What is the significance of Cravatte’s encounter with the bishop of Digne? How does their interaction illuminate the novel’s major themes?
In Les Misérables, the brief appearance of the character Cravatte introduces Hugo’s idea that prejudice can constrict and impoverish a bigot’s life. By ignoring society’s condemnation of Cravatte and believing the best about this troubled man, the bishop allows himself a richness of experience and a sense of calmness that he wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. Similarly, in many of the brief parables Hugo tells about the bishop, a rejection of prejudice permits the aging hero to have a varied, loving, and peaceful life. Panning outward, Hugo shows that bigotry takes a great toll on characters such as Javert and M. Gillenormand. Cravatte thus demonstrates Hugo’s simple notion that a solid trust in the essential good nature of human beings, rather than a rigid policy of suspicion toward people who are different, provides a person with an easier, fuller life.
The bishop’s interaction with Cravatte dramatizes Hugo’s idea that prejudices senselessly constrict and damage people’s lives. The bishop’s community tries to prevent the bishop from seeing a group of people he loves simply because a criminal, Cravatte, is at large in their region. The community tries to hamper the bishop with gendarmes, even though the bishop has nothing on his person that Cravatte might want to steal. Because of his faith in man’s goodness, the bishop not only travels alone and safely to his friends, but he also moves Cravatte to return the religious items he had stolen on an earlier raid. The bishop implies that refusing to travel, or traveling with armed guards, would be just as great a defeat as being robbed by Cravatte, because such a decision would have confirmed every onlooker’s negative assumptions about criminals. The bishop’s actions show that prejudice is a terrible burden, because it prevents the worrier from seeing the best in other people and living a satisfying, joyful life.
Other instances of the bishop’s trusting behavior confirm Hugo’s notion that internal prejudices can wound and restrict people, limiting their exposure to the riches of the outside world. By leaving his door unlocked at night, the bishop shows that he is open to any visitor who might come by, whereas the townspeople who lock their doors are shutting out all wanderers and committing themselves to a myopic, small-minded existence. By welcoming Valjean into his home, the bishop has the transformative experiences of healing a damaged soul and making a friend, whereas the townspeople persist in their ignorant hatred and fail to learn that a yellow passport is not always a sign of evil. By rejecting prejudice, the bishop is able to live in peace and enrich his understanding of human nature, whereas the townspeople do not have the same sense of tranquility or inspiring knowledge of man’s variety and capacity for change.
On a broader plane, many of Hugo’s characters demonstrate the truth in the bishop’s statements about the paralyzing effects of prejudice. Javert spends his entire life trying to enforce the petty stipulations of an inflexible legal system, but Hugo shows that all this concern for justice cripples Javert, for it prevents him from trusting and forming emotional bonds with obviously good and reformed “criminals” such as Valjean. M. Gillenormand’s monarchist prejudices persuade him to separate his son from his grandson: He cannot see beyond his own offspring’s political convictions to the good-hearted and loving man whom Hugo describes. Before his redemption, Jean Valjean allows his prejudice against the upper classes to color his attitude toward the kindly bishop of Digne, whom he conflates with all of the other wealthy oppressors in his life and thus robs in a moment of weakness and self-loathing. Again and again, characters assume the worst of other men because of their class background, politics, or criminal records, and these prejudices prevent many of Hugo’s creations from living rich, peaceful lives.
By risking impoverishment and even assault at the hands of Cravatte, the bishop shows that it’s better to trust one’s fellow man than to assume a constant state of war with people whose background is in any way different from one’s own. Even if the bishop had been attacked by Cravatte, even if thieves had crept into his unlocked home at night, the bishop implies that he would remain calm and content because of his choice not to live in a state of hatred and suspicion. Those characters who do succumb to prejudice—especially Javert—live far more troubled and difficult lives, even though they do not put themselves at risk in the ways the bishop does. The bishop’s bold attitude toward Cravatte thus emphasizes Hugo’s belief in the importance of a loving and compassionate attitude toward people from different political, economic, or ethnic backgrounds. Life is fuller and easier, Hugo implies, when built on a foundational trust in the goodness of others.
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Les Miserables Essay “So long as the three problems of the age- the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night- are not solved… books like this cannot be useless,” (Hugo Preface). In his novel, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo illustrates these problems throughout the plot, adding to the public obsession over the book. Most went crazy over the light he shone on the struggles of France in the late 1800s, instead of the happy love stories many authors were writing about at that time.
Through Les Miserables, Hugo ties the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, or the dwarfing of childhood into almost all of the characters introduced. The degradation of man by poverty is one of the first themes shown in the novel. Hugo used this to illustrate the turnaround the protagonist, Jean Valjean, would eventually make. In the beginning of the book, Jean Valjean was forced to steal bread in order to feed his sister and her seven children.
Hugo explained, “There was a very sever winter; Jean had no work, the family had no bread; literally, no bread, and seven children… The arm seized a loaf of bread and took it out… The thief had thrown away the bread, but his arm was still bleeding. It was Jean Valjean,” (23). Valjean had no choice, due to his poverty, but to steal the bread for the eight people he was supporting. The Thernardiers, although choosing to be degrading, are still considered degraded by poverty. Monsieur Thernardier was a greedy and selfish man, but was this way because how poverty-stricken he was.
One example of this is how he would make Fantine keep paying more and more money by threatening that he would kick Fantine’s daughter out of the house and stop caring for her. Monsieur Thernardier was not able to choose if he was rich or poor but he could choose how he would deal with it, and degrading himself and others was his choice. Eponine was Thernardier’s daughter, and also an example of degradation by poverty. Unlike her father, it was not her choice to be degrading and helpless.
She was described by Hugo, “A girl who was quite young… a pale, meager creature, one of those beings who are both feeble and horrible at once, and who make those shutter whom they do not make weep” (202). Eponine, looking like this, came to Marius more than once asking, and sometimes begging, for work to be done so she could get money. She was not cruel like her father, but simply trying to get her family the money that they need, while degrading herself in the process. The ruin of women by starvation was a reoccurring theme in the novel, mostly revolving around Fantine.
Hugo used Fantine to demonstrate the hardships some women were dealing with, that others seem to look past and to provoke the reader to feel bad for and look sorrowfully at Fantine. In the novel we learn that Fantine became pregnant with a child from a man that left as soon as he found out the news. Fantine was on her own with a daughter to care for and support. While searching for work she stumbled upon the Thernardiers and asked them if they would take in and raise Cosette for her since she would be working all day. They agreed, but made her pay them monthly for taking Cosette. Each month it seemed that the money they wanted was increasing.
The Thernardiers “demanded fifteen francs a month, saying ‘that the ‘creature’ was growing and eating,’ and threatening to send her away. ‘She won’t humbug me,’ he exclaimed, ‘I will confound her in the midst of concealment. I must have more money” (47) Fantine had a job in the factory, but as time went on she lost that job and had no source of income, while the cost of the Thernardiers raising Cosette was getting larger and larger. Due to her lack of job and need of money, Fantine was desperate. She had become a prostitute in order to try to pay for Cosette’s upbringing and even went as far as to sell her own hair and teeth.
Since she could not support her child, or herself, by means of a job anymore, Fantine ruined herself in multiple ways by trying not to starve Cosette and even herself. While Fantine worked hard for Cosette to have an adequate upbringing, the Thernardiers were dwarfing her childhood, along with their own son Gavroche. Hugo used these children to get the reader in a state of sadness and compassion for the part of the novel and to show how wicked the Thernardiers actually were. The Thernardiers treated Cosette as a maid instead of a part of the family. So long as Cosette was very small, she was the scapegoat of the other two children; as soon as she began to grow a little, that is to say, before she was five years old, she became the servant of the house” (47). Cosette was also described as a lark the way she was “shivering under the tatters of what was once a calico dress, sweeping the street before daylight with an enormous broom in her little red hands and tears in her large eyes… People like figurative names and were pleased to name this little being, not larger than a bird, trembling, frightened, and shivering, awake every morning first of all in the house and the village” (47).
As illustrated, the Thernardiers treated Cosette very badly and forced her to grow up and take on much responsibility at such a young age, dwarfing what should have been a lovely childhood. The Thernardiers also dwarfed their son Gavroche’s childhood. They sent him off on the streets at a very young age and forced him to get by on his own. They told him that he would have a better life on his own, when in reality; his parents just did not want him. He was forced to make due with the resources he had and try to get by.
Therefore Thernardier was at fault for dwarfing both Cosette and Gavroche’s childhood. Throughout the novel, Victor Hugo created many scenarios and characters surrounding the three things that he believes will always be present in society. He used Eponine and Jean Valjean to illustrate the degradation of man by poverty and also to provoke sadness in the reader for the hardships the two were facing and how they were degraded not by choice, unlike Monsieur Thernardier.
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Hugo used Fantine the ruin of women by starvation by her ultimately turning to prostitution and selling her hair and teeth in order to insure her daughter has the upbringing she deserved. Gavroche and Cosette were examples of dwarfed childhoods by the Thernardiers. Hugo tries to instill a sense of helpless around the two to try and show that this was by no means their choice, but an act of cruelty on the Thernardier’s part. In conclusion, using these three issues, Victor Hugo created a piece of literature that will never become useless.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Les Miserables Essay
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