Les Misérables

Have courage for the great sorrows of life, and patience for the small ones. And when you have finished your daily task, go to sleep in peace; God is awake. --Victor Hugo

That quote, while not actually from the book, led me to read Les Misérables.

Hugo’s words were balm and strength to me during a very dark season—scribbled on a post-it note and stuck to my computer screen for the better part of two years, while I needed the daily reminder that God was indeed awake and aware of me.

I wanted to read more, regardless the proportions of the book! Undaunted by its girth (I downloaded a copy onto my e-reader, actually, which rendered the entire volume less than 1 cm thick), I plunged in, not even considering that I could find an easier read in an abridged version. So, I read the full and unabridged original—well, okay, a translation, but still.

Truth be told, I almost feel a bit foolish writing anything on the subject of Hugo’s work—I’m not an intellectual by any stretch (I’m okay with that), and I admittedly understand very little of the story’s political themes (besides, this blog is just meant to be a discussion; there are already so very many well-written and thorough reviews of this book on the internet—do have a look!) However, as I wrote somewhere else, a good work of literature will change its readers for the better. That's why it's re-read; and that's why it becomes a classic. In that case, we all have something to share from what we’ve read.

If you’ve not yet read Les Misérables, but held its literary mass in your hands, and you wonder how it could possibly take that many words to write a story—1,900 pages in the original French, 1,400 in English, and 365 chapters!—I will tell you that, if the story were only that of Jean Valjean, it would likely not have been possible.

On the other hand, if the author were to put great attention into character development, particularly that of Monseiur Myriel, the bishop of Digne, who’s compassion and sincere faith in humanity touched Jean Valjeans heart to its core; share vivid accounts of the reign of Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo; expound on the history, structure, and function of the French convents; give detailed account of the Paris sewers and what it would be like to die in those sewers; provide detailed explanation as to the origin and evolution of slang (no, seriously); offer broad enlightenment into both the political climate and the immense suffering of post-revolution France, culminating in the untimely deaths of many young and hopeful Parisians during the Paris Uprising—Now, add to these Hugo’s numerous discourses on mercy, faith, and destiny—it is really no wonder that Les Misérables is one of the longest novels in history.

So much more here than a story, though my next reading of it will most certainly be an abridged version!

There are a couple significant events in Hugo’s story that haunt me; the first being when Jean Valjean travels to another town, basically to turn himself in to the authorities. He has already done extensive time in prison (for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his widowed sister’s starving children) followed by a significant time of right living—giving mercy as he had been given and bettering the lives of the poor and destitute around him, using his wealth and influence for good.

However, grace and mercy were not popular virtues in the France of 1832.

The time Jean Valjean expends making his way to the courthouse, finally (and with difficulty) entering the public gallery, and ultimately speaking up and proving that he is indeed the ‘criminal’ they want (another man, unable to prove his innocence due to lack of mental capacity, was on trial as Jean Valjean), is heart rending in the extreme—Why is he pursuing this, when he could let another man, and a criminal at that, take his place? Isn’t God possibly giving Jean Valjean an out, and he’s not taking it? Hasn’t all the good he’s done more than made up for the so-called crimes of his past? How can this be right? These questions raced through my brain.

In Valjean’s words, “If I speak, I am condemned. If I am silent, I am damned!” And so he speaks.

What conviction!

Jean Valjean leaves the courthouse that day a changed man. Not only has he gone from the esteemed mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer (under the alias of Monsieur Madeleine) to a convicted criminal destined for prison, he also leaves the courthouse with hair as white as snow! Can that extent of anxiety and inner turmoil actually cause one’s hair to turn white? I don’t know, but I must admit checking my own at the close of that tormenting chapter!

The second event, or events, really, that stand out to me are Javert’s (Valjean’s enemy and pursuer) relentless hunt of Valjean and his determination to reveal Valjean’s identity as a criminal. Yet, when Valjean is supplied an opportunity to kill Javert, he lets him walk away, knowing full well that Javert’s sense of justice—twisted, graceless justice—would not, could not, do the same for him.

There are so many many parts of this story that enthral me and that we could discuss and learn from together (while drinking copious amounts of coffee, of course); but since this is a blog and not my kitchen table, I’ll leave it there, for now.

In conclusion, however, I need to draw a comparison between Jean Valjean and Javert. All at once these two men are vastly different and eerily similar. Both need mercy—need it desperately—but to the one whose heart is soft toward his God, mercy brings life; to the hard-hearted legalist, the mercy he knows he doesn’t deserve, brings death.

Oh! Unfathomable and divine mystery of the balance of destiny!” --Victor Hugo

If you are looking for a story to wrap up neatly and make you smile, content, at the finish, I have to tell you that this is not it. Filmmakers (and there have been many) may have been able to avoid some of the ugliest pains and betrayals, leaving movie-goers with a vague allusion of happily-ever-after. But the book does not.

What it does leave you with is a greater appreciation of progress and justice, an awe at the ability of the regenerate human heart to bear up under extreme adversity and wrong, a thrill at the depth (and respect for the frailty) of mortal relationships, a healthier empathy of a bigger picture, and a keener gratitude for the mercy of God; and that, yes, He is indeed awake!