Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, published in 1862, is widely acclaimed as a literary masterpiece. The novel tells the story of a man, Jean Valjean, sentenced to the galleys (initially) for stealing a loaf of bread in order to provide food for his sister and her children. Valjean’s sentence is extended time and time again, after he attempts a number of escapes. Valjean’s incarceration is intimately followed by a guard, Javert, whose idea of good and evil, and subsequently his notion of justice is engraved in the letter of the law, allowing no place for the spirit of the law to breathe. Valjean becomes steadily dehumanized by his experiences as a prisoner. After nearly two decades on the galleys, Valjean cannot physically recognize himself when he looks into the mirror – but far more importantly, his sense of self, as a child of God, and of his fellow men, as likewise children of God, has been completely erased from his soul’s eye. Valjean, once a plain – everyman, has become by way of the justice system, a no-man; a creature who needs to eat to exist, but who has lost the fertility of soul to see the beauty of actually living. At this point of the novel Valjean experiences powerful love – not a romantic or sexual love, but the altruistic love given to him by a Bishop. It is only the Bishop who takes him in, who feeds him and gives him rest for the night. Everyone else has rejected him – for what he has become – what he now is. It is the Bishop, who with a heart filled with love, sees through the rough marble, and seeks to find what goodness and beauty in Valjean still lies beneath. But the Bishop’s kindness creates in Valjean a crisis. Lying in bed, in the Bishop’s house, Valjean awakens from a number of hours of slumber, but cannot go back to sleep. The clean linen is far more than he thinks he deserves; his belly is full, but should it be? Does he have any right to such luxuries, and the loving treatment extended him by the Bishop? He must run. But before he runs – he must rob the Bishop. Silly fool the Bishop is, for taking a man in who has spent decades fending for himself in the galley. Valjean takes the Bishop’s silver dining ware, and flees. Yet the Bishop is far from a fool; and in the morning dismisses his loss of silverware. But here the novel raises its voice to a moral crescendo. Valjean has been caught with the rucksack of silver, and is escorted by the police back to the Bishop’s home. With abject despair written on his face, Valjean is acutely aware that he will be sent back to the galleys and this time for life. Yet the Bishop’s response to Valjean’s capture and the return of his silver, completely disarms the guards. Instead of standing as an accusatory witness against Valjean – the Bishop claims to have given Valjean the silverware that is in his rucksack – but more so, he chastises Valjean for not having remembered to have taken the additional gifts that he gave Valjean the previous night of two silver candlesticks. The perplexed guards quiz the Bishop as to the accuracy of his recollection; he assures them of his telling them the truth. The guards leave. Valjean, a wretch of a man, who has bitten the hand of the first man to have offered him kindness, is seated on the floor, beside the stolen goods. The Bishop walks up to him, and speaks the profound words that serve as the catalyst for all else that follows in the novel, that pushes Valjean forward: “Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”(Hugo, 1862, Wilbour Trans, p. 92). Hugo, is far too experienced a novelist and man to offer the reader a change of heart of one of his characters, so permanently immediate. Valjean now carries the silverware and journeys to the outskirts of the town, where he meets up with a child who accidentally drops some coins on the road. The boy begs Valjean to lift his foot so he can retrieve his coins from underneath Valjean’s feet. Valjean refuses and subsequently berates the boy – who in fear runs away. Valjean struggles with himself. How could he have acted so to the child. Has he not now been give a second chance at life? Why did he repay with hatred and graft the abundant love he was so recently offered? Valjean is burning inside – his soul and conscience are slowly coming to life once more. Where is that boy? I must return to him the coins! But too late, tries as he does, he finds no trace of the boy. He sits down on a bench by the roadside, and soliloquizes: “he must now, so to speak, mount higher than the bishop, or fall lower than the galley slave; that, if he would become good, he must become an angel; that, if he would remain wicked, he must become a monster?” (Hugo, 1862, Wilbour trans., p. 97). In short, Valjean, seated on that innocuous bench is now caught in a no-man’s land; if he tries to stamp out his growing conscience he will become a worse creature than he was before – for now he rejects the goodness, that he has up until now been ignorant of. Alternately, if he takes goodness by the hand, he enters a world that he has hereto not known; he must walk a path based on Faith; a faith he has so often perceived as merely serendipitous. For Valjean, he chooses goodness – for in that way, he can begin to repay the sacrifice offered to him by the Bishop – a sacrifice that he comes to know as the novel progresses, was offered to him originally by Christ, and that also leads to a personal Gethsemane for the individual who seeks salvation. Hugo writes: “So struggled beneath its anguish this unhappy soul. Eighteen hundred years before this unfortunate man, the mysterious being, in whom are aggregated all the sanctities and all the sufferings of humanity, He also, while the olive trees were shivering in the fierce breath of the Infinite, had long put away from his hand the fearful chalice that appeared before him, dripping with shadow and running over with darkness, in the star-filled depths.” (Hugo, 1862, Wilbour trans., p. 206)