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Abstract

Following the 1789 revolution, France experienced a series of political and social changes: a succession of different political regimes created instability and a crisis of confidence between the ruling and the emerging classes, undermining social peace. As social inequalities increased, criticism against the judiciary became more prominent, particularly in literature. Such is the story of the hero of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, whose hunger leads him to commit a crime because he has no choice, Hugo tells us. It is in this troubled context that the the vigilante and the fugitive emerges in the novel, as if literature was the way to exorcise evil and promote the good. These characters’ existence is determined by their ultimate goal, to restore order in a society in despair, which seeks an ideal to strive for: “Rewarding good, pursue evil, alleviate suffering, probing all wounds of humanity to try to save some souls from perdition, that is the task that I have given myself”, says Prince Rodolphe in Les Mystères de Paris. These heroes live on the margins of society, often the victim of injustice themselves. They are the defenders of the weak and the oppressed. These characters in Sue, Dumas, and Hugo are represented in an extraordinary way, heroes in the mythological sense, who have qualities superior to their fellow men, who are alone in being able to distinguish good from evil, the just from the unjust. These characters’ greatness of soul is revealed throughout their quest. This study will focus on these characters while trying to understand the need for such heroes in the post-revolutionary novel. Often, when talking about serial novels, critics paints a very simple portrait of these extraordinary characters while insisting on the fact that such characters are created by the author mostly as a strategy to interest the reader: a simple plot with a hero who pursues the good against a variety of villains who are after him. This explanation does not seem sufficient to us, and as we have demonstrated in our study, there is far more at play in this need for the existence of this extraordinary hero. Sue, Dumas and Hugo all strived to provide their character with a strong legitimacy in his pursuit of justice both within the fiction and for the readers themselves. The education of this hero is essential to understanding his actions, and this is most visible with the external help he receives, support which plays the role of a moral compass. These characters all have guides, mentors whose importance cannot be understated, such is their influence in the inner development of their protégé. These mentors, in particular in Les Misérables and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, play a central role both in the birth of these heroes – as points of origin for their transformation from ordinary to extraordinary men – and in the sustained faith in justice that follows these characters’ every move. But the pursuit of justice by these heroes is not without its failings, and we will see the effects and consequences of their actions. Can the amount of Rodolphe’s good actions make one forget or forgive his cruelty towards the school teacher? Vigilantes often invoke the help of God in their actions, they present themselves, as Monte Cristo does, as “angel[s] of Providence”, or are perceived in this way by other characters, such as in the case of Rodolphe. We will investigate why such an appeal to divine justice is needed and how invoking God’s intervention helps the vigilante in his task. Shouldn’t individual initiative be sufficient as a means to improve society?

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