Victor Hugo

Before reading Les Misérables, I felt like I had to read the Wikipedia page for Victor Hugo. I’ll admit, that is a little nerdy. If I understood who Victor Hugo was and what he went through, I thought I could possibly understand his most popular book even more. Don’t authors make a preview of their culture and lifestyle through their books? I think so. So I could posssibly learn more about early 1800s France.

Victor Hugo became a writer and a poet by passion for the art. His mother encouraged him to pursue writing, because Hugo was becoming and avid and obsessive writer. At the same time, France went through so many upheavals and revolutions, that some things just came out a little weird. And because a few things were weird, Hugo became politically involved and pushed for a lot of social reform in France.

During his life as a politician and writer, Victor Hugo became more of a freethinker. He thought that truths could be found by reason. Hugo also lived a large portion of his life in exile from France because Napolean III was in power. Napolean III and Hugo didn’t exactly agree on a lot of points. Hugo would only return to France when Napolean III fell from power.

Jean Valjean

I will try to describe the origin of Jean Valjean, the main character of Les Misérables, and how he decides to be an honorable man.

Valjean finds himself in constant struggles for a crime that he committed. Caring for his family, Valjean walks past a bakery, sees some bread in a window, and he breaks the window pane to steal the bread for his family. Valjean is later apprehended and arrested for stealing a loaf of bread and intruding in on a house.

Valjean’s original sentence was 5 years, but the prison sentence was extended for each of Valjean’s attempted escapes. Valjean spent a total of 19 years in prison until his parole came up.

When Valjean is released from prison, he is given a yellow passport that identifies him as a dangerous ex-convict. The yellow passport becomes a sizzling brand for Valjean. Due to his status as an ex-convict, Valjean can not get any service from any inns. Eventually Valjean is told to ask the bishop of a town for help.

Valjean asks, and the bishop accepts him. The book shows Valjean ranting that he is a convict and he could be a murderer. The bishop essentially ignores Valjean’s attempt to get the bishop to reject him immediately. The bishop treats Valjean as an honored guest with silverware for dinner.

Valjean goes to sleep in a comfortable bed, and he later wakes up unsettled by the bishops kindness. Sadly, Valjean decides to steal silverware from the bishop and run. The bishop and his assistants wake up in the morning, and the assistants are shocked to find the silverware stolen. But the bishop says to his assistants that he now knows that the silver didn’t belong to him. They belonged to the poor and needy, and in this case, Valjean.

While on the run, police capture Valjean because he looked suspicious carrying a bag. The police discover the stolen silver and they bring Valjean back to the bishop. Surprising Valjean and the policemen, the good bishop says that the silverware was given to Valjean. The bishop then gives Valjean more valuables, some silver candlesticks, and the bishop teaches Valjean that his soul has been bought for God and that he must “become and honest man”. Valjean is realeased by the police, and he leaves the bishops house confused and troubled.

When Jean Valjean left the bishop’s house, as we saw, his thoughts were unlike any he had ever known before. He could understand nothing of what was going on inside him. He stubbornly resisted the angelic deeds and the gentle words of the old man. […] In opposition to this celestial tenderness, he summoned up pride, the fortress of evil in man. He dimly felt that this priest’s pardon was the hardest assault, the most formidable attack he had ever sustained; that his hardness of heart would be complete, if it resisted this kindness; that if he yielded, he would have to renounce the hatred with which the acts of other men had for so many years filled his soul, and in which he found satisfaction; that this time, he must conquer or be conquered, and that the struggle, a gigantic and decisive struggle, had begun between his own wrongs and the goodness of this man.

Valjean had spent 19 years in prison where he learned to hate the world because the world hated him. Valjean had created a resilient soul to protect him from everyone else. And yet, one spark of kindness and love brings a bombardment. Valjean’s assumption of the world is not correct. Valjean needs to let go of his pride. But just as pride grips the heart of man in an tight and cold iron cage, it was hard for Valjean to be freed from his pride. Valjean realized that his whole world wasn’t turned upside down, it was him that was upside down. He needed to turn himself around and to gain a new perspective on society.

Gladly, the story later recounts that Valjean had turned away from his pride and Valjean becomes a benevolent steward over so many others.

Valjean’s origins are very sad. He grew up poor, and he was highly mistreated for simply needing to feed his starving family. And because of this mistreatment, Valjean became hard and bitter. Nevertheless, the bishop threw down Valjean’s pride, ego, and mental protections. Valjean used that opportunity to become a man of high esteem.

Valjean’s Misery

What does it mean to be miserable? How does Victor Hugo illustrate the meaning of miserable? Why title one whole and huge book about miserable people? Since I pointed out Jean Valjean, what experiences does Valjean have to demonstrate about being miserable?

It seems that Victor Hugo paints the miserable as someone that is unable to do more for his or her own situation because they are oppressed in some form or another. One character I have pointed out, among numerous others, is Jean Valjean. Is Valjean miserable? He could be. During Valjean’s life, he has encountered numerous problems that could prevent happiness because he was oppressed in some form.

I also think Valjean points to a multi-dimensional range of misery. There is misery’s pit, which is where there is no mercy. There is also misery’s company, where one may have left the pit but you are still as if in misery’s company. Then there is misery’s challenge to test what an inidividual will do in a problematic situation.

Misery’s Pit

When Valjean was prisoner 24601 in the prison of Toulon, he was as miserable as misery can permit. All he stole was a loaf of bread, and he got sentenced to grueling years of service. And from stealing a loaf of bread, he got sentenced to one of the worse prisons in France working the galleys.

Furthermore, Valjean attempted to escape from the cold dirty pit of misery multiple times, only to get caught and to be forced back into the freezing welcoming arms of misery. Valjean encountered so much doubt, wrath, and anger. How could he be treated as a demon in the pit of misery when all he did was steal a loaf of bread? Couldn’t there be any mercy provided for Valjean? Instead of the freeing release of mercy, Valjean got misery. There was virtually zero hope for Valjean while he was in prison. Surely, this is the worse misery could get.

Misery’s Company

But then Valjean is released after serving 19 years in prison. Valjean thinks he is done with misery, but he doesn’t realize that misery follows like a mangy street dog. Due to his status as an ex-convict, people reject Valjean and misery becomes Valjean’s only company.

The book describes a particular situation that could be interpreted as having the company of misery. Valjean attempts to room and board at several different inns, and he is rejected at each place. So Valjean goes outside of the town, and he finds a dog house. Valjean tries to make room inside the dog house, but a dog comes and bites him. Valjean exclaims that not even the dogs accept him. He makes his way back into town to sleep in the town square alone.

Eventually, a town citizen tells Valjean in the square to see the bishop of the town. Valjean goes to see the bishop, and the bishop accepts and provides Valjean with a shelter from misery.

The bishop, by simple and profound generosity, is able to give Valjean the push to turn his life around to escape the clutches of misery for a few more years. Valjean escapes his name and reputation, and he adopts another name.

Misery’s Challenge

But then misery comes knocking at Valjean’s door once more dressed up as a police inspector. Javert has unwittingly found Valjean. Javert becomes the thorn in Valjean’s side for the majority of the story. Valjean is living under the constant threat of going back to prison for the rest of his life, due to Javert’s pursuit. Happiness for Valjean becomes a little bit hard to get.

With Javert’s chase of Valjean, this means that Valjean would have to recognize his former self, in which he attempted to forget when he became a new man. Valjean remembers how bitter and miserable he was. He doesn’t want to return to it. So Valjean works to escape Javert several times. By escaping, Valjean also escapes his previous life.

There is one more example in the book that shows another aspect to misery. It is when Valjean turns himself in. Valjean argues with himself constantly if he should turn himself in. When Valjean comes to a decision, another thing happens to cause Valjean to argue with himself even more.

Remarkably, Valjean somehow forces himself to try to turn himself in, because it is the right thing to do. As Valjean goes to turn himself in, he keeps arguing with himself. He doesn’t want to return to prison. He wants to keep helping people, because he has made such an impact in his community. Yet, Valjean would not have peace of conscience if he knew someone else took the fall for him.

Valjean encouters a moral struggle. Does Valjean continue the status quo or does he stand up to make a difference. In the case of Valjean, continuing the status quo usually involves an unethical decision, where as making a difference is something ethical but it risks exposing himself as an ex-convict.

It seems as though that the prospect of both ethical and unethical decisions will bring misery for Valjean. If Valjean chose the ethical decision, that would mean risk going to prison or being on the run. Or if Valjean chose unethically, he would live with a guilty conscience. The only difference between an ethical and unethical decision for Valjean is the internal peace that he can have. Valjean just has to make the decision with which consequences he wants to live with.

Valjean’s Resolution

Does Valjean grow in character and conviction in the threat of misery? I think he certainly does. There are so many things that Valjean had to go through, and Valjean’s responses helped to construct his own character.

Valjean constantly chose what he thought was right. By doing so, Valjean increased in his ability to withstand misery. He learned more how to accept situations as they occurred, even if he couldn’t control the outcome. He could only control what he decided for himself and Valjean was able to make a difference in the lives that he could influence.