There is a man, we are told, who spent 19 years in the galleys as a convict. Having been imprisoned for steal bread to feed his niece and nephew during the French Revolution, he had repeatedly tried and failed to escape, leading to an extended sentence.
This man stole silverware from the home of Bishop Myriel, who kindly fed the man and gave him a bed for the night. When the man was captured for theft the Bishop told the authorities that the silverware was a gift and even gave the man an additional pair of silver candlesticks, saying, “‘It is your soul I am buying from you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’” (90)
Shortly after, the man stole 40 sous (cents) from a wandering child named Petit Gervais. The boy pleaded for his money, the man refused and Petit Gervais fled. As night fell, the convict’s psyche tore itself in two, and he was transformed by light.
The remainder of the life of Jean Valjean is narrated in the course of the more than 1,200 page translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables sitting next to me as I write. This book is often proclaimed one greatest novels ever written by those with the patience to read it in its entirety.
I originally intended to write about the continued creative prospects that Hugo’s novel left us with. A quick Google search fully demonstrates the vast number of stage adaptations Les Misérables has generated on both the small and silver screens.Recently, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway were among the top-billed actors for a musical film adaptation.
And yet, much more importantly, a goodreads review reminded me that, “You want to be a better person after reading this book.”
And why might that be the case? How can a work of literature inspire us to become better individuals?
The archetypal human story of weakness, transgression, anguish, and redemption are affecting elements of Saint Augustine’s Confessions heavily pervading Les Misérables.
There is remorse and revulsion over a life saturated with wrongdoing, along with a fervent conviction to turn away from it and towards a supreme beckoning light. Both scenes present a sublime pathos, and even, I would say, a potent apotheosis.
Christian themes aside, Victor Hugo’s novel is a powerful narrative of self-transformation. Jean Valjean begins as a vindictive vagrant, convinced that society has sabotaged his life. He becomes Monsieur Madeleine, an honest, self-made man and benevolent mayor of a town whom people call ‘the philanthropist.’ Beyond that still, he turns into a doting father who gives away his greatest joy in life—his adopted daughter, Cosette—in marriage to a young lawyer-revolutionary following the turmoil of 1832 in Paris. Jean Valjean dies, says the novel, of a broken heart.
Despite his the radical turn towards virtue and goodness, Jean Valjean spends a majority of the novel evading capture at the hands of the stringent inspector, Javert, who knows that he is a convict and remains at odds with the law. If one major part of this novel charts Jean Valjean’s path to pardon for his early life, another tells, quite appropriately, of the wretches to whom society never gives a fighting chance in the first place.
The single tome is daunting, as are its themes. If we were to boil down this story to its essence, it is perhaps above all a tale of evil and suffering, and then of travail, goodness, and redemption. Like Dante’s Commedia, Les Misérables claims that even in the most wretched depths of the abyss, we may yet find the path to absolution.
This book offers a profound and vitalizing blow to our consciousness. Lift it up, if you dare , and read.
Editor’s Note: The author italicized some portions of quotes for emphasis. Additionally, the quotes were taken from Charles E. Wilbour’s translation of Les Miserables.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Flickr user Mgstanton.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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