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Valjean is the main character of the book. He is what 20 th century critics call an “anti-hero” in that he is an ordinary person who exerts extraordinary effort to not only survive, but to protect and defend those who are weaker than himself. In his self-sacrifice and his “lamb to the slaughter” image, he resembles Christ. In other ways he closely resembles Job in that he first considers himself a victim but gradually sees his own fault and becomes repentant and humble. His fate is severe because he is on the edge of social change. As a type he represents those who inspire change but are also the victim of its resistance. Because he lacked a close family relationship, his ability to love, to chose right from wrong, to defend the helpless, and to give even to those who did not deserve it all emerge from within his own being. He is as intelligent as Thenardier but uses his brains for good instead of evil. In fact, we could say that the two men are born into similar circumstances and that but for the intervention of the bishop, Valjean could have gone the way of evil. In fact, he would have had more reason than Thenardier to do so as his yellow passport would forever mark him as a convict. Javert, knowing he could not live a normal life under his true identity, apparently expected him to become a part of the criminal element of Paris and therefore hounded him to the point of persecution to try to pin some new crime on him and have him returned to the galleys for life. Valjean’s success in evading recapture is a result of constant vigilance as well as care in maintaining his anonymity.
Valjean also represents a sense of independence, a noble defiance of man’s law in favor of God’s law. Hugo alludes repeatedly to religious influences and to the presence of God in the life of Valjean. And it is the laws of God that seem to be asserting themselves for Javert when the human law fails him.
Javert is another type. As a character, he is static and relatively flat in that he is capable of thinking from only one perspective. He also is unable to cope with change especially where his personal values are concerned. He is neither good nor evil; he is simply the embodiment of the law, an entity that never questions itself and that proceeds to enact its own precepts without concern for its victims. His pursuit of Valjean is as close as he comes to making a vendetta personal, for to him Valjean represents an element which lives outside the law, and although little or no crime is committed, there is a lack of control which Javert sees as a threat to the guiding principle of his life.
Although a pivotal character, Cosette is almost static and flat. She is innocent throughout, passive with respect to the men in her life, and obedient to a fault even when such subservience makes her unhappy. The brief moments of self-awareness occur when she first realizes that she is pretty and when she meets Marius in her garden. Even then, she is powerless to do anything other than what Valjean wants. Her passivity is transferred to Marius once they are married. She is the doll, the saint of blind goodness and purity, the Cinderella who cannot function without her prince. The narrator simply presents her, allowing the other characters to fawn over her. He offers less editorial comment about her than any of the other major characters. Her saintliness is entirely the perceptions of others.
Eponine is the opposite of Cosette in many ways, but the contrast is ironic. Eponine is the legitimate daughter of the Thenardiers while Cosette was born out of wedlock, the offspring of a naive, love-sick girl and a playboy type student. Yet Eponine is submerged in the criminal element and only escapes drowning in it through her own high spirits and courage born of necessity. Cosette has almost anything she could want while Eponine has nothing, and the one thing Eponine does want (Marius) can never be hers. Eponine is the daughter of a known criminal, while Cosette is being foster-fathered by a secret one. Cosette’s innocence and purity is the result of a very sheltered life, of a lack of exposure to anything that might be a negative influence on her. Eponine has an understanding of human nature far beyond her years, and is not afraid to fight for what she wants. She knows how to manipulate people and situations to her own ends, yet she does so without malice. She is the same age as Cosette, but she acts much older. In reality, she is a child herself, starving for a touch of humanity and maintaining her own dignity in the face of overwhelming odds.
Little Gavroche reveals Hugo’s soft spot of the neglected waifs of Paris. Like his sister, he is immersed in the criminal element of Paris, but while he uses it to his own ends for survival, he is untainted by it. He is a bundle of spunk, of courage, and has a no-nonsense view of right and wrong. He will steal from other thieves, but his vandalism is often committed to the benefit of others in need. He is quick to do favors and just as quick to make sure he is in the middle of all the action. He is inventive, quick thinking, independent and non judgemental. In short, he is the most lovable character of the novel.
Thenardier is the epitome of evil. A continuous bane to Valjean, he is also the chief representative of the worst elements of French society. He is the product of laws that turn misdemeanors into major felonies, the outcome of a society where the honest poor can barely survive. His own lack of character leads him into a life of crime where his style of living is even worse than simply being poor. Yet, he is clever. He has the intelligence to rise above his circumstances, but chooses to use it for criminal ends.
Old Gillenormand is the one of the last of the old Bourgeois and is proud of it. He pretends that he is loyal to the old politics, but in reality it is the lifestyle that he misses. He loved the old extravagances, the lavish parties, the frolick of the popular and dashing courtier and was apparently one of them prior to the revolution. The probability of children who carry his genes if not his name is significant enough to prevent him from denying support to women who claim to have his children. His primary indulgence is in his grandson whose father made the mistake of devoting himself to the cause and army of Napoleon. For Marius to inherit a title, which had been given by someone Gillenormand views as an upstart imposter is the most unbearable of insults. Nevertheless, the old man’s primary weakness is also his grandson’s-sheer stubbornness. He is not willing to accept change especially when it seems centered in his own household where he cannot ignore it.
Marius’ primary purpose in the novel is to lure Cosette away from Valjean and to bring Valjean to the point of ultimate self denial and self sacrifice. Throughout the novel he is immature if not somewhat shallow. He grows up quickly when forced to make a decision whether to go on moping in self pity or to take action in a cause. Even then, if he had not believed he had lost Cosette, it is doubtful whether he would have become involved in the insurrection. He cares for his friends but has been raised in a sheltered environment and is spoiled. He does not understand the political ideals of the ABC anymore than he does those of Napoleon. He idolizes the glory of Napoleon for the sake of the glory and is likewise in love with love as much as he is with Cosette. She is for him the angel of submission and will adore him blindly without ever asking him justify his desires or opinions. Marius is probably the weakest character in the novel, but is non-the-less a catalyst for Valjean’s salvation.