The Timeless Appeal of Les Miserables
Having been part of my high school production of the musical version of Les Miserables, I, like many, knew the general plot of the book before I ever picked it up. And, having read quite a few of the great 19th century Russian novels, I thought I knew more or less what to expect from Les Miserables. But my familiarity with Les Mis was a false one. The stage play in many ways does not reflect Victor Hugo’s worldview, a worldview which is also quite different from that of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Hugo’s strong humanistic tendencies and his particularly French perspective on the state of the world in the 19th century saturate his novel, and are especially prominent in the historical essays which are found regularly throughout the book. Hugo, in short, was optimistic about the state of the world in his time and about the direction in which humanity was headed.
This optimism is not found in the stage play nor in contemporary Russian novels, and therefore Les Mis had a decidedly different character than what I was expecting. Indeed, Hugo’s outlook may seem to us at times laughable. Knowing, as we do, that the 20th century was host to two world wars, we might shake our heads when we read the words of the visionary Enjolras: “the 19th century is great, but the 20th will be happy.” Or this prophecy, written in the narrator’s own voice: “the vanishing of war, street war as well as the war of the frontiers, such is inevitable progress. Whatever today may be, peace is tomorrow.” Hugo deifies progress in the novel, believing that human flourishing and human dignity will grow over time in lockstep with divine providence. Therefore, although Hugo’s novel shows a profound respect for the Catholic Church, and in many ways is influenced by Catholic ideas, Hugo also clearly believes that Catholicism was but one phase of human development; while essential to the unfolding of human history, Catholicism is now becoming obsolete.
Will we, therefore, pass the same judgment on Hugo’s novel? As a product of the enlightenment and of 19th century humanism, is Les Miserables simply obsolete? There would seem to be plenty of evidence to the contrary, given that the novel is an enduring classic and has given rise to the aforementioned musical and several screen adaptations (including a new BBC miniseries due to appear sometime in the next year). I personally enjoyed reading the novel much more than I had expected I would, especially after hearing that there would be a long discourse on the battle of Waterloo and another on the Paris sewer system. The story told in Les Mis has a lasting beauty despite what Hugo thought it might communicate about social and political conditions in 19th century France and the turning of the wheels of progress. But why?
Hugo’s interest in human virtue and his confidence in the capacity of human beings for good gives rise to some fundamentally true insights about the world. The inspiration and insight offered in the novel comes not primarily from humanistic ideology but from a Christian worldview communicated in a profoundly Catholic mode: through the life of a saint, Jean Valjean. The lengthy opening section of the novel is also a fictional saint’s life, the life of the bishop of Digne. This bishop’s sanctity is perhaps most beautifully displayed in the pivotal scene where he insists that some silver stolen by Jean Valjean is, in fact, a gift; this selfless act prevents Jean Valjean from being sent back to prison. St. John Chrysostom once wrote that anything we keep for ourselves which is beyond our need is theft from the poor, and the bishop of Digne comes to a similar conclusion. At the theft of his silver – which we are told is the one small luxury he permits himself – he shrugs and says “for a long time I have wrongfully been withholding this silver. It belonged to the poor.”
The life of the bishop is both the backdrop to and the catalyst for the conversion of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the novel. Valjean’s conversion scene is described very much on the terms of the gospel. Upon receiving the unmerited, lavish grace of the bishop, Jean Valjean sees only two choices before him: to become an animal or to become the bishop. Christ tells us that if we love our life we will lose it; Jean Valjean encounters Christ in this bishop, and he realizes that he must either become Christ or perish.
To see Valjean become like Christ throughout the rest of the novel, to see him struggle with his conscience and each time to choose the way of the cross, in this is the enduring beauty of Les Mis which is indeed preserved in all its renditions. When we see the life of a saint, we see something of the life of Christ and therefore we glimpse the divine. When Jean Valjean, for example, adopts the bastard orphan Cosette as his own daughter and is willing to sacrifice everything for her – wealth, happiness, even his life – we see something of the enormity of divine love. Valjean’s conformity to Christ is perhaps most apparent at the very end of the book, where he lives alone in a dingy little room with no possession to speak of except a bronze crucifix, which is “good to look at.” In a chapter poignantly titled “the Last Drop of the Chalice,” Valjean commits himself to this existence because he believes it is better for Cosette if he sacrifices even his own love and attachment for her, and gives her complete freedom in her new life as the wife of Marius Pontmercy. In this detachment, Valjean has, like Christ, given everything up and forfeited even the smallest repayment or return on his investment. He has given freely, just like the bishop had given freely to him.
In the bishop and Valjean – the bookends of the novel – Hugo has given us the image of two saints living in his own time and place, 19th century France. The life of a saint, like Hugo’s novel, is always tied to a particular moment in time, with all of its particular struggles, politics, and opinions. And yet, the life of a saint, and therefore Hugo’s novel, is a timeless access point to Christ, a recapitulation, and representation of the God-man who likewise entered time and space to reveal to us the love of God. Despite Hugo’s optimism, he recognized that modernity still needed conversion and therefore needed a Jean Valjean. In a memorable turn of phrase, Hugo calls Javert’s encounter with divine grace – embodied for him by Jean Valjean – “the road to Damascus for a locomotive.” The idea that the locomotive could experience conversion through the life of a saint should give us hope that we too can be Christ to those living in our own fast-paced, technologically saturated world.