Good Example Of Les Miserables. Essay
Type of paper: Essay
Topic: Determinism, Literature, Books, Criminal Justice, Prison, Law, Actions, Crime
Victor Hugo, authored the book Les Miserables in 1862, Hugo had begun to write the book at least twenty years earlier. Hugo’s remains among the most venerated and popular names as far as French literature is concerned. In fact, he is considered as a leader of the Romantic Movement in matters of literature. Throughout the 19th Century, Hugo’s books were considered cultural fixtures. In the book Les Miserables, Hugo employs imaginative realism where each of the major characters in the book identifies with an issue of social concern during that period. Hugo uses his writing to promote political causes and particularly to challenge the social issues he feels are important. Les Miserables thus, is a humanitarian masterpiece that champions compassion and advocates hope, particularly when confronted by injustice and adversity. Historically also, the book provides insight into 19th Century politics and society in France. He weaves a story of redemption while documenting with meticulous care the injustices in France at the time. This is in the hope of encouraging a future that is more democratic, and progressive. In the book, Hugo portrays his belief in the concept of determinism, using various major and minor characters to bring it out. Determinism is a philosophical doctrine that asserts that all events have causative factors and that all things in the world, including moral choices, are a result of external causes. This paper discusses the concept of determinism as brought out by Hugo’s characters in Les Miserables.
In the book, one of the major characters is Jean Valjean. Valjean is the central focus of the book and brings out the theme of the ability of compassion and love to reform or redeem a person. The book’s plot revolves around Valjean's release from prison after serving a total term of nineteen years, which comprise of an initial five-year term for stealing a loaf of bread and then subsequent years for his frequent attempts to escape (Hugo and Denny Part One, II). The book then charts Valjean’s arrival after his release, in the town of Digne and the people’s treatment of an ex-convict.
Later on, we learn of Valjean’s subsequent transformation, even becoming mayor of Montreuil after changing his name to Monsieur Madeleine (Hugo and Denny Part One, VI). However, even as mayor and in his now reformed life, he is still haunted by his past and cannot escape from it. This past catches up with him when he makes the decision to expose himself as Valjean the criminal instead of allowing an innocent man to go to jail. The issue of determinism is brought out explicitly when Monsieur Madeleine must make this decision to expose his true identity. The reference to the black vein of destiny running through the block of marble from which our lives are shaped is evidence of Hugo’s belief that Valjean’s actions are predetermined by some certain conditions.
The first instance where Hugo uses Valjean to bring out the issue of determinism occurs in the opening chapters of the book. When we are first introduced to Valjean, he has just been released from jail after serving nineteen years. Valjean had initially been jailed for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his starving family (Hugo and Denny Part one, II).
The concept of determinism states that it is the conditions that people are under, as well as the events that are in occurrence in their lives, that lead to them behaving in a certain way. In this instance, determinism is evident, in that it is due to the fact that Valjean’s family are starving that he decides to engage in theft. Valjean himself is not a criminal at heart, but he is compelled to engage in theft by the circumstances his family is under. The next instance where Hugo uses Valjean to demonstrate determinism arises in jail where Valjean keeps attempting to escape, which leads to his continued incarceration. Valjean attempts multiple escapes because of the tough and brutal conditions of the prison (Hugo and Denny Part One, II). The poor conditions in the prison are what keep influencing his actions of breaking the law as opposed to his own free will.
Another instance where events and causes inform Valjean’s actions is immediately after his arrival in Digne. Valjean arrives in Digne a haggard and disheveled character. He has recently been released from prison, and he has walked the whole day. Dressed in torn clothes, he is tired and hungry. Valjean arrives in Digne and heads straight to the first inn he sees. The inn is known as the Trois Dauphins. At this inn, he enters and immediately, the innkeeper doubts him because of his shabby looks. Once at the inn, Valsjean requests for bed and board. The innkeeper informs him of the availability of both, and he is looking forward to enjoying a nice dinner.
Valjean, at this point, is not even contemplating anything criminal. He has money and is ready to pay for the facilities. However, the innkeeper sends word to the Mairie to enquire about the identity of this traveler. On receiving word that the man is an ex-convict, the innkeeper becomes hostile towards him, refusing to both accommodate him, and sell food to him. Valjean is driven away hungry and tired.
At the next inn, Valjean has to endure the same treatment, being seen as an outcast. Even in the prison, Valjean is denied entry. This rejection everywhere leads him to exclaim that he is even lesser than a dog (Hugo and Denny Part One, II). Such treatment is what causes Valjean to turn into a hardcore criminal with no qualms about engaging in undesirable behavior. Hugo uses the reaction and treatment of the people of Digne towards Valjean to show why he is the way he is. Thus, his actions have been determined by the past events he has gone through.
Determinism is also evident in Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop of Digne. Valjean arrives at the bishop’s house after being directed there by a woman who tells him he would be received there. Valjean informs the Bishop of his identity, and how he has been turned away from every door he has knocked upon because of his past.
The Bishop, however, unlike the others, addresses him with respect, even referring to him as Monsieur. He invites the ex-convict to share dinner with him and warm himself by his fireplace. The Bishop also offers him a bed for the night and refuses to accept payment for everything.
Valjean cannot believe how incredibly good the Bishop is. However, in the middle of the night, Valjean wakes up and steals the silver candlesticks, with which he then flees. However, he does not go far as he is seized and brought back to the church. The Bishop corroborates his story and thus he is released. However, the Bishop makes Valjean promise to use the proceeds from the silver items to better himself (Hugo and Denny Part One, IV).
Valjean’s description of his experiences in prison show us how these contributed in his transformation from the man he was when he had been jailed, to the remorseless and ruthless criminal who had exited the prison cells. Whereas he does not have to steal from the Bishop, he goes ahead and does it. This is because it seems as if society expects that from him. Prison has changed him from an honest man to one who views himself as a criminal and expects to be treated as such. This leads to criminal behavior.
The encounter with the Bishop also brings another dimension to determinism. Valjean’s meeting with the Bishop sparks a change in him. Although this transformation is not immediately apparent since he still goes ahead to steal from the Bishop, it is evident later on. For instance, Valjean feels remorseful later on when he steals the coin from the little boy. Whereas the Valjean of old would have had absolutely no remorse over such an act.
However, determinism is evident in the way the Bishop’ kindness causes the hardcore criminal Valjean to question himself, and eventually puts him on the path to redemption. The encounter also has a bearing on Valjean’s subsequent acts of philanthropy, which he does as Monsieur Madeleine (Hugo and Denny Part One, V). Since the Bishop took pity on him, he also feels obliged to help others in similar situations. Therefore, these encounters help to shape his subsequent actions, a key element of determinism.
Hugo also uses Valjean to express determinism when he makes the decision to expose himself in order to protect an innocent man from being jailed. This situation occurs at the point where Inspector Javert, who has all along harbored suspicions that the mayor, Monsieur Madeleine, is in fact Jean Valjean in disguise, sets out to inform Madeleine that Valjean has been arrested. Javert offers to resign for falsely accusing the mayor of being a criminal, before indicating that the man who has been arrested, Champmathieu is to stand trial at Arras. Javert indicates that even he is on his way there to give evidence.
Being a changed man and remembering his vow to become a new man, Valjean sets out for Arras in order to exonerate the innocent man. This he does by exposing intimate details about the inmates who had positively identified the fake Valjean. These are details that only the real Valjean could have any knowledge of. Thus, they have no choice but to positively identify him, leaving the court stunned in silence.
This is clear evidence of determinism because Valjean is unwilling to see another man suffer in his place while he goes free, which is in keeping with the transformation that he has undergone after the meeting with the Bishop. The situation in the courtroom mirrors the one where Valjean met the Bishop. In this case, the man persecuted by society is Champmathieu while his rescuer is Valjean. Valjean sacrifices himself for Champmathieu, just as the Bishop did for him, by lying on his behalf and giving him the candlesticks (Hugo and Denny Part One, VII).
One of the other primary characters in Les Miserables is the gendarme, Inspector Javert. Hugo casts Javert in the role of a very committed and arguably even overzealous law enforcement officer. Javert is obsessed with enforcement of the law, and this fixation blinds him to the failings of the very same law he endeavors to implement. Javert is so rigid in his belief that he never stops to consider whether the law is just or not. In his eyes, when the law rules that a man is guilty, then so he is. His is not to question the law, but rather to implement it, almost robotically.
Thus, Inspector Javert’s portrayal as a villainous character makes it very difficult to sympathize with him. However, a deeper reflection into this individual is important in understanding exactly how Hugo uses him to bring out determinism (Hugo and Denny Part One, VI).
We are first introduced to Inspector Javert when the unknown traveler, Valjean comes into town. After he learns of the man’s presence, Javert is convinced that he can be up to no good, given his reputation and his history. Thus, when he later arrests him with the stolen jewelry, he leads him right back to the church in order to confirm whether he is telling the truth. On obtaining confirmation, he releases Valjean, albeit somehow reluctantly.
The reason Javert pursues criminals so overzealously can be attributed to his own origin. Javert’s own upbringing is as a gypsy, and this is something he is immensely ashamed of. Hence, he realizes that his own background does not differ largely from that of the men he pursues so diligently. It is an attempt to make up for the shame of his own roots that drives him to be so passionate in his drive to see criminals locked up (Hugo and Denny Part One, VI).
The other situation in which Javert brings out determinism is in his behavior when Valjean finally proves to him that a man is not necessarily evil just because the law has branded him a criminal. This occurs during the barricade when the insurrection. Javert is exposed as a spy within the rebel ranks and is held awaiting execution by the insurgents.
At this time, Valjean has also joined the revolution, and he offers to execute the traitor just before the commencement of the final assault. However, Valjean spares Javert’s life and sets him free.
Later on, after the last remaining defenders have been forced back into the wine shop, Valjean flees through the sewers of Paris while carrying the injured Marius. However, Javert is waiting to apprehend him at the exit. He arrests Valjean but allows him to take Marius to his father.
Later on, Javert also releases Valjean. Javert though, cannot bear to live with the realization that he will live an unethical life. Plagued by the realization that his life may, after all, be dishonorable, Javert commits suicide by jumping into the Seine.
This shows determinism since it is the realization of what he has done, the betrayal of the principles that he has held dear for so long, that leads him to take his own life. Thus, his course of action is determined by his previous beliefs and practices (Hugo and Denny Part Three, V).
Another character who Hugo uses to portray determinism is Cosette. Cosette is Fantine’s daughter, who has been left in the care of the Thenardiers. The Thenardiers use this duty of care to extort exorbitant amounts of money from Fantine in the name of upkeep for her daughter.
Despite this, the money is rarely ever used for Cosette, and she continues to suffer in squalor. However, Valjean makes a promise to Fantine on her deathbed that he will take care of Cosette. Under Valjean’s care, Cosette is transformed from an ill-treated and unhappy girl into a well-educated person. Hugo uses the theme of love to bring out the concept of determinism.
Through the story of Cosette falling in love with Marius, who is different from her in all regards, Hugo attempts to show us that human actions are not determined by our free will. Instead, some destiny makes things happen. Marius and Cosette are predestined to fall in love and as such, they are not the authors of their own destiny. Instead, Hugo states that the two are drawn together by fate (Hugo and Denny Part Three, VI).
Yet another character used to discuss determinism is Napoleon. Determinism in his case is brought out in Hugo’s description of the Battle of Waterloo, and Napoleon’s defeat during this battle. Hugo argues that even this great historical event did not just happen. Rather, he postulates that the defeat is a result of destiny. As the divine stenographer says, the defeat is the result of a combination of accidents. Factor such as the rain on the fateful night, to the guide who misled Napoleon and the Hougomont wall, are mentioned. Hugo appears to suggest that these events did not all just happen by coincidence, but instead, they were all part of a grand scheme of things that is directly attributable to providence.
Hugo also uses the description of events here to predict that the Revolution would not die even in the face of defeat since it was regarded as an inevitable occurrence. Even history is the result of a divine will that plays out through chance. Human beings have no control over such events. In other words, their fate, just like Napoleon’s at Waterloo, is already determined. Human beings can thus do nothing to avoid this fate but can only accept it (Hugo and Denny Part Two, I).
In conclusion, it is evident that Hugo was a firm believer in the concept of determinism. This is in spite of the fact that the idea as a philosophical concept had yet to be identified. However, the concept runs strongly throughout the entirety of the book. Hugo talks of a “black vein of destiny” (Hugo and Denny 174) which clearly points out his belief in matters being predetermined. The actions of all the major characters are not theirs independently. These actions are the result of certain factors, which influence the people to act the way they do. The individuals do not have free reign over their actions. Hugo supports the assertion that an individual cannot be held responsible for this actions since certain influence predisposes him to be like that. Jean Valjean is a criminal and an unsavory character because of the way the world treats him. The society treats him like a pariah and an outcast, and he reciprocates by engaging in criminal activity. This is despite the fact that his initial brush with the law is to save his starving family. Inspector Javert, on the other hand, has such rabid commitment because he believes it is a way of atoning for his father’s own criminal behavior. Events too, do not just occur. They are the result of carefully planned destiny as illustrated by Marius and Cosette falling in love or by Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
Hugo, Victor and Norman Denny. Les Misérables. London: Penguin Books, 1982.