Monday, January 23, 2017

Les Mis

A couple of years ago I read Les Miserables (the non-abridged version) by Victor Hugo. Inspired by play and comments from friends about the book, I embarked on reading the 1200 page classic masterpiece.

The story of Les Mis takes place in France around the time of the French Revolution. It follows the stories of the fictional characters Fantine and her daughter Cosette, the Bishop of Digne, Inspector Javert, the rich young man Marius, and the convict Jean Valjean. It's a story of poverty, love, mercy, revolution, and suffering.

Victor Hugo commented about Les Mis that as long as there is suffering and poverty in this world, this book will be needed. It has been nearly two hundred years since the publishing of this book and the world has perhaps never had so much change in a mere two centuries. Life is completely different than what it was then but yet the same social problems still exist. There is still heartbreak, distrust of government, revolution, greed, poverty, child neglect, anger, ostracization, and etc. Their lives and stories aren't different from ours at all.

I will not attempt to give a summary of the story but trust you are familiar with the story line enough to follow along with my thoughts on the book. I will discuss the story lines of some of the more prominent characters.

1. Marius

Marius in his very early twenties often frequented a certain park where he noticed a girl. He paid no attention to this girl because she wasn't pretty. A few months go by where he doesn't pass through this park but when he does pass through again he sees the same girl and now she is stunningly beautiful. She may only be 15 but let's not trifle with age in this story. A chivalrous man would go up to a fair lady and introduce himself. Does Marius do this? No! He returns the next day in his fine clothes and walks by again to get another look. Then a few minutes later he walks by yet again just to see if they can make eye contact. Then he finds a bench not too far away so he can casually look at her. He does this for months! He spends hours just going to see her but never approaches her. He starts following her home. During these months he stops working, stops spending time with his friends, and stops doing anything besides stalk this girl. Eventually Cosette's Guardian, Jean Valjean grows suspicious and since he is an escaped convict he moves himself and Cosette.  The girl of Marius's dreams is now lost to him and he goes into a depressed state. After another 6 months he finds out where she lives. So naturally he sneaks onto their property late at night just to possibly see or hear her. Meanwhile Cosette is terrified because she thinks someone with evil intentions is on her property. Eventually he meets her at night on her property and says the following to her.

"I could not go on living the way things were, and so I had to come. Do you perhaps recognize me? I come here at night, but don't worry, no one sees me. I come and look up at your windows, and I walk very quietly so as not to disturb you. I was behind you the other evening when you looked round, and I hid and ran for it. Once I heard you singing and it made me very happy. Does it matter to you if I listen to you singing through the shutters? It can do no harm. But you don't mind do you? To me, you see, you're an angel. You must let me come sometimes. I think I'm going to die. If you knew how I adore you! Forgive me for talking like this, I don't know what I'm saying, perhaps I'm annoying you. Am I annoying you?"

Get this kid a restraining order.

2. The Bishop

The Bishop of Digne is not given much of a story in the play.  In the play, as you may know, the Bishop gives a meal and a bed to the convict Jean Valjean. Valjean in the night steals the bishops silver and gets caught by the police. In a great act of mercy, the Bishop lets Valjean go with the silver. This act ends up being the catalyst that changes the life of Valjean.

Knowing the story of the Bishop as told by Hugo makes this act all the more extraordinary and expected. Hugo spends the first 50 pages of the book telling his story. The Bishop dedicated his life to the service of the people and God. In a position of power and wealth he lived a very humble life. He refused to take on the comforts of his position and used those excess funds to give back to the community. The bishop only kept a few fine things in his life which were silver dishes, utensils, and candlesticks. They were his one last nice possessions. When he finds out Valjean steals the silver his first thought isn't of anger or condemnation but of regret he had not given the silver away sooner in life. It was not his in the first place but God's. When Valjean shows up at his doorstep in the hands of the police the bishop responds

"'So here you are!' he cried to Valjean. 'I'm delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They're silver like the rest, and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?'"

After a few words of exchange with the police the Bishop approaches Valjean and says in a low voice.

"Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man... Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."

Knowing that this act by the Bishop was not unusual for him but also was his last fine possession to give away makes the life of the Bishop a marvel and an example to us all.

3. Javert

Before reading this book and having only seen the musical and movie, I was always struck by Javert's death. I am not talking about the the movie death when you cringe as his body hits the river with a dramatic thud but I am more interested in what was going on in the mind of Javert when he decides to take his own life. Why must he kill himself? Why can't he find a way to reconcile his beliefs and recent experiences so that living is a viable option? 

Javert's life had been so fixed on one worldview and one mindset. There was only one world, one dogma, and one truth. When Jean Valjean spares Javert's life and shows him mercy, a new data point enters Javert's life which lies outside his accepted view of reality. The godliness of a convict breaks him. Mercy destroys his soul. His worldview crashes like a stain glass window hit with a brick. But why must it shatter? Javert experiences what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. This state of mind is very common with those of strict worldviews learning new information. 

It bothers me that someone could forsake their own life simply because something doesn't align with how they think the world should be. Are we so dogmatic in our ways that even life itself is less valuable than the perfection of our stain glass window beliefs?

4. Fantine

Fantine's life is a series of tragic events that eventually lead to her death. As a young girl she and her friends spend time with some young men. To everyone but Cosette the relationships were just youthful amusements. Tholomyes though was more than just a summer crush to Fantine. "She had given herself to Tholomyes as to a husband, and the poor girl had a child" The young men leave and Fantine is left to raise a child by herself. The book makes no mention if Tholomyes knew about the child.

As a young single mother struggling to provide for her child and herself she is forced to give her child over to some caretakers. In a unfortunate error of judgment she entrusts her daughter Cosette to the Thenardiers, who show no love to Cosette. Through a chain of tragic circumstances, misunderstandings, and bad luck she has to sell her teeth, hair, and virtue to keep her and Cosette alive. Eventually this downward spiral kills her.

I weep for her life that was filled with so much youthful optimism and ended so tragically. How quickly can our lives go south. May we be less judgmental to those in such circumstances. May we be more helpful, empathetic, and loving to those whose lives resembles Fantine's.

5. Valjean

Jean Valjean is the main character of this book and there is so much to be written about his life that I won't attempt it. His is a story of tragedy, redemption, love, suffering, injustice, contempt, poverty and wealth, and selflessness. Hugo uses the life of Valjean to weave together the raw vicissitudes of life.

If you are not familiar with the story I would recommend watching the movie, seeing the play, or better yet reading the book. My synopsis was quick and lacking in so many areas but I hope it brings new light to you about the story or encourages you to become familiar with the story. It is life changing. At least it was for me.

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