Wait, did you think that a book called Les Misérables was going to be all sunshine and rainbows? (Of course you didn't; you're Shmoopers.) The stinkin' book has "suffering" in its very name, so no surprises here: pretty much everyone in all 1,200 pages suffers in some way. Okay, so suffering in a big fancy house with a lot of money is probably easier than suffering on the street, but the point is that life is hard. No matter who you are. It just is. That's probably why two of the most important qualities you can have in Victor Hugo's world are faith and resilience.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo says that suffering will always exist. You just need to make sure that someone else does the suffering and not you.
Les Misérables wants us to know that our lifelong duty is to take away other people's suffering in whatever way we can.
Is Hugo a socialist? (Would it matter if he were?) You can debate all day about that—although not with us, please—but the hard truth is that you can't have greed on one side of society without having poverty on the other. That's just math. Once some people start having way more than they need, others will have way less than they need, at least until someone invents the replicator. (Um, science folk, please get on that, kthanks.)
In any case, socialism or not, it's safe to say that Les Misérables shows poverty to be one of the greatest evils of the modern world. And, in blaming poverty for people's action rather than actions for people's poverty, he's got a pretty modern take on it, too.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo suggests that we can only help people on an individual basis, since it's impossible to end poverty it in the long run.
Les Misérables is nothing more than a 1200-page brick of socialist propaganda.
Ah, family. They love you, they encourage you, they … throw you out on the street if they can't feed you. Wait, what? In Les Misérables, family feeling is a luxury for the rich—and then, only if they happen to agree with your every word. (Ahem, Monsieur Gillenormand.) But it's not all gloom and doom. Hugo also shows that family can be the greatest thing in the world, even, or maybe especially, for people who aren't blood relatives. Just look at how much Jean Valjean and Cosette bring to one another's lives.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo shows us that "family" refers to whoever you love. It's not just a blood relation.
In Les Misérables, we learn that family can be a burden just as much as a blessing.
Les Misérables spends a lot of time moaning over the poorest and most downtrodden members of French society, but don't let the sentimentalism fool you. Hugo's hiding a sharp tongue beneath all the misery, and he uses it to attack the social power structures that make horrifying poverty possible in the first place. Sure, there are some jerks like Thénardier who deserve to be poor. But they're way, way outnumbered by those who don't deserve to be. And Hugo knows just who to blame: those who hold the power, especially when they've done nothing to deserve it—like unelected kings and rich old aristocrats. Vive la France!
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo takes a Darwinistic approach to society and basically says, "Sorry, but only the strong get to survive."
In Les Misérables, we learn that the only duty in life worth pursuing is helping those who are powerless.
You're only young once—but in the world of Les Misérables, even that might be too long. Childhood in nineteenth century France is not some draw-out idyll of eating popsicles, drawing hearts in your Lisa Frank notebook, and scheming up ways to get out of doing your homework. Instead, it looks a lot more like scrounging for scraps on the streets, sleeping in hollow elephants, and trying to avoid physical abuse at the hands of the nearest. The flip side? If anything is going to change the world, it's going to be the idealism and optimism of the young.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo shows us that young people can be a truly transformative force in society once they start caring about something.
In Les Misérables, we learn that youth should be a time of ignorance and enjoyment, but that's not what most young people get to experience.
Appearances matter—especially in the nineteenth-century, when most people really did believe you could judge a book by its cover. Hugo tries to get us to be less prejudiced about judging people by their appearances—he's the guy who wrote a whole book about a misunderstood hunchback, after all—but the fact remains that nearly every character in Les Misérables tends to size other people up before they've even had a chance to speak. And how often are they wrong? In the long run, even Hugo seems to think that good on the outside equals good on the inside.
In Les Misérables, people's appearances tend to tell us everything we need to know about them.
Les Misérables shows us that we should never judge a book by its cover or a person by their appearance.
Fact: the world is full of suffering. Also fact: sometimes the people who suffer are harmless, like Fantine, or innocent, like Cosette. Now, you could certainly take this undeniable fact and run with it, saying that the existence of suffering is proof either that God doesn't exist or that God does exist and he's not actually all that good. On the other hand, you could say that the world is full of suffering and therefore we all need to get religion, believe firmly in God and heaven, and know that all of our suffering will be paid back in full—as long as we live good lives, helping the less fortunate and always acting morally. Can you guess which side Les Misérables is on?
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo shows us that religion is one of the only things that can save us from the crushing power of greed.
We learn in Les Misérables that religion is whatever people make of it. For judgmental people, it's an excuse to be judgmental. For nice people, it gives inspiration to be nice.
Mawwiage is what bwings us together … unless it's driving us apart. In the first half of the book, marriage is just one more stick of suffering to add to the pile. The absence of marriage causes Fantine's suffering; the Thénardier's marriage doesn't seem to be bringing them much pleasure; and the happiest people we meet are the single ones. But, as with so many other themes, the second half of Les Misérables turns it all around to focus on getting Cosette and Marius hitched—and all they have to do is survive a bloody revolt in the process. Hm, it sounds like Hugo might think of marriage as the ultimate solution to a world in conflict with itself.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo shows us that whatever horrible things might happen to us in life, getting married can make them all better.
In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo shows us that marriage should give us a model for love that we should bring to all of our human relationships.