Study Guide

Les Misérables Appearances

By Victor Hugo

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.