Les Misérables is a very old book, written to a very old political context. How appropriate, then, that it is still exactly the thing we need to hear.
Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the musical, many are familiar with the bare bones plot of Les Misérables – Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread for his and his family’s survival, is thrown into prison, and after his release is on a constant and miserable run from the law. He also becomes a humble and changed man, adopts a daughter, oh and there’s a war and then there’s Gavroche and Marius and Enjolras and Thenardier and . . .
Yeah. It’s a big book. And to be frank, it’s been so thoroughly analyzed by experts and teachers over the decades that it reeks of hubris to expect that I can bring anything that’s actually new to the conversation. So instead of drawing out the intricacies of the French social context that I will pretend I did not read on Wikipedia, I want to draw out how the book’s central theme – the cruelty of the criminal justice system – has implications for our current cultural context in 2018.
But to do that, yes, I have to go back to France.
A great deal of the novel takes place in the shadow of the French Revolution. While the period from Jean Valjean’s release to his death takes up many years, the book culminates in the uprising of 1832, a mere three decades after the Revolution. One of my favorite parts of the book is actually the very beginning, when we meet the bishop Monseigneur Bienvenu, and he speaks with an old member of the Revolution. This conversation is, in many ways, a precedent and explanation for the rest of the novel. Hugo, himself more Republican than Monarchist, shows the bishop’s aversion to the violence of the Revolution, while also challenging the notion of caring more for the lives of the monarchy than the lives of the bourgeoisie. Bienvenu, a Christlike character if the novel ever had one, saves the desperate Valjean from being thrown back in prison, enabling him to start a new life.
It is in the shadow of the Revolution that the harshness of the French criminal justice system makes sense. It is, nonetheless, a horror for Jean Valjean. As punishment for having stolen a mere loaf of bread, he must show his papers to everyone he attempts to do business with, in a haunting gesture that feels like a marriage between our own concept of criminal records and the lepers of biblical history. Later, this same unforgiveness and harshness, embodied in the character of Javert, drives Fantine, an abandoned pregnant mother, to prostitution and her ultimate death in squalor and shame. Thus Jean Valjean, now a changed though a fugitive, adopts Cosette.
But with that context, I want to examine the events close to the book’s end, because there’s a parallel between two characters that I didn’t expect – Javert and Marius. Marius, Cosette’s romantic interest and ultimately her husband, is a Republican in the extreme. He participates in the uprising of 1832, and was proud to have a father who was a colonel under Bonaparte. In many ways, he ought to be the polar opposite of Javert, who practically worships authority and sees all of the world in purely black and white terms – so much so that he can’t cope when Jean Valjean, a criminal, saves his life and allows him to escape from the rebels.
And yet, when Jean Valjean reveals to Marius following his wedding that he is a fugitive, he views Jean Valjean as a common underground criminal, and tries to slowly cut him off from Cosette’s life. This is due in part to incomplete information (Valjean obscures his more virtuous actions, including saving Marius’s life while he was unconscious). In a strange twist of events, Marius becomes as unforgiving as Javert himself.
In part because Marius really is a man of integrity, he eventually discovers his error and seeks out Valjean’s forgiveness. But the way that Hugo frames this opinion of Marius is rather interesting:
“He had not yet come to distinguish between that which is written by man and that which is written by God, between law and right . . . He found it quite simple that certain breaches of the written law should be followed by eternal suffering, and he accepted, as the process of civilization, social damnation.”
This is somewhat jarring to read of Marius’s character. While his character is not flawless, he is full of integrity, and much about him is laudable. This description of him, particularly the bit about not distinguishing between the law of man and the righteousness of God, sounds a great deal like the inflexibility of Javert. And so rings the great truth of this part of the story – the cruelty that brings misery on the lower classes of Les Miserables is not restricted to those we think of as “bad men.” It can happen any time someone pursues justice at the expense of compassion.
This brings me back to the modern context. I speak frequently about the conflation of church culture and politically conservative culture, and while I consider myself much closer to a conservative than a liberal, there are still certain cultural attitudes from that sector that do not flow naturally from Christianity. Among these is a particular outgrowth from the “bootstraps” mentality; namely that you lie in the bed you make, and criminals get no change of sheets. This often is accompanied by a suspicion towards anyone with a criminal record, and a lack of compassion towards the plight of the ex-convict trying to make a new life. This includes, for example, resisting the pull of old habits and friends, trying to get a job while having to disclose your crime, and many other difficulties. Christians, unfortunately, have sometimes joined this social damnation.
Now of course, not all crimes are equal and neither are all criminals. For every Jean Valjean there is a Monsieur Thénardier. But we must take extra care that we do not assume everyone with a blemish on their record is a Thénardier; some might be Valjean, and feeling similarly discouraged and downtrodden. May we all be a Monseigneur Bienvenu to them.