Deep and fascinating
All the commentaries on "les miserables" that i have read point out that the main theme of it is that man can change. that, indeed, is something i get from this book, but the more important idea i see is that man has to be able to change in order to live. it is absolutely essential. the two main characters, jean valjean and javert, are really not so different from each other in most respects. both have flaws that deserve disapproval and virtues worthy of respect. the one difference between them, the one that makes them total opposites of each other, is that valjean is capable of change while javert is not. valjean was horribly punished for a minor offense; he leaves jail bitter and hateful towards humanity. an act of kindness shows him that he is wrong in that respect; that the world, harsh and unjust as it can be, should not be hated outright. when presented with proof of his error in the face of the bishop of digne who trusts him and gives him a blessing to start a new life, valjean changes from a bitter and ruined man into a success story; everything he touches turns to gold. ultimately, by the time he dies, he has achieved everything anyone could hope to achieve. javert, on the other hand, cannot do that. he firmly believes that "once a thief, always a thief". he does not believe in reform. he remembers valjean as a criminal; having encountered him years later, as the mayor of a town which he singlehandedly revived as a successful center of industry, javert only sees the convict he guarded ten years ago. he is blind to all else, as are all fanatics. when valjean has the chance to kill javert with complete impunity, something that would be reasonable from the security standpoint and understandable as revenge for years of torment, he lets him go; this is the final, incontestible proof that even someone like javert cannot ignore. this demolishes a system of beliefs that guided him his whole life, much like the bishop's act of mercy demolished the hate valjean nursed for 19 years. but while valjean was able to change his views and profit by it, javert cannot. valjean's kindness toward his tormentor presents the latter with something he did not believe existed - a kind convict. unable to incorporate this new entity into his world-view, javert takes the only course of action open to him - he commits suicide. this seems to me to be an act of cowardice of the worst sort - die rather then admit error. this lack of flexibility did not allow him the option of putting this new knowledge to use and, therefore, caused his destruction. that, in my opinion, is the main theme of "les miserables".