“It is rare for those who have sunk so low not to be degraded in the process, and there comes a point, moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single fateful word. They are Les Miserables – the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the most fallen who have most need of charity?“ – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, pg. 640
I have just come from seeing the musical film version of this amazing story and it sufficiently blew. me. away. I don’t even have the energy or words to explain why – just see it yourself. Now. And bring tissue.
But part of the reason I believe I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did is because our book club chose Victor Hugo’s UNABRIDGED literary work (Yes, all 1200+ pages) as our bonus summer read last year. It is now one of my favorite books of all time and adds a new depth to the musical, 1998 film, and this most recent adaptation as well.
I highly recommend it, although my friend Michelle would point you to the abridged version (only 700+ pages) so that you don’t have to peruse through long winded tangents regarding the Napoleonic wars, the history of the French sewer system and the benefits of human manure. (Surprisingly, Hugo’s writing style actually made these topics more interesting to me than I ever would have imagined, though I must confess that there were pages when I resorted to reading the first sentence of each paragraph….)
I was hooked immediately by the first 50 pages that paint the background and character of Monseigneur Bienvenu, the bishop who so graciously pardons Jean Valjean – as he only gets a few minutes of screen/theatre time.
It was also refreshing to read a book that acknowledges God simply because He is just part of culture (whether each character believes in Him or not), rather than our post-modern books (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.) that pretend He doesn’t exist despite all the potential circumstances (death, war, good vs. evil, etc.) that could cause Him to be entertained by even the most unbelieving soul.
And the writing is superb. So instead of trying to do the book justice with a lengthy review, I will simply let it speak for itself. So grab a cup of tea, a croissant, and J’apprecie! (Enjoy!)
Regarding the Bishop Monseignor Bienvenu
(To comfort a man who was about to be guillotined): “Whom man kills God restores to life; whom the brothers pursue the Father redeems. Pray and believe and go onward into life. Your Father is there.”
He was haunted by the ghost of social justice.
(He took a wealthy donation for church altar improvements and gave it to the poor.) “The soul of an unfortunate who thanks God for consolation is the best of altars.“
(When receiving a comment that his fourth garden plot was wasted because it was filled with flowers instead of vegetables): “The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” Then, after a pause, he added: “More so, perhaps.“
“We must never fear robbers or murderers. They are dangers from outside, small dangers. It is ourselves we have to fear. Prejudice is the real robber, and vice the real murderer. Why should we be troubled by a threat to our person or our pocket? What we have to beware of is the threat to our souls.“
(On his time spent at night in the garden): A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.
He was simple soul who loved, and that was all.
There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; and the universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity. ‘Love one another.’ To him everything was contained in those words, his whole doctrine, and he asked no more.
On the infamous interaction between the bishop and Jean Valjean
Each time the priest uttered the word ‘Monsieur’ (to Jean Valjean) in his mild, companionable voice the man’s face lighted up. The courtesy, to the ex-convict, was like fresh water to a shipwrecked man. Ignominy thirsts for respect.
“You need have told me nothing. This house is not mine but Christ’s. It does not ask a man his name but whether he is in need. You are in trouble, you are hungry and thirsty, and so you are welcome. You need not thank me for receiving you in my house. No one is a home here except those seeking shelter. Let me assure you, passer-by though you are, that this more your home than mine. Everything in it is yours. Why should I ask your name? In any case I knew it before you told me.” The man looked up with startled eyes. “You know my name?” “Of course,” said the bishop. “Your name is brother.“
“Yes. You have come from an unhappy place. But listen. There is more rejoicing in Heaven over the tears of one sinner who repents than over the white robes of a hundred who are virtuous. If you leave your place of suffering with hatred in your heart, and anger against men, you will be deserving of our pity; but if you leave with goodwill, in gentleness and peace, you will have risen above any of us.“
He must have reflected that the man, this Jean Valjean, was sufficiently oppressed already with the burden of his wretchedness, and that it was better to distract his thoughts and make him feel, if only for a little while, that he was a man like any other. Was not this true charity? Is there not true evangelism in the delicacy which refrains from preaching and moralizing? To avoid probing an open wound, is not that the truest sympathy?
(Regarding Jean Valjean’s 19 years of prison and hard labor for the initial theft of a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children and his attempts to escape):
There are terrible occasions in our civilization, those when the Law decrees the wrecking of a human life…He had gone to imprisonment weeping and trembling; he emerged impassive. He had gone despairing; he emerged grim-faced. What had taken place in this man’s soul?… During the years of suffering he reached the conclusion that life was a war in which he was one of the defeated. Hatred was his only weapon, and he resolved to sharpen it in prison and carry it with him when he left…[However] Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine, indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish, and fan into glorious flame, and which evil can never quite extinguish?…God’s finger writes on the brow of every man, the word Hope.
(After Jean Valjean steals the silver from the bishop, gets caught, and is not only pardoned by him but also given the silver that he steals):
“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.“…The kind of dreadful calm instilled in him by injustice and misfortune had begun to crumble. What was to take its place?…Obscurely he perceived that the priest’s forgiveness was the most formidable assault he had ever sustained; that if he resisted it his heart would be hardened once and for all, and that if he yielded he must renounce the hatred which the acts of men had implanted in him during so many years and to which he clung…Jean Valjean wept for a long time…and as he wept a new day dawned in his spirit, a day both wonderful and terrible. He saw all things with a clarity that he had never known before…
They [naive young women] are swept off their feet by the prospect of all that is glorious and inaccessible.
Girls sweetly give themselves and believe that it will last forever.
…She kept an eye on them with that protective watchfulness, half animal, half angelic, which is the quality of motherhood.
(Monsieur Madeleine/Jean Valjean comforting Fantine): “The hell you have endured is the doorway to Heaven, through which you had to pass.”
On Cosette (and Marius)
….But she was ignorant of all other matters, which is both a charm and a peril. A young girl’s mind must not be left too much in darkness or else too startling and too vivid imaginations may arise in it, as in a curtained room. She needs to be gently and cautiously enlightened, more by the reflection of reality than by its direct, harsh glare…Only a mother’s instinct, that intuitive blend of maiden recollection and womanly experience, can understand the composition and the shedding of that half-light; there is no substitute for this. In the forming of a young girl’s soul not all the nuns in the world can take the place of a mother.
But in this work of education, this most serious business of preparing a woman for life, how much wisdom is needed, how much skill in combating that state of profound ignorance that we call innocence!
Following that blessed and hallowed hour when a kiss had sealed the lovers’ vow, Marius went there every evening. If at this moment in her life Cosette had had to do with an unscrupulous libertine, she would have been lost; for there are warm hearts whose instinct is to give, and she was one of those. Among the most great-hearted qualities of women is that of yielding. Love, when it holds absolute sway, afflicts modesty with a kind of blindness. The risks they run, those generous spirits! Often they give their hearts where we take only their bodies. That heart remains their own, for them to contemplate in shivering darkness. For with love there is no middle course: it destroys, or else it saves. All human destiny is contained in that dilemma, the choice between destruction and salvation, which is nowhere more implacably posed than in love. Love is life, or it is death. It is the cradle, but also the coffin. One and the same impulse moves the human heart to say yes or no. Of all things God has created it is the human heart that sheds the brightest light, and alas, the blackest despair.
God decreed that the love which came to Cosette was a love that saves.
“Do you understand it all?” Marius asked Cosette. “No,” she replied. “But I feel that God is watching over us.”
To how many of us is it given to realize our dream? Perhaps the matter is decided by elections in Heaven, with the angels voting and all of us candidates. Cosette and Marius had been elected.
“I will give you a piece of advice – adore one another. Be happy. There are no wiser creatures in all creation than the turtle-doves. The philosophers say, ‘Be moderate in your pleasures,’ but I say, enjoy them to the full. Go mad with pleasure and let the philosophers stuff their dull counsels down their throats. Can there be too much perfume in the world, too many rosebuds or green leaves or singing nightingales or breathless dawns? Can two people charm and delight one another too much, be too happy, too much alive?…We all have our own way of worshipping God, but the best of all, Heaven knows, is to love one’s wife.” – Monsieur Gillenormand (Marius’ grandfather)
And here we must pause. At the door of every bridal bed chamber an angel stands, smiling, with a finger to his lips.
On the Inspector Javert
Reflection was something to which he was unused, and he found it singularly painful.
…His greatest anguish was the loss of certainty. He had been torn up by the roots. The code he lived by was in fragments in his hand. He was confronted by scruples that were utterly strange to him. He could no longer live by his lifelong principles; he had entered a new strange world of humanity, mercy, gratitude and justice other than that of the law. He contemplated with horror the rising of a new sun – an owl required to see with eagle’s eyes. He was forced to admit that kindness existed. The felon had been kind, and, a thing unheard of, so had he. Therefore he had failed himself. He felt himself to be a coward. Javert’s ideal was to be more than human; to be above reproach. And he had failed.
On Jean Valjean’s final days
(Grieving the loss of Cosette to marriage:) His meditation lasted through the night…He was motionless as a corpse, while the thoughts flew and tumbled in his mind. Until suddenly he shuddered convulsively and pressed Cosette’s childhood garments to his lips. Only then did one see that he was alive. One. Who was that one, when there was no one else there? The One who is present in the shadows.
I was saying to myself, “I shall never see her again!” How idiotic it was! One forgets to trust in God.
Jean Valjean had listened to the music of her voice rather than to the words, and one of those great tears which are the deep pearls of the soul brimmed in his eye. He murmured: “This is proof that God is good.“
“To die is nothing; but it is terrible not to live.”
Those Thenardiers were wicked people, but we must forgive them.
(Anonymously chalked on his unadorned gravestone):
He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,
He lived; and when his dear love left him, died.
It happened of itself, in the calm way
That in the evening night-time follows day.
The Wisdom of Hugo
It may be remarked in passing that success is an ugly thing. Men are deceived by its false resemblances to merit.
He loved books, those undemanding but faithful friends.
The supreme happiness in life is the assurance of being loved; of being loved for oneself, even in spite of oneself…
The cruel of heart have their own black happiness.
Curiosity is a form of gluttony: to see is to devour.
Conscience is the labyrinth of illusion, desire, and pursuit, the furnace of dreams, the repository of thoughts of which we are ashamed; it is the pandemonium of sophistry, the battlefield of passions…The infinite space that each man carries within himself, wherein despairingly he contrasts the movements of his spirit with the acts of his life, is an overpowering thing.
We can no more prevent a thought returning to the mind than we can prevent the sea from rising on the foreshore. To the sailor it is the tide, to the uneasy conscience it is remorse. God moves the soul as He moves the oceans.
Disease is a great simulator of age.
Punctuality is a part of kindness.
Nothing is more charming than the glow of happiness amid squalor.
He was the child’s support and she his mainstay. Sublime, unfathomable marvel of the balance of destiny.
We live in times of terrible confusion. The world is ignorant of things that it should know and knows things that are better unknown.
No ambition is every wholly fulfilled, at least here on earth.
Scepticism [is] that dry-rot of the intellect.
Peace is happiness in process of digestion.
The soul aids the body and at moments uplifts it. It is the only bird that can endure a cage.
Old people need love as they need sunshine; it is warmth.
Nothing is more dangerous than to stop working. It is a habit that can soon be lost, one that is easily neglected and hard to resume.
To substitute day-dreaming for thought is to confuse a poison with a source of nourishment.
Beauty enhanced by innocence is incomparable.
Work is the law of life, and to reject it as boredom is to submit to it as torment. Not wanting to be a workman you will become a slave…You flinch from the fatigues of honest men, and for this you will sweat…where other men sing you will groan….The splendid glow of a smith’s furnace! The joy of leading a horse, of binding a sheaf of corn! The wonder of a ship sailing in freedom over the seas! But you, the idler will toil and plod and suffer like an ox in the harness of Hell, when all you wanted to do was — nothing!
Rascality is a comfortless life: honesty is far less demanding.
Sometimes insurrection is resurrection.
The spirit does not give way to despair until it has exhausted every possibility of self-deception.
Genius invites hostility. Great men are always more or less assailed.
All our heroism stems from our womenfolk. A man without a woman is like a pistol without a hammer; the woman sparks the charge.
Love is the folly of men and the wisdom of God.
It is sad that the crowds should be amused by what should outrage them, these manifestations of riotous vulgarity; but what is to be done? The insult to the public is exonerated by the public’s laughter. The laughter of everyman is the accomplice of universal degradation.
The circumstances of happiness are not enough, there must also be peace of mind.
A young man’s poverty is never miserable…He ends a millionaire of the spirit…and he blesses God for having bestowed on him those two riches which the rich so often lack – work, which makes a man free, and thought, which makes him worthy of freedom.
Equal sharing abolishes competition and, in consequence labour…To destroy wealth is not to share it. Encourage the rich and protect the poor; abolish pauperdom; put an end to the unjust exploitation of the weak by the strong and a bridle on the innate jealousy of the man who is on his way for the man who has arrived; achieve a fair and brotherly relationship between work and wages; associate compulsory free education with the bringing-up of the young, and make knowledge the criterion of manhood; develop minds while finding work for hands; become both a powerful nation and a family of contented people; democratize private property not by abolishing it but by making it universal, so that every citizen without exception is an owner, which is easier than people think – in a word, learn how to produce wealth and how to divide it, and you will have accomplished the union of material and moral greatness; you will be worthy to call yourself France.
“In terms of policy there is only one principle, the sovereignty of man over himself, and this sovereignty of me over me is called Liberty.” (Enjolras, leader of the revolutionaries)
“Equality, citizens, does not mean that all plants must grow to the same height – a society of tall grass and dwarf trees, a jostle of conflicting jealousies. It means, in civic terms, an equal outlet for all talents; in political terms, that all votes will carry the same weight; and in religious terms that all beliefs will enjoy equal rights. Equality has a means at its disposal – compulsory free education. The right to learn the alphabet, that iw where we must start.” (Ibid.)
“I am speaking to you, friends in a dark hour; but this is the hard price that must be paid for the future. A revolution is a toll-gate. But mankind will be liberated, uplifted, and consoled. We here affirm it, on this barricade. Whence should the cry of love proceed, if not from the sacrificial alter?…Suffering brings death, but the idea brings immortality.” (Ibid.)
The general life of the human race is called Progress, and so is its collective march. Progress advances, it makes the great human and earthly journey towards what it heavenly and divine; it has its pauses, when it rallies the stragglers, its stopping places when it meditates, contemplating some new and splendid promised land that has suddenly appeared on its horizon. It has its nights of slumber; and it is one of the poignant anxieties of the thinker to see the human spirit lost in shadow, and to grope in the darkness without being able to awake sleeping progress…It is wrong to despair. Progress invariably reawakens, and indeed it may be said that she walkes in her sleep, for she has grown. Seeing her again on her feet, we find that she is taller. To be always peaceful is no more a part of progress than it is of a river, which piles up rocks and creates barriers as it flows; these obstacles cause the water to froth and humanity to seethe. This leads to disturbance; but when the disturbance is over we realize that something has been gained. Until order has been established, until harmony and unity prevail, the stages of progress will be marked by revolutions…Progress…is the permanent life of all people. But it sometimes happens that the momentary life of individuals is opposed to the eternal life of the human race.
[She was} one of those ladies who mistake audacity for wit.
Blurted conversation is an expense of spirit. Flowing beer gathers no head.
Indigestion was designed by God to impose morality on stomachs.
He attended Mass…because, liking the faces of men but disliking the noise they made, Church was the only place where he could find them together and silent.
She had a Parisian nose, which means one that is lively and sensitive, irregular and as nature made it, the despair of painters and the delight of poets.
…That dangerous stage fatal to womanhood left to its own devices, when the heart of a lonely girl resembles the tendrils of a vine which may attach itself, as chance dictates, to a marble column or an inn-sign.
“There are people who observe the rules of honour as we do the stars, from a very long way off.” Combeferre (one of the revolutionaries)
Phrases I wish I had written myself
There are prisoners, obsessed with the thought of escape, eternally envious of the birds and the flies, who make a positive cult of the physical sciences, daily performing a mysterious ritual of exercises.
Like an owl overtaken by a sudden sunrise, he was blinded by the radiance of virtue.
…Bees pillaged the clover, a riot of butterflies hovered over jasmine…and the noble park was occupied by a host of vagabonds, the birds.
The child opened wide eyes…with that intent, sometimes stern expression of small children which is among the marvels of their shining innocence, in contrast to our own sullied virtues. It is as though they know themselves to be angels and the rest of us only human.
It was purely an accident, one of those chance happenings that are so often a part of the mysterious stage-management of scenes of tragedy.
The passer-by had a glimpse of a most sombre place. The threshold might smile, but the house itself prayed and wept.
One gallant little bird, doubtless lovelorn, was singing his heart out at the top of a tall tree.
A reverent thank you to Victor Hugo for opening up my world to one of the most beautiful and truthful stories ever told.