is incapable of hurting or even thinking poorly of anyone. But after he adopts the young Cosette as his own daughter, Valjean develops a jealous and protective attachment to her. The first time he realizes that she has an admirer (Marius), for example, Valjean realizes that "He who had thought himself no longer capable of any malice now felt the return of an old, wild savagery, a stirring in the depths of a nature that once had harboured much wrath" (22.214.171.124). And from what we've heard about Valjean's strength in this book, it doesn't sound like Marius wants to cross him.
But this Grizzly Dad instinct also leads Valjean to make the ultimate sacrifice for his adopted daughter's sake. When Cosette eventually marries Marius, Valjean feels that he must tell Marius the truth about his (Valjean's) previous life as a convict and prisoner. He knows that this confession will take Cosette away from him forever, but he makes this final sacrifice in order for Cosette to be completely free of the shadow hanging over his life.
The repercussions of the decision eventually kills Valjean. In the ends, though he dies knowing that he has fulfilled his promise to God. He has vowed to be a good man until the day he dies, and he has done just that.
Okay, we admit it. After the first part of the book, Valjean is … well, kind of boring. He can be reliably counted on to do the right thing; he always acts with love and mercy; and he's generally the kind of flawless paragon who, frankly, is not that interesting to read about. We'd much rather spend time with the nasty Thénardier. (Especially if he's played by Sacha Baron-Cohen.)
There's a reason for that. In creating Valjean, Hugo has created a character who embodies the absolute best that humanity can be: merciful, patient, kind, loving, both father and mother, and absolutely opposed to the rigid, blind, narrow-minded justice that Javert represents. In that way, Valjean reminds us a little of that other paragon of humanity—the big J.C. himself. (That's Jesus, for those of you not up on the latest lingo.) We're not exactly saying that Valjean is a Christ figure, but we're not not saying it, either.
What do you think?