Do the characters of “Les Misérables” represent “Good” and “Evil”?



Emily Goodwin





It must firstly be noted that none of the characters of “Les Miserables” is entirely “Good” or “Evil”. It is a much more complex matter. There is a “Yin and Yang” balance, where the seemingly “good” characters have aspects of a darker side, and “evil” characters show benevolence at times. The prime examples of this are the characters Valjean and Javert.


Valjean is widely viewed as the “good guy” and Javert the “bad guy”. This is a great misconception, as each character has elements of “good” and “evil” in him.


Valjean shows an “evil” streak when he steals the chimneysweep’s money, and the silverware from the bishop. He shows a much darker side when he flies into a rage with Marius and goes to the barricade with the unspoken intent to kill. Sometimes he strays from the path of good involuntarily. When Valjean leaves Fantine at the mercy of the factory workers, he unknowingly sets her demise in motion. However, in keeping with the popular viewpoint, the vast majority of his actions are benevolent, such as when he saves Cosette from Les Thénardiers. It is not just these good deeds, but also his determination, that make him a good person. It is more importantly the fact that he has awareness of the wrongs he has done, and of his darker side, and is ashamed. He sees the whole of the Yin and Yang, whereas Javert is only aware of his little Yang segment.


This does not, however, make Javert the “bad guy”, as he is classically viewed. Javert is not evil. He merely carries a different viewpoint to Valjean. While Valjean believes in people and humanity, Javert believes in the power of the law and that it is his duty to uphold the law. He believes that he is protecting society from Valjean. However, in upholding the law, he commits a number of acts that would seem to be morally incorrect, but lawfully right; such as when he tries to imprison Fantine for six months as she “attacked” a member of the bourgeoisie. In fact, it was self-defence, but as she is a prostitute, Javert took the word of the man with higher social status. Another case, which permeates the whole story, is Javert’s hunting of Valjean. Even after Valjean becomes mayor of Montreuil sur Mer, Javert refuses to yield. This truly shows how blinkered he is, that he cannot see the bigger picture – the good Valjean is doing, the employment he is creating, and the impoverished people he is helping – only the small part that concerns him: Valjean is an ex-convict who broke parole and must go back to prison.


Perhaps, in some way, they represent the turmoil of the French Revolution; Javert representing the rigidity of the Ancien Régime, and Valjean, the free thinking of the Enlightenment Movement. Like the two political situations, Valjean and Javert are both “good” people. It is their outlook on people that differs. Javert judges by lawful actions and Valjean by moral actions, and more importantly justice. By this judgement, both men are right.


There is a possibility to show a correlation between the men’s way of thinking and their religious beliefs. Javert sees Valjean as evil in the same narrow-minded way that the Church views non-worshippers. The fact that Valjean believes in God, but not the established Church serves to emphasise this. However, there is a deeper meaning which could be derived from this. Valjean is the more favoured of the two characters, yet he does not believe in the Church; Javert is a devout Christian, yet is less smiled upon. This would appear to be a comment on how the 19th century Church was run by men who often used their power for self-benefit. Perhaps that is the more evil side to “Les Miserables”; that the poor grow poorer while the rich grow richer at their expense.


The character closest to “evil” in “Les Misérables” is Monsieur Thénardier. His actions are solely centred upon helping himself with no thought of the impact of his actions. The fact that he makes his daughter put her hand through a pane of glass just to gain sympathy money shows this. It would appear that his character serves to provide a warning to those who might fall that dark way.


It would appear that blinkered narrow-mindedness and an inability to see the whole picture are commonly misconstrued as “evil” in “Les Misérables”. However, there is a definite balance between the states of mind of Valjean and Javert. To each of them, the other is wrong, but Javert had not been forced to question the law in the same way as Valjean. Indeed, when he is forced to review his deeds, he cannot handle the truth, and commits suicide. It could be said that “Les Misérables” then becomes unbalanced, leaning towards the “good” side of the spectrum as Javert’s “evil” doings (though not necessarily their effects) are erased with his death. This would indicate that Hugo is suggesting that the way forward is not through position and authority, but through caring and compassion.