Each of the students who fight at the barricade has their own distinct personality. However, one thing I’ve noticed as I read is that there’s an inverse relationship between how realistic and human a character seems and how symbolic their role is; those who are more symbolic are also more idealized. The group can be divided into two general categories: those whose main role is to give names, faces, and personalities to rebellion of June 1832, and those whose purpose is to represent the principles of revolution and the ideal world Victor Hugo was advocating for in his book.
Marius, Grantaire, Joly, Lesgle, and Jean Prouvaire are characters first and foremost. They have their quirks and their faults. They are a romantic daydreamer whose beliefs evolve throughout the story, a drunken cynic who doesn’t believe in anything, a hypochondriac medical student, an extremely unlucky but cheerful young man, and a sensitive poet capable of great bravery, respectively. Their personalities do not necessarily define their role in the rebellion, and they are easy to imagine as real people one might encounter on a college campus. They are each drawn into the revolution for their own reasons and stand in for the many real people who fought in it, but they’re characters before they are symbols.
Courfeyrac is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, he’s the symbolic “center” of the group. While Enjolras is the leader, it is Courfeyrac who represents the group itself and holds them together, not just as a political organization but as a group of friends. On the other hand, he’s not idealized the way that Enjolras and Combeferre are. In fact, he’s compared to Tholomyes; the two of them are described as “a type of individual that constantly recurs in the seats of learning”, although Hugo does add that he’s a better person than Tholomyes. He’s a very humanized character, a twenty-something guy who chases after women but would hopefully not do to them what Tholomyes did to Fantine, shows extreme generosity towards his penniless friend, believes in the revolution as much as any of them but does not seem to mind that Marius’ political views are different from his, and might have someday grown into the role of a bourgeois gentleman but instead dies a rebel at the barricade.
Bahorel, Feuilly, Combeferre, and especially Enjolras each stand for something much greater than themselves. They are still characters with personalities, but they are symbols of the revolution first and foremost.
Bahorel “enjoyed nothing more than a quarrel except a rebellion, and nothing more than a rebellion except a revolution. He was always ready to smash a window, strip a street of its cobbles and then overthrow a government, just to see what would come of it”. While the other characters resort to violence at the barricade because it is necessary, he does so because conflict is in his nature. He is the violence of the revolution personified.
Feuilly is an orphan who has educated himself and works for a living, representing – in a group of wealthy students – the many poor workers who fought alongside them. He cares deeply about the whole world and is just as strongly moved by injustice abroad as in France. He stands for the universality of the group’s revolutionary ideals and the need for a global rather than limited perspective.
Victor Hugo says upfront that Enjolras and Combeferre are symbols: “At the side of Enjolras, who represented the logic of revolution, was Combeferre, representing its philosophy”. Combeferre is gentle and intellectual, believing in peaceful change but willing to resort to violence if necessary, and representing the hope for a better future, while Enjolras is the revolution, in all its harsh, violent glory. Unlike his friends, who mostly share his beliefs but also have lives outside of politics, Enjolras lives and breathes revolution, devoting his whole life to it. Hugo is suggesting that both are equally necessary in a situation like the one depicted here, one to rally the people to fight for their freedom, the other to ensure the new world they create is better than the one they’re destroying.
Les Miserables did not necessarily need ten unique rebel characters, each with their own personality and their own perspective on revolution. The musical gets by with only a few, a change that was probably necessary to cut over 1,000 pages down to three hours. However, the individual characters symbolize and personify the rebellion from all different angles. They are not simply a group of faceless, doomed idealists; they are people the reader has come to know and sympathize with over the course of the story, and in some cases, they are symbols of the revolution itself.