Study Guide

Les Misérables Quotes

  • Suffering

    Since there is always more misery in the depths than compassion in the heights, everything was given, so to speak, before it was received. (1.1.2.37)

    Figures. You can have as much steamed broccoli as you want, but the ice cream is single-serve. Here, Hugo tells us that the world's supply of misery always seems to outweigh the supply of compassion—which means that compassionate people have to try extra hard to alleviate the suffering of others.

    There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; and the universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity. (1.1.14.8)

    Bishop Myriel is just too good. No, seriously, he's really straining credulity here. Hugo's point is that Myriel's compassion is his wealth—and he keeps on digging it out of the ground of other people's poverty. Lucky him, he'll never run out.

    Excess of suffering, as we have seen, had made him in some sort a visionary. (1.2.13.54)

    Someone call up the pope (there's got to be a special line, right?) because this guy needs a non-stop ticket to sainthood. Bishop Myriel eventually becomes so familiar with human suffering that he reaches a state of enlightenment. The impulse to value his own happiness over that of others is totally gone. Is he even human at this point?

    Excess of work exhausted Fantine, and the small, dry cough from which she suffered grew worse. (1.5.9.12)

    Like we said, everyone suffers. But if this book were some sort of suffering Olympics, Fantine would be taking home the gold in every category. Even when she's trying to work her way honestly (i.e., without sex work) out of poverty, she can't catch a break. Instead, she just catches tuberculosis.

    She could not earn enough and her debts grew. The Thénardiers bombarded her with letters, heartrending in tone and ominous in their exactions. (1.5.10.2)

    Fantine can barely make enough money to feed herself. But the Thénardiers (her daughter's guardians) and remorseless in the way they keep demanding money from her. Even in the midst of one person's terrible suffering, it looks like there are some people in this world who will only make things worse.

    She smiled as she said it, and the candle lighted her face. It was a bloodstained smile. There were flecks of blood at the corners of her mouth and a wide gap beneath her upper lip. (1.5.10.53)

    Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for Fantine (innocence gone, kid gone, job gone, hair gone), she sells her teeth in order to pay for medicine that her daughter Cosette doesn't even have. Of all the images of suffering in this book, this one is probably the most brutal.

    "Well […] I may as well sell the rest." (1.5.10.57)

    Time to really drive it home for Fantine. After selling her hair and her teeth, and working herself sick, she figures she might as well sell the "rest," a.k.a. turn to prostitution. Way to pile it on, Hugo! Sure, he might be exaggerating just a teeny bit, but the point here is to force us to see, over and over, how lack of compassion and understanding contribute to human suffering—the suffering of a specific human, not just some abstraction we can cluck our tongues and pray over.

    They were eyes no longer, but had become those fathomless mirrors which in men who have known the depths of suffering may replace the conscious gaze, so that they no longer see reality but reflect the memory of past events. (4.3.8.15)

    If Bishop Myriel is so compassionate that he's almost lost his humanity, this prisoner—the guy everyone thinks is Valjean—has suffered so much that he's almost lost his humanity, too. This guy has suffered so much that can't even see what's happening in front of him, but only the pain he's endured.

    Both talked at once, and it was impossible to make out what they were saying because the voice of the younger was choked with misery and the teeth of the elder were chattering with cold. (4.6.2.5)

    When Gavroche finds two young boys on the street, he realizes that these children have been thrown out of their house with nowhere to go. Luckily for them, Gavroche understands the streets and can make their suffering a little more bearable, even though he's just as poor and homeless as they are. Next time you're freaking out because your parents got you a black iPhone instead of a white one, we want you to remember this scene.

    Of all the torments he had suffered in his long trial by adversity, this was the worst. (4.15.1.25)

    Jean Valjean has endured a lot of suffering in his lifetime, but—yep, this is the worst. In order to save Cosette, he has to let her go. (Proof that having a lot of money doesn't insulate you from suffering.) It's the final straw for Valjean, who starves himself into a slightly early grave.

  • Poverty

    "The man who has nothing has God. It's better than nothing and I've no objection, but for myself I stick to realism." (1.1.8.9)

    A local government official sits down for dinner with Bishop Myriel and claims that he has no belief in God. He thinks that God is nothing more than a consolation prize for people who have absolutely nothing. See, rich people don't need God because they don't need consolation for having a terrible life like poor people. (The nice thing about this belief, from the official's perspective, is that it keeps him from having to do anything about the poor—at least they have god, kwwm?)

    There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; and the universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity. (1.1.14.8)

    In a strange way, Bishop Myriel thrives on poverty because it provides an endless supply of people for him to help out. When you think about it, this is actually a bit of a weird thing to say. What would happen if that mine of poverty dried up? Is Myriel getting rich off of other people's suffering? We don't think that's what Hugo is saying, but there's definitely something odd about the wording. Is it possible for someone to be completely unselfish when helping others?

    Fantine tried to find work as a servant, but no one would take her. (1.5.9.3)

    Fantine is poor and she needs a decent-paying job (which she's willing to work hard at), but even that's not in the cards. Word has gotten around that she is an unwed mother and people are way too judgmental to let her into their homes. Moral? Poverty builds on itself, making life more and more difficult. And just imagine what would have happened to Cosette if Valjean hadn't intervened. Like mother, like child—that's the vicious circle of poverty.

    She could not earn enough and her debts grew. The Thénardiers bombarded her with letters, heartrending in tone and ominous in their exactions. (1.5.10.2)

    Here's where a little education or general savvy would come in handy. Someone wiser in the ways of the world might start to think about checking the facts behind all these dire letters, but Fantine is too poor and too innocent to do it. Lack of education leads to poverty, which leads to lack of education, which leads to … oh, you get it. We're too depressed to keep going.

    "Think it over, my girl. Two napoléons are worth having." (1.5.10.25)

    It's like the worst game ever of Would You Rather: would you rather have your two front teeth, or two coins to pay a fake debt? (And no, you can't cheat by choosing death—but you don't even need to, since that's where you're going to end up anyway, without even trying.)

    "It is a terrible place, the pit of darkness, the stronghold of the blind. It is the threshold of the abyss." (3.7.1.8)

    Let's stop getting personal for a minute and get general—very, very general. For Victor Hugo, poverty is an abyss that sucks you down into it. Okay, sure, it's remotely possible for someone to use innovation and hard work to get out of this abyss. Jean Valjean, after all, makes himself a very rich man. But this kind of upward jump is extremely rare and depends on his (1) receiving a large and unexpected windfall, and (2) totally leaving his old life, a.k.a. criminal record behind. In other words, let's not start relying on Valjean's story as a general example.

    "The Noxious Poor" (3.8)

    Are we cheating a little here? We might be cheating. "The Noxious Poor isn't a quotation so much as it is a chapter title, but we think it deserves its own thought. By using the adjective "noxious," Hugo encapsulates the general attitude toward the poor: they're gross, inconvenient, and probably smelly. Does that sound like something you'd say about another person? No. It does not. It sounds like something you say about household pests. In other words, the way we talk about poverty and the poor matters. If we use the language of animals, we're going to treat the poor like animals. But if we think of them as real people, with hopes and desires and dreams of their own, then maybe we can actually start to help.

    Here disinterest vanishes and a demon is manifest – the spirit of each for himself. (3.7.2.1)

    For Hugo, money doesn't make the world go 'round—kindness and generosity do. Okay, that sounds like a great ideal. But what happens when you're so poor that you can't even feed yourself? You start looking out for good ol' Numero Uno, which is a major sin in Hugo's book of morality.

    "We've nowhere to sleep." (4.6.2.9)

    Gavroche meets a pair of homeless children in the streets of Paris and finds out they have no place to sleep. Look, we're all for free-range parenting or whatever it's called when you don't call the cops on some kid's parents for letting him play by himself in his own front yard. But these kids are between five and ten years old, and they're wandering around Paris at night, in the cold, without anything to eat or anywhere to sleep. That sounds like a good reason to have a social safety net.

    "What do I care if my body's picked up in the street tomorrow morning, beaten to death by my own father – or found in a year's time in the ditches round Saint-Cloud or the Île des Cygnes, along with the garbage and the dead dogs?" (4.8.4.67)

    When Éponine is arguing with her father about attacking Valjean's house, she says what all the poor people in the book are thinking: why care about dying when you have nothing to live for? And this is Hugo's warning. Oh, sure, he'd like it if everyone had a conversion experience and started treating poor people better out of the kindness and mercy of their hearts. In the meantime, though, he's not above resorting to threats—like, if these people feel like they have nothing to live for, what's stopping them from rising up against you?

  • Family

    The fiercest animals are disarmed by a tribute to their young. The mother thanked her and invited her to sit on the bench by the door while she herself remained seated on the step. (1.4.1.19)

    Pro tip: the quickest way to a parent's heart is to compliment their kids. Even nasty old Madame Thénardier get all squishy inside when Fantine compliments her daughters. It looks like Mme. Thénardier does have some family feeling—at least while her girls are young and cute. (By the time Gavroche comes around, though, it's nowhere to be found.)

    "Will you look after my daughter for me?" (1.4.1.34)

    Here's the thing: no matter how loving of a mom you are, it's not going to do your children any good if they're starving in the streets. Fantine has to find work and knows she never will if she's travelling as an unwed mother. For Hugo, this is one of the worst things about poverty—how it destroys families.

    "My father […] was a humble, heroic man who gallantly served the Republic and France and was great in the greatest chapter in human history." (3.3.8.28)

    You tell him, Marius. Here, Marius isn't afraid to defend his father in front of his grandfather—and this moment of family pride is a turning point for the guy, who leaves his life of luxury to fend for himself and, eventually, the revolution.

    Another inevitable consequence was that as he drew nearer to his father, to the colonel's memory and to the things for which he had fought for twenty-five years, so he moved further away from his grandfather. (3.3.6.20)

    As Marius becomes more interested in his father, he moves farther away from his grandfather. But you can't really blame him, because it's his granddad who said, "This family ain't big enough for the two of us." We're paraphrasing here, but you get the point.

    "Because I have taught my children religion, Monsieur. I have never wanted them to go on the stage. They have been strictly brought up, and no backsliding!" (3.8.9.22)

    Thénardier puts on an act in order to scam money from Jean Valjean, and one of the most hilarious things he claims is that he's tried to educate his children in religion, despite their lack of money. Since Thénardier is the most immoral man in this book by far, it's a miracle that Éponine and Gavroche managed to retain some tiny spark of humanity.

    But then he heard his own spirit, become again terrible, roar sullenly in the darkness. Try to rob a lion of its cub! (4.15.1.21)

    If you were a suspicious reader, you might say that Jean Valjean has an unhealthy relationship to Cosette, like feeling jealous at the thought that Cosette might be romantically interested in a young man (specifically Marius). Oh, sure, the book says he's jealous because he doesn't want to lose a daughter. But if you ask us, this puts a whole new spin on the phrase "family romance."

    [Cosette] contemplated that family of birds, male and female, mother and children, with the sense of profound disturbance that a bird's nest imparts to a virgin girl. (5.1.10.13)

    Um, okay Hugo. We can't say that we're familiar with this feeling, but we'll take your word for it. The point here is the Cosette—despite her virginity—has some vague longings to have a family of her own that seemed to be stirred up by seeing a bird's nest.

    Monsieur Gillenormand at first went through every kind of torment, and then through every kind of rapture. It was with great difficulty he was restrained from spending all his nights at the bedside. (5.5.2.5)

    Aw, looks like Granddad is a big old softy after all. When Marius gets shot in a French revolt, his grandfather spends all his time at his bedside, praying for him to recover. Deep down, Marius is Gillenormand's biggest reason for living. What's the point of all that money if you don't have any one to leave it to, right?

    In this [Marius] was unshakeable, regardless of what it might cost, or the demands he might have to make of his grandfather or of life. (5.5.2.7)

    Okay, family is important. But so is following your heart, especially when it leads you to the cute fifteen year old you've hardly exchanged two words with. (Okay, fine, she's a few years older by this point.)

    "A family! But I belong to no family, least of all yours. I am sundered from all mankind. There are moments when I wonder whether I ever had a father and mother. Everything ended for me with that child's marriage." (5.7.1.44)

    Without Cosette, Jean Valjean's family is gone. She was the only person in his entire life, and now he has to keep his distance to prevent his shady background from infecting her new life. From the way Valjean says this, we can tell that being "sundered from all mankind" is essentially the worst thing that can happen to a guy. (Remember, the whole book is about how we all need to love each other. You might even say that Hugo wants us all to become one big human family.)

  • Power

    His mental attitude was compounded of two very simple principles, admirable in themselves but which, by carrying them to extremes, he made almost evil – respect for authority and hatred of revolt against it. (1.5.5.14)

    To give Javert credit, he's got more than a one-track mind: he has a two-track mind. (Hey, that's more than most of us get.) He unquestioningly respects authority and he always punishes anyone who revolts against it. There's nothing wrong with these qualities, exactly—you might even say that a well-functioning society needs a few people like this. The sad fact (for Javert) is that no one likes the hall monitor.

    He then turned to Fantine and said: "You're getting six months." (1.5.13.15)

    Javert has no sympathy for himself when it comes to breaking the rules, so you can't exactly expect him to sympathize with a prostitute who's getting above herself by attacking a "decent" member of French society. So putting her away will effectively destroy her life. So what? In his eyes, breaking the law destroyed her life; it's out of his hands.

    "An inferior member of the public service has shown the utmost disrespect for a magistrate. I have come, as in duty bound, to inform you of the fact." (1.6.2.11)

    Talk about job commitment: Inspector Javert is so committed to serving power that he's willing to quit his job just for suspecting that Jean Valjean (his social superior) was an ex-convict. Hey Javert—we're hiring!

    Javert reached the couple. He clapped one heavy hand on the woman's shoulder and the other on her husband's head. (3.8.21.31)

    When Javert springs into action to save Valjean from the Thénardiers, it almost seems like a beautiful thing. Then we remember that this is the same guy who will relentlessly pursue a reformed ex-convict stealing a loaf of bread for twenty years, and we lose all those warm fuzzies.

    Two questions arise. In the first place, what is power? And secondly, where does it come from? The clever ones do not seem to hear these murmurs and continue their operations. (4.1.2.5)

    Ooh, deep thoughts, Victor. So why do some people have power while others don't? The people in power, of course, have a pretty easy answer: "We deserve it!" Just … don't try asking any follow up questions.

    [Louis-Philippe] had been born a prince and believed that he was elected king. He had not conferred the mandate on himself or attempted to seize it. (4.1.4.2)

    To be fair, the dude who ended up being king in 1830 (that would be Louis-Phillipe) didn't exactly sweep into power and steal it from the French people. He just got a call one day and was asked if he wanted to be king, so he said "Sure," thinking that the French people had elected him. The real power(s) behind the throne were the wealthy bourgeoisie—people who had a lot of power and wealth to lose by letting democratic rule take over.

    Power itself is often no more than a fiction. In all revolutions there are those who swim against the tide; they are the old political parties. (4.1.4.6)

    You know how stories are a powerful? Well, one of the most powerful, according to Hugo, is the very idea of power itself. When you think about it, what's really keeping governments and oligarchies in charge? The fact that we're all willing to go along with it, and not much else.

    There were ominous threats on the horizon. A strange creeping shadow was gradually enveloping men, affairs and ideas, a shadow born of anger and renewed convictions. (4.1.4.28)

    Second verse, same as the first. (Well, not quite the same. For one thing, it's a lot shorter.) In the last third of the book, we find out that once again a revolutionary attitude is starting to spread in France. Folks are tired of having an unelected king as their leader, and they're determined to install democracy in France. But as we already know—thanks to the fact that Hugo was writing in 1862—it's not exactly going to topple the foundations of monarchy.

    Power feels revived after a revolt, like a man after a massage. (4.10.1.9)

    Okay, so the revolution failed. At least it got powerful people feeling a little on edge, right? Not so much. According to Hugo, revolts actually backfire allow power to show the world how much it's in control of society. If a society goes too long without a revolt, people might suspect that the people in power are getting lazy. But in the end, revolts just let powerful reestablish their dominance.

    In democratic states, the only ones based on justice, it may happen that a minority usurps power. (4.10.2.1)

    For Hugo, the only just form of government is democracy, but even that has flaws. A powerful minority can sometimes grab hold of power in a democracy—but at least it's rare, whereas it's built into the DNA of a tyrannical system with an unelected king.

  • Youth

    At certain times youth sparkled amid the cloisters. The recreation bell sounded, a door creaked on its hinges and the birds said, 'Here come the children!' (2.1.4.2)

    Despite depicting the world as basically a grim reality of suffering and despair, Victor Hugo can have a fairly idealistic view of children. This scene is straight out of a Disney cartoon, complete with birds speaking English (or French) and little children spilling into a garden to frolic their innocent little heads off.

    Youth, if we may be allowed the phrase, was on the move. Attitudes were changing, almost unconsciously, in accordance with the changing times. (3.4.1.1)

    You what's really scary? Kids. No, really: wait until you get to be, say, thirty, and see if you don't start looking around anxiously when you approach a group of teenagers on the sidewalk. That's because youth is powerful—especially when it starts thinking about politics and revolution with no thought for personal consequences. There's a reason that your frontal lobe isn't fully developed until your mid-twenties.

    "A bunch of young scallywags, God save us, only just out of the nursery! If you gave their noses a tweak milk would come out. And they're to debate in public!" (3.5.6.15)

    From the ripe old age of 91, Monsieur Gillenormand is not impressed all these young people taking back the streets and becoming involved in politics. He thinks that these young hooligans are way too ignorant to talk about "grownup" issues. He's right in the short run—but in the long run, he and his kind had better watch out.

    Jean Valjean was the more unhappy of the two. Youth, whatever its griefs, still has its consolations. (4.3.8.1)

    When Jean Valjean and Cosette have to go through difficult times—like leaving yet another snug little nest because Javert keeps popping up—Jean Valjean is the one who really gets bummed. It's hard to be depressed for too long when you're young and beautiful, know what we mean?

    Youth and springtime, her love for her father, the brightness of birds and flowers, were by gradual degrees fostering in that young and virginal spirit something akin to forgetfulness." (4.5.1.1)

    Sure, Cosette misses Marius, but she can be easily distracted by other things, like birds and flowers. If only it were this easy for the rest of us to forget the …. Oh wait, was that a squirrel that just ran by?

    "Pity indeed! A youth your age asking pity of a man aged ninety-one! You're beginning life and I'm leaving it. (4.8.7.45)

    When Marius asks his grandfather for mercy, the man rolls his eyes at the fact that he has so much power over a young man in the prime of his life. Gillenormand is getting close to a hundred and Marius is barely past twenty—Marius should be the one pitying Gillenormand, and not the other way around. Well, that's easy to say when you're the one controlling the family fortune.

    "Youth profits and age provides. I've been young, and one day you'll be old." (4.8.7.95)

    When Monsieur Gillenormand sweetens up, he figures that the cycle of life and death is as natural as the rising and setting of the sun. And he's glad that in his old age, he has the money necessary to make sure that Marius has a fulfilling life while he's still young. Aw. He's just a big softy after all.

    "A young fool who went and fought instead of enjoying life. And for what? For a republic, instead of dancing, as a young man should do. What use is it to be twenty years old?" (5.3.12.20)

    Monsieur Gillenormand is offended that any young man would give his life for a political cause. In his mind, young men should spend their time dancing and flirting with women, not getting caught up in dirty politics. There's plenty of time for machination once pretty girls don't want to flirt with you anymore. (Wait, does that time ever come for powerful men?)

    Both were radiant in that supreme and unrepeatable moment, the union of youth and happiness. (5.6.2.6)

    The guests at Marius and Cosette's wedding can't help but feel inspired by how young, beautiful, and happy the pair is. You can bet that they're all frantically instagramming pictures of the mason jar table settings #mariusandcosette.

    You must live boldly each for the other, cling and caress, frantic only because you cannot do more. (5.6.2.22)

    Gillenormand wants Marius and Cosette to appreciate their young love, because it's not going to last. Thanks, party pooper. In his mind, love—like everything else—fades as you get older. But who's to say it doesn't get replaced with something even better?

  • Appearances

    Monsieur Bienvenu had what is called a handsome presence, but such was his amiability that his looks were forgotten. (1.1.13.6)

    Judging by appearances goes both ways. In this instance, Monseigneur Bienvenu (or Bishop Myriel) seems to succeed in spite of his good looks. In other words, people assume that he's shallow because he's so good-looking, and then they're surprised to find that he's a nice guy, too. Wow, it must be so hard to be hot!

    Ill-treatment had made her sullen and misery had made her ugly. Only the beauty of her eyes remained, and this was the more distressing because, being large, they mirrored a greater measure of unhappiness. (1.4.3.14)

    Poor Cosette has been so unhappy that she's actually become physically ugly. It's like all of the misery she's ever felt becomes visible in her eyes and posture. But the good news is that this kind of ugliness is reversible. All she needs is a few years of love (and probably some good nutrition), and she'll have a montage-worthy makeover.

    She smiled as she said it, and the candle lighted her face. It was a bloodstained smile. There were flecks of blood at the corners of her mouth and a wide gap beneath her upper lip. (1.5.10.50)

    Cosette's journey from ugliness to beauty is the mirror image of her mother's despairing fall from beauty. While Cosette escapes a horrible, ugly life with the Thénardiers, Fantine sinks deeper into despair—and ugliness. By the end of her life, Fantine is barely recognizable to us. At least she has a daughter to redeem herself, right?

    That aged forehead had none of the vertical wrinkles that betoken malice or stupidity. (2.8.1.6)

    When Jean Valjean becomes Monsieur Madeleine, takes on a completely new appearance. Now that he's doing well, Valjean's face looks old, but not bitter, with none of those nasty vertical lines which everyone knows indicate that you're mean and stupid. Gee, this is starting to sound like a really good argument for botox.

    For she learned to laugh, and as she did so her whole appearance changed, its darkness was dispelled. (2.8.9.9)

    The longer Cosette is free from the Thénardiers, the more beautiful she becomes. Are you clear on this yet? Suffering means ugliness; happiness means beauty. That's why all beautiful people are happy, obviously.

    Marius at this time was a handsome young man with thick, very dark hair, a high, intelligent forehead, wide, sensitive nostrils, a frank, composed bearing and an expression that was at once high-minded, thoughtful, and ingenious. (3.6.1.1)

    If you ask us, Hugo is going a little overboard in some of these descriptions, saying that Marius' wide nostrils mean that he is sensitive or his high forehead means he's intelligent. Rather than saying you shouldn't judge people by their appearances, he seems to be suggesting that you can actually know everything about people from their appearances. This was a common view in the nineteenth century, and there's even a name for it: physiognomy, or the idea that you can read character through the shape of the skull and face.

    Returning to his garret that evening Marius considered the clothes he was wearing, and for the first time was conscious of the fact that he had the slovenliness, the bad taste and oafish stupidity to walk in the Luxembourg in his everyday clothes. (3.6.3.6)

    Get with it, Marius—girls don't want no scrubs. Of course, Marius has never given his looks a single though until he realizes that someone else might be looking, too. Then it suddenly because super important whether he's wearing the right jeans.

    Her figure had filled out, her skin was finer, her hair more lustrous, and there was a new splendour in her blue eyes. (4.3.5.5)

    Cosette's transformation into a young beauty becomes completely when she passes through adolescence and gets into her mid-teens. (Because we all know that fifteen-year-olds are at the height of their physical beauty. What, did acne not exist in nineteenth-century France?) For Hugo, this is all just shorthand for indicting that she's recovered from the emotional abuse of the Théndardier's household.

    Instantly she knew all that there was to know about hats and gowns, cloaks, sleeves and slippers. (4.3.5.12)

    The moment Cosette looks in the mirror and thinks she's pretty, she develops an immediate interest in fancy clothing. We get the feeling Hugo didn't talk to many women, but okay. As nonsensical as this sentence is, we can accept that it's Hugo's way of showing that Cosette is going through an interior and exterior transformation.

    They drowsed wide-eyed in that cradled state, in the splendid beauty that at moments Marius closed his eyes; and that is the best way to see the soul, with the eyes closed. (4.8.2.6)

    Marius and Cosette make a beautiful couple inside and out, and for Hugo, this seems to be a big part of what makes them so great. It seems like beautiful people have an easier time in fiction as well as in life.

  • Religion

    "[You] do not care for the cruder aspect of truth. Christ cared. He drove the money-lenders from the temple. His scourge was a great teller of truths." (1.1.10.54)

    An old revolutionary official chats with Bishop Myriel about religion and suggests that people don't like to hear unpleasant truths—like that God can be very harsh and brutal when it comes to defending the greater good. For Hugo, religion isn't just a warm blanket that you pull over yourself on Sunday morning. In fact, it's far more likely to demand that you give up that blanket to a beggar on the street.

    "Progress must believe in God. The good cannot be served by impiety. An atheist is an evil leader of the human race." (1.1.10.77)

    Bishop Myriel believes that a secular world can never achieve social progress. God is the guiding star, and he despairs at the thought that an atheist could ever be a leader of humanity. It's a pretty common belief for the nineteenth century, so Hugo isn't exactly rocking the religious boat here.

    "Whom man kills God restores to life; whom the brothers pursue the Father redeems. Pray and believe and go onward into life." (1.1.4.11)

    Ex-con? No problem. All Bishop Myriel cares about is saving Jean's soul and putting him on the path to goodness. If you're looking for a positive example of what religion can do for the world, look no further than Bishop Myriel.

    He pondered on the greatness and the living presence of God, on the mystery of eternity in the future and, even more strange, eternity in the past, on all the infinity manifest to his eyes and to his senses; and without seeking to comprehend the incomprehensible he contemplated these things. (1.1.13.9)

    Bishop Myriel might be as near a saint as anyone in the book, but he isn't complacent about religion. He's unwaveringly kind, even as he wonders endlessly about all the things he doesn't know (and can never know) about God.

    "He who knows the answer to this knows all things. He is alone. His name is God. (1.5.11.6)

    When pushed to explain the meaning behind the story he's telling, Victor Hugo admits that only God really knows the truth behind human experience. Hugo is just a storyteller in the end, not a prophet. Does that make God the ultimate storyteller?

    In the case of a woman permission might be granted and they might talk through the closed shutters, which were opened only for a mother or sister. (2.6.2.24)

    Midway through this book, Jean Valjean and Cosette hide inside a convent to avoid capture by Inspector Javert. The nuns who live inside it aren't even allowed to speak to their own family face to face, because their choice of a holy life apparently prohibits them from engaging with the outside world. Here's the question: does Hugo seem to approve of this kind of religious life, or would he prefer these nuns to be out in the world doing good like Bishop Myriel?

    Marius clung to the religious habits of his childhood. (3.3.5.1)

    Old habits die hard. Marius has gone to church his entire life, and he figures that this is a good enough reason to keep going as he gets older. For Hugo, that's enough. Eventually, he suggests, that habit is going to turn into real faith. (That's why your mom keeps bugging you about going to church while you're in college.)

    As we can see, like all new converts to a religion, in the intoxication of his conversion he went too far. (3.3.6.17)

    Interesting. Given that Bishop Myriel and Valjean were both new converts at one point, could Hugo be saying that they went too far at one point? We're not sure Hugo really believes you can go too far with religion—but with revolution, definitely.

    "I have [a priest]," Jean Valjean replied; and he pointed upwards as though there were some other being present whom he alone could see. (5.9.5.61)

    When asked whether he wants a priest in his dying moments, Jean Valjean says he already has one and points to the ceiling. God? Maybe. But he might also be referring to the spirit of Bishop Myriel, who has always been the most important religious figure in Valjean's life.

    She was as rich in sorrow as you are in happiness. That is how God evens things out." (5.9.5.66)

    When Jean Valjean tells Cosette about her mother, he admits that Fantine had a very hard life. Bit in his mind, Cosette's wonderful life is God's way of balancing out the scales of cosmic justice. Uh, okay … so does this mean Cosette's children have to be miserable, to balance out her happiness?

  • Marriage

    They were an ugly and dreadful pair, the Thénardiers, a marriage of cunning and fury. (2.3.2.3)

    The Thénardiers show us that marriage isn't always a good thing. Sometimes it can bring two awful people together and just make them even more awful in the process. We don't generally go around recommending divorce (it's not really in our job description), but in this case we feel fairly confident that it would be a good move.

    If a man is a passionate lover of women but has a wife whom he does not greatly care for […] he has only one way of dealing with the situation and securing his own peace of mind, and that is to hand the purse-strings over to her. (3.2.5.1)

    This is a pretty shady piece of advice, since it basically tells us that a man can get away with adultery if he distracts his wife by giving her access to all the household money. Then again, this is Monsieur Gillenormand's theory, which means that Hugo probably wants us to take it with a grain of salt. Or maybe the whole salt shaker.

    No paradise becomes terrestrial in the age in which we live. The younger sister had married the man of her dreams, but she had died. The elder had never married at all. (3.2.8.2)

    Surprising no one, Hugo tells us that it's really hard to find pure joy while we're on this earth. You want that, you're going to have to wait for heaven. After all, whenever someone gets what they want in this book, they tend to either die young or lose their happiness quickly.

    "And so you want to get married – at the age of twenty-one. You've arranged it all except for one trifling formality – my consent. (4.8.7.58)

    Marius loves Cosette and Cosette loves Marius. Happily ever after, right? The only problem is that in the world of nineteenth-century France, this isn't enough. Marius also needs the consent of his grandfather for the marriage to go forward properly. And after years of estrangement, his grandfather isn't really in the mood to pat him benignly on the head. (To be fair, a lot of parents these days might suggest you wait a few more years after achieving legal drinking age.)

    "I beg of you, I beseech you in Heaven's name on my bended knees, to allow me to marry her!" (4.8.7.80)

    Marius has his pride, but he want Cosette even more. He'll even get down on his hands and knees and beg his grandfather, a man who has manipulated him his whole life and who robbed Marius of a chance to know his father. Problem is, he has to learn to stand up for Cosette, not kneel.

    "Two hundred pistols. Have your fun, and what could be better? That's how it should be. You don't marry, but that needn't stop you – you understand? (4.8.7.95)

    When things warm up between Monsieur Gillenormand and Marius, Gillenormand suggests that Marius should take this Cosette girl as a mistress and not throw his life away by marrying her. Gee, Grandpa. That's someone's little girl—and it's exactly the kind of thinking that destroyed Fantine's life.

    "Our marriage was impossible. I went to my grandfather, and he refused his consent. I have no fortune; neither have you." (4.14.7.10)

    Marius doesn't know what he's going to do once his grandfather holds back his consent for the marriage with Cosette. It was a really, really big deal to marry against the wishes of your family, and walking away from Monsieur Gillenormand means that Marius will have no shot of inheriting the family fortune—meaning that he'd be dooming them to a lifetime of poverty and, yep, suffering.

    Both were radiant in that supreme and unrepeatable moment, the union of youth and happiness. (5.6.2.6)

    They're going to the chapel and they're finally going to get married. No cold feet, plenty of money, and (grand)parental approval: it looks like our young lovers are in for a long, happy life.

    "A family! But I belong to no family, least of all yours. I am sundered from all mankind. There are moments when I wonder whether I ever had a father and mother. Everything ended for me with that child's marriage. (5.7.1.44)

    Marriage makes a new family, but it destroys an old one. Valjean's situation is only an extreme example of this. Now that Cosette has a new family and Valjean must stay away from her to keep his checkered past from ruining her new life.

    "Yet it would be wrong to blame Marius. As we have said, before his marriage Marius asked no questions of Monsieur Fauchelevent, and since then he had been afraid to question Jean Valjean. (5.9.1.2)

    Is Marius cruel for keeping Valjean at arm's length after his (Marius') marriage to Cosette? Well, to us he does seem cruel. But you have to remember that Valjean asked him to do it, and Marius doesn't know about all the sacrifices Valjean has made over the years. All he knows is that Valjean is an ex-con who may have murdered a police officer—so, yeah, not exactly someone you want to have at Sunday dinner.