While there may be something to this, I do not think it is the primary reason people so often hate the saintly character. My own theory is that what makes us hate the saint is not so much the lack of vice, but the overdevelopment of virtue. Any virtue taken too far starts to look phony and exhibitionist rather than truly virtuous. Hugo mostly avoids this pitfall, but several times throughout the novel, and especially in the final section, he succumbs to it. Comparison with other works of literature can be revealing. Because I have read only a very narrow selection of all that is out there, my points of comparison are limited. I welcome anyone else's input on other stories of the hero-as-saint.
I should begin, not by comparing Les Miserables with other literature, but with pointing out one virtue that is emphatically not overdeveloped in Jean Valjean. He is not the kind of saint who values absolute truthfulness and will never lie, even to the Nazis about the Jews in the attic. Jean Valjean is honest and truthful in the sense that his word is his bond, that when he promises Javert that he will turn himself in as soon as he does one last good deed, he really means it. But when you are a convict on the run facing a life sentence if caught, never lying is really not an option. So Valjean lies quite regularly. He makes up aliases. He sometimes gives false names other than his working alias. He makes up fake back stories. When asked for information that would put his adopted daughter in danger he doesn't hesitate to give a false address. And we end up liking him for his willingness to lie when necessary.
Philip Jose Farmer does a fine job of showing overdeveloped virtue versus balanced virtue in his Riverworld science fiction series. The entire human race that has ever lived, except for children who died before the age of five, is resurrected along a mysterious river. Needless to say, this plays havoc with all existing religions. Some people try to form a new religion called the Church of the Second Chance. However, Chancers are invariably annoyingly sanctimonious and preach your ear off. In the third book, however, we meet the Sufis, mystics who are able to adapt their earlier religion to new conditions. The Sufis are not annoyingly preachy; they do not act especially saintly, but anyone, including the reader, who spends long in their presence recognizes that they operate on a very high spiritual level, and that they have something (spiritually) that no one else can help but want. The balanced spirituality of the Sufis stands in stark contrast to the overdeveloped piety of the Chancers. Jean Valjean is described as pious. He regularly goes to low mass every Sunday. He prays before a crucifix. He decidedly has God in mind on his death bed. But his focus is very much of this world, and he never annoys with excessive piety. In fact, Hugo comments that Valjean has two napsacks -- the thoughts of a saint and the skills of a convict. He climbs like a convict. He has the convict's skill at hiding useful tools for escape. And, once again, his worldliness and abundance of practical skills make us like him, while doing nothing to detract from his saintliness.
I am reluctant to bring in Melanie from Gone With the Wind because I think she is intentionally annoying. Nonetheless, if anyone ever had an obnoxiously overdeveloped virtue, it is Melanie. She never thinks badly of anyone, even Scarlet. The convoluted explanations she comes up with to excuse Scarlet's behavior strain the brain. Surely she can't really believe that! the reader thinks. Jean Valjean has none of Melanie's reluctance to think ill of other people. True, he always respects Javert, realizing that he is doing what is right in his own eyes, and that there is something perversely noble about his relentless dedication to the law. By contrast, when dealing with the wicked extortionist Thernadier, Valjean has no difficulty seeing him for what he is and calling him out on it. And, once again, his willingness to see evil for what it is and call it out does nothing to detract from his saintliness and makes us like him for his forthrightness.
We move a little closer to Valjean's overdeveloped virtue in Rudyard Kipling's Kim. Among the characters is a saintly Tibetan Lama whose priorities are very much not of this world. The quest for enlightenment is all that really matters to him; things that the rest of us would consider important he dismisses as mere earthly trifles. Other characters understandably dismiss him as crazy. At first he seems like a naive and foolish old man, badly in need of protecting. But over time what seems at first like foolishness we come to recognize as a vastly different set of priorities from most people. It is a testament to Kipling's genius that we come to see the lama's perspective as a valid one, indeed, as seeing a higher and deeper reality that most of us are simply too shallow to perceive. It is difficult to dislike an otherworldly character simply because we lack the perspective to judge him.* Nonetheless, the Lama does have one trait that can be grating -- an overdeveloped sense of sin. To him, the slightest attachment to this world is sinful. It is a sin to enjoy sights on the road, to relish a climb in the mountains, to entertain a child, or even (at times) to develop too great an affection for another person. While Valjean is in no way otherworldly, he does seem to have an overdeveloped sense of sin, talking about his sinfulness and unworthiness. But that is not his ultimate overdeveloped virtue so much as a symptom of it.
Finally, I have to mention Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as the epic fail of writing a saint without making readers hate him. It is hard to tell whether Stowe equates passivity and submission with Christian virtue or is simply trying to avoid alarming her easily alarmed white readers. Either way, she overdevelops the Christian virtue of turning the other cheek. Upon hearing that he is to be sold, Tom encourages Eliza, whose five-year-old son is to be sold, to take him and escape, but himself submits to his fate, both because the mortgage will be foreclosed and everyone sold if he does not, and because he does not want to break faith with his owner (who has so spectacularly broken faith with him). Throughout the first three-quarters (or so) of the novel, Tom continues to passively and uncomplainingly accept his fate. He finally begins to show a spirit of defiance when he falls into the hands of the sadistic Simon Legree, but it is always a passive sort of defiance. Ordered to beat a slave too sick to work, he says he will not raise his hand to any of his fellow-suffers. For that he receives a savage beating, but still refuses to apologize or ask forgiveness. Finally, after encouraging Simon Legree's concubines (i.e., sex slaves) to run away he will not reveal where they are hiding, although he admits to knowing. For this, Legree orders him beaten until he yields or dies. Even Tom's torturers are finally swayed by his strength of character and relent, but by then it is too late. He dies.
This is resistance, albeit of a very passive sort, but Stowe constantly matches Tom's statements of defiance on any inflexible moral matter with statements of submission on everything else. Even as he refuses to strike a fellow slave, Tom promises,"I'm willin' to work, night and day, and work while there's life and breath in me." Refusing to apologize, he nonetheless adds, "Mas'r Legree, as ye bought me, I'll be a true and faithful servant to ye. I'll give ye all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength." And in the final showdown, he assures Legree, "Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give 'em freely, as the Lord gave his for me." And in the end, this submission is so grating that it, and not the defiance, is what is remembered. This is not quite the virtue that is overdeveloped in Jean Valjean. Valjean, after all, begins by jumping parole and spends most of the book on the run. He will turn himself in only to prevent an innocent man from suffering him his place. An excess of submission is not his bloated virtue.
Rather, the trait that (occasionally) grates in Valjean is an excess of humility. It doesn't show up often, but it does now and then when our hero shows an excessive love of squalor and suffering. After first rescuing his adoptive daughter from the abusive innkeeper, Valjean takes her to live in a squalid slum, and himself dresses in rags. Presumably this is to have more money left over to give the poor. But, as it turns out, a beggar who gives alms is sufficiently abnormal to attract the attention of the authorities. Valjean learns that if he wants to give to the poor, he must at least look like a gentleman of property and standing.** So he gets a nice, though well-concealed, house and nice clothes. He even gets " a bookcase filled with gilt-edged books, an inkstand, a blotting-book, paper, a work-table incrusted with mother of pearl, a silver-gilt dressing-case, a toilet service in Japanese porcelain" as well as damasked and tapestry curtains for his adoptive daughter. He, in turn, lives in the porter's lodge with the most meager furniture he can find and no fire, and eats the coarsest food. One can't claim that he is, once again, saving resources to give to the poor when he gives his daughter so much nicer things than he is willing to have for himself. Naturally, the girl asks why he sits in the cold without a carpet or fire. Valjean answers, "Dear child, there are so many people who are better than I and who have not even a roof over their heads." To this she asks why she has a fire, and he says that women and children are allowed such luxuries. She asks if men should be cold and uncomfortable. He answers, "Certain men." But Valjean learns his lesson from this exchange. When his daughter asks why he eats such coarse food, he answers, "Because, my daughter." She refuses to have a fire or eat finer food if he denies himself, so he yields. Good for her! Furthermore, Valjean is not inherently opposed to buying nice things instead of giving one's money to the poor. Quite the contrary, after his daughter marries, Valjean encourages her to have her own carriage, a ladies' maid, a box in the theater, and other such luxuries that she has never known and therefore never misses. So apparently Jean Valjean is not opposed to luxuries, he simply thinks himself unworthy of them. This is the sort of excess humility that grates.
It should be emphasized that Les Miserables is a very long book, some 1463 pages, in my translation. For the first 1365 pages or so, this excess of humility is little emphasized, a mere handful of pages out of so many. But for the last hundred pages or so, Jean Valjean starts wallowing in excess humility, seemingly out of the sheer love of wallowing. After spending the first 1363 or so pages proclaiming that society's judgment of him was unjust, he spends the final hundred submitting to it with a groveling self-abasement that Uncle Tom (despite his reputation) never stoops to. Furthermore, in submitting to this injustice, Valjean seems to endorse it and thereby subvert the entire message of the book up until that point. And, worst of all, he gravely wrongs the people he loves the most. (More on that later). In short, Jean Valjean's overdeveloped virtue is his excess of humility. It is no more than an occasional pinprick of annoyance until the last hundred pages, at which point it makes me want to slam the book down on the floor and stomp on it.
I believe there is much truth in this reviewer's criticism:
Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another . . . [T]he implications of Jean Valjean’s complete innocence are dismaying. Suppose he had actually committed some sort of crime as a young man. Are we to infer that he wouldn’t be worth our tears if—like the rest of us—he were even slightly culpable?I want to follow with a post on what I believe is the source of Valjean's excess humility and the wrong he is constantly seeking to atone for. But first, I will do a brief digression on saints and sexuality -- or the lack thereof.
*This also applies to the Sufis in Riverworld.
**Or, as Victor Hugo would say, a bourgeois. That term has a host of connotations, in English and French alike, that could take pages to unpack. "Gentleman of property and standing" is an Americanism, originally referring to the surprisingly "respectable" mobs that attacked abolitionists in the early 1830's. Abolitionists adopted the term themselves as one of derision. It conveys nicely what I think Hugo wanted to convey with bourgeois, but has the distinct disadvantage of being too long.