Les Misérables as a Bildungsroman

A bildungsroman form of narrative recounts the development of an individual from childhood to maturity to the point at which the protagonist recognizes his/her path and role in the world. A book that follows this style is often called an apprenticeship novel, novel of formation or coming-of-age novel. It includes two subtypes — Erziehungsroman and Künstlerroman of which the former is concerned with the protagonist’s moral, psychological or spiritual development from childhood to maturity, whereas the latter is about the artistic recognition of the central character’s potential as he/she matures. An important feature of this kind of narrative is the major change or transition in the protagonist’s life and its continuity. The novel in study is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo which follows the Bildungsroman type of narrative.

Victor Hugo, born in a family of minor nobility, is truly one of France’s most beloved writers with his works translated in numerous other languages. Hugo’s writing career covers the Romantic as well as the Realistic-Naturalistic movements in French literary history. Though he has a number of dramas (e.g.-Hernani) and novels (e.g.-The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to his credit, Les Misérables continues to be regarded as his veritable magnum opus.

The plot commences with the release of Jean Valjean, a convict after nineteen years in prison. Wandering since four days, he desperately is in need of food and lodging but is kicked out of every inn due to his yellow passport pronouncing him an ex-convict. He is finally directed to the house of Bishop Myriel a saintly person who not only accepts him but also honours him with kindness and respect that he could find nowhere for him. However, either out of habit or contempt for the ‘them’, he finds himself surreptitiously awaking in the middle of the night, stealing the Bishop’s silverware, holding a weapon, ready to strike in case he wakes up. However, the police prevented his escape, and bring him back to the Bishop to confirm theft for which he would be sentenced to life imprisonment. However, to Jean Valjean’s utter astonishment, the Bishop affirms that the silverware was a gift by him and that he forgot to take the silver candlesticks as well. The Bishop adds, “Don’t forget that you promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.” However he doesn’t wholly transform there. While in an isolated road, he steals a coin from a peripatetic child called Petit Gervais. However, this despicable act made him feel disgusted and ashamed of himself, and becomes his last wicked deed. He is remorseful and seeks penitence and redemption for the rest of the years to come. He became a man with simple needs whose life was driven by charity for the deprived and marginalized.

Jean Valjean

Valjean’s conversion is believable as he wasn’t innately born cruel, or heartless. Since his birth he was dragged into the viciousness of poverty and was forced to labour day and night to provide for his widowed sister and her children after his parents’ death, thus resulting in no involvement whatsoever in his own spiritual development. He was imprisoned for a simple crime of stealing a loaf of bread in order to save his starving family and his term was extended to nineteen years for trying to escape prison. Being locked-up as a juvenile not only dampened his potential to become a good person but also unveiled the worst in him. There sprouted an extreme abhorrence and antisocial worldview which was only worsened by the continuous hostility he faced even after his release.

Victor Hugo

Thus Hugo was able to make readers empathize with Valjean and pronounce his treatment by the society unfair and unfortunate. His transformation gradually progresses as he does not incredibly or miraculously get converted by the priest’s saintliness but realizes the evil pervading in his soul when he spontaneously reacts to Petit Gervais in the most malicious way possible. That moment is eye-opening and causes him to repent. He resolves to not do what the world has done unto him.

His spiritual conversion is however, frequently tried. When he changes his identity and assumes the role of a mayor as M. Madeleine, there comes a time when Javert, the law fanatic, incorruptible police officer books a man who he mistook for the most wanted fugitive, Jean Valjean for stealing the penny from a boy years ago. When Valjean learns about this injustice, after much emotional turmoil, he decides to capitulate himself at the court of Arras. However he hastily also requests to travel to the inn of the Thenardiers to collect a little girl, Cosette and bring her back to her mother, Fantine who lies on her deathbed. When he is not granted permission to do so, he flees. His intentions are good and returning to prison would thwart his potential to help the needy. At Fantine’s deathbed, he vows to provide parental care to her illegitimate daughter and frees Cosette from the vicious clutches of the malevolent and greedy Thenardiers. Always on the run either from Javert or the Thenardiers, who want Cosette back to demand more money, Valjean shuts himself from the society because of his haunting past. Cosette and Jean Valjean become each other’s world, an inseparable duo of father and daughter. Thus when in adolescence Cosette falls in love with Marius, an idealistic student, Valjean experiences great sadness and fears to lose her forever, whereas Cosette who has never been given a reason for being away from Marius grieves as well.

Victor Hugo’s original 1862 manuscript of Les Misérables

“As long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, a social damnation artificially creating hells in the midst of civilization and complicating divine destiny with a human fatality . . . books like this cannot be useless.” these words by Hugo in the preface of the novel clearly assert the purpose of Les Misérables. Hugo chooses exemplifying the most extreme sort of spiritual transition i.e. of a convict to a saintly figure as he wishes to emphasize the possibility of nurturing a person such that he/she reaches their fullest potential, and this is portrayed best in the use of bildungsroman type of narrative. He puts forth a strong message about how even the downtrodden, poor, marginalized, and indigent, the presumed pathetic vagabond, the perceived incorrigible convict is capable of virtuous deeds, of kindness, sympathy and love. In Valjean, he portrays supreme love be it in the form of helping a prostitute, caring for his workers, or helping the less fortunate. Cosette is his entire world; she is the child who taught him to be a better person in her innocence and purity. Thus, when she goes away he no longer is able to carry on with life. Hugo tries to convince his readers about the immensity of spiritual possibilities that each person has within themselves and asserts that even the most pathetic, wretched person deserves to be given a chance to discover him/herself. His works also made thinkers of the nineteenth century to reconsider the legal system and turn to rehabilitation of criminals rather than their imprisonment alone. Thus the bildungsroman type of narrative does full justice to the idea behind the novel and helps to clearly define, its purpose and bring out its essence successfully.


Hi! I’m Audrey, a writer, editor, and hoarder of good books, films, and music. I mostly review stuff and add a bit of myself in the process of writing them.

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