Study Guide

Les Misérables Themes

  • Suffering

    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.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What is the biggest cause of suffering in Les Misérables? Why?
    2. Who tends to suffer most in this book? Is their suffering redeemed in any way?
    3. How does Thénardier react to other people's suffering? How is this reaction different from that of someone like Jean Valjean?
    4. How does Bishop Myriel's treatment of Jean Valjean set the tone for the rest of this book?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Poverty

    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.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Are there any specific characters in this book who are responsible for making others poor? Why or why not?
    2. How does Bishop Myriel react to poor people? Do you think his efforts make a real difference in the long run? Why or why not?
    3. How does Jean Valjean lift himself out of poverty after meeting Bishop Myriel? What is Myriel's role in this transformation?
    4. How does Marius deal with being poor after Monsieur Gillenormand kicks him out? How is his "educated" poverty better than the "uneducated" poverty of the Thénardiers who live next door to him?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Do you think that Jean Valjean's attachment to Cosette is an appropriate one? What about when he starts to feel jealous toward Marius? Are there other examples of family attachments that seem a little questionable?
    2. How would you describe the family dynamics of the Thénardiers? Who gets treated well? Who poorly? Why?
    3. Do you think that on the whole, Victor Hugo has a positive or negative view of family? Support your answer with evidence from the text.

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Power

    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!

    Questions About Power

    1. Do you think Hugo exclusively blames rich and powerful people for the poverty in French society? Why or why not?
    2. What solution do you think Hugo would recommend for helping the powerless? What evidence supports this view?
    3. Why does the ABC Society participate in a revolt in the last third of this book? What political change are they hoping to accomplish?
    4. Why do you think Inspector Javert devotes his life to serving power and authority? Can you support your answer with evidence from the text?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Youth

    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.

    Questions About Youth

    1. What does Fantine's relationship with Tholomyès tell us about youth? How could you read it as a warning about being young and inexperienced?
    2. Why does the young Gavroche never show fear? How has his life on the street molded his character?
    3. Is Monsieur Gillenormand jealous of Marius' youth? Why or why not? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    4. How do the members of the ABC Society decide to spend their youth? Why?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Is Victor Hugo being a hypocrite when he asks us not to judge people by their appearances? After all, aren't most of the "bad" characters in this book pretty unpleasant to look at?
    2. Are there any examples of characters in this book who are more than meets the eye? Who?
    3. Why does Jean Valjean dress in a poor person's clothing, even though he's rich? Support your view with evidence from the text.

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Religion

    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?

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you think religion helps give a sense of redemption for all the suffering that characters in this book endure, or is it just an empty comfort?
    2. Do you agree with the government official who tells Bishop Myriel that religion is just for poor people with no sense of hope other than their faith in God? Why or why not?
    3. What role does religion play in making Jean Valjean a better person? Do you think he'd still be the same guy without religion in his life? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
    4. Does Hugo ever portray religion in a negative way? Where and why?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Marriage

    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.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Do you buy the whole story about Tholomyès ditching Fantine while she's pregnant and treating it as a joke? Is anyone really this inconsiderate? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Marius' grandfather object to Marius' wedding with Cosette? What changes his mind?
    3. How does Jean Valjean first react to the idea of Marius marrying Cosette? Support your answer with evidence from the text.
    4. What sticky situation does Cosette's wedding put Jean Valjean in? How does he deal with it?

    Chew on This

    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.