In his novel, Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo makes a strong statement about society being the cause for evil in man. Les Miserables is based on a poor man, Jean Valjean, who was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving baby. Valjean is sentenced to 20 years for his crime, and, when he is released, he is shunned for his past, which he has more than paid for. Society turns him out at every turn for his past crime, and will hear no excuses for his deed. With this scenario, Hugo shows the cruelty of a ‘civilized’; world that would cause a man to suffer unending prejudice for stealing a single loaf of bread to feed a small child.
As the ill treatment continues, Valjean becomes more and more bitter toward society. He probably would have been pushed too far, and would have lashed out against his aggressors, if he had not been shown kindness by the church. Valjean was taken in by a kindly Bishop, who fed him and offered him a place to stay. Valjean, however, had already fallen partially from the light of reason and when all the others were asleep he stole the silver dinner ware and fled into the night. This act again can be blamed on society for Valjean, realizing that because of his criminal record he would probably never again be able to obtain a job and support himself, saw stealing the silverware as his only choice.
Had he not been caught and returned to the Bishop, Valjean probably would have been forced into a life of corruption. However, to his surprise, the priest told the police he had made a present of the silver to Valjean. He even gave Valjean the two silver candlesticks he had not taken. When the police left, the Bishop explained his action, saying that with his act of kindness, he had bought Valjean’s soul for god and that Valjean must now live a life of good in return. Valjean was saved from his downward spiral of decay, showing the author Hugo’s high regard for some parts of the Church. However, Valjean continually tried to turn his life around, and although many times it seemed as if he had succeeded, his past and an ignorant society always caught up with him, forcing him to once again flee to rebuild his life.
Hugo also uses the Thenardiers as an example of society’s corruption. They may even be Hugo’s ultimate view of society’s problems. They are a family of despicable thieves and con-artists. They first appear when they agree to take in Cosette, but only so that they can later force Fantine to pay them endless expenses for Cosette’s well-being. Of course, the Thenardiers never intended for any of the money to be used on Cosette. Instead, they spend it on themselves and their own daughters.
The endless bills sent by the Thenardiers become so great, Fantine can barely support herself, because she sends all her money to Cosette. Eventually, the foreman of the factory learns Fantine has a daughter and no husband. Because of the society they live in, he and the other workers believe she must be a whore and she is fired. With no other choice, Fantine must sell herself to make money for her daughter. As the Thenardiers continue to demand more money, the stress becomes too great and Fantine sickens and dies as a result – yet another example of Hugo’s opinion of a sick society.
The Thenardiers next appear conning wealthy families into giving them money with letters of pity. One of their potential victims is Valjean, who had taken Cosette from them years ago. When he brings his donation, which the Thenardiers believe to be too paltry, they attack Valjean, until the police arrive and stop them. Unfortunately, Javert has recognized Valjean and he is once again forced to go into hiding to escape society’s prejudices.
As the story continues, Thenardier continues to appear and cause trouble for all around him. He organizes a small unsuccessful gang to murder Valjean. After their failing, Thenardier goes into hiding. He next appears in the sewers and charges Valjean, who is carrying a half dead Marius, to unlock the gate. Thenardier would surely have left them to die, however he did not recognize Valjean or Marius, both being covered in filth. Eventually, he did realize who he had seen and went immediately to Marius’s house to make one final attempt to ruin Valjean. Fortunately, his plan back-fired and he only succeeded in improving Marius’s opinion of Valjean.
Hugo created a more than adequate window into his view of society’s problems with Les Miserables. He showed how a civilized society can in many ways be very uncivilized. To show his beliefs, he uses the example of Jean Valjean, a man condemned to a life of running and hiding from the accusations of society, all for stealing a single loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Despite turning his life around and doing whatever he could to help those in need, he was still forced to run and hide whenever his past was discovered. He had been branded evil by society and nothing he did could ever change that.
Hugo then introduced us to a family that represented everything wrong with society, the Thenardiers. They exemplified the greed, deceit, uncaring, and corruption of society, constantly doing harm to those around them. Hugo does not, however, believe that society is all-encumbering, for he does allow Valjean to die happy. If one is strong enough in will and desire, one can defeat society’s corruption. Unfortunately, in Hugo’s view, few possess that strength.