The BEST: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Reviewed by Yitzchak Blau
Summary: Jean Valjean, an escaped convict pursued by the authorities and living under an alias, is the protagonist of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1962 French novel. After experiencing a bishop’s act of kindness, Valjean turns his life around and dedicates himself to caring for others in general and for a young girl named Cosettea, an orphan mistreated by a family of innkeepers. Inspector Javert, representing cold-hearted justice, relentlessly pursues Valjean through most of the novel. In addition to the portraits of individual characters, the novel addresses broader social and political issues in nineteenth century France.
Why this is The BEST: The novel’s social critique is quite powerful. Poor people who steal in order to feed their family end up in prison where they become hardened criminals. Society condemns a destitute woman (Fantine, Cosette’s mother) who birthed a child out of wedlock and was then abandoned by the wealthy father. As a result, Fantine loses her job and later receives a prison sentence for responding to the harassment of a man named Bamatabois.
Les Misérables conveys the tension between justice and mercy. Javert wants to incarcerate Valjean despite the obvious goodness that Valjean now represents. For example, Valjean risks discovery when he uses his immense strength to save a man trapped under the wheels of a cart. Javert justifies his severe approach: “Such kindness disorganizes society. Good God, it is easy to be kind, the difficulty is to be just.” Only when Valjean saves his life does Javert reconsider his ideology, and is ultimately destoyed by his inability to arrive at a new equilibrium. Hugo artfully describes Javert:
He would have arrested his own father if he escaped from prison and turned in his own mother for breaking parole. And he would have done it with that sort of interior satisfaction that springs from virtue. His life was one of privation, isolation, self-denial, and chastity, never any amusement.
In contrast, the mercy and benevolence of Bishop Myriel transform Valjean. After the police catch Valjean with the bishop’s candlesticks, Myriel covers for his former guest by claiming that he gave them to Valjean as a gift, an act that leads to Valjean’s reformation. Of course, Judaism calls for a combination of mercy and justice; mercy alone turns impractical and even destructive. Yet Hugo shows us the ugliness of extreme commitment to justice and the law. Through the character of Javert, the author paints the ugly picture of justice untempered by mercy.
The novel includes important insights for religious people. At one point, Valjean rushes to court to save a man falsely identified as Valjean undergoing trial. Despite many incidents conspiring to make it difficult for him to get there in time, Valjean refuses to conclude that God wants him to simply remain safe in his new identity and ultimately saves the other fellow at the cost of returning to prison himself. Indeed, pristine religion does the morally right rather than taking cues from the vicissitudes of life about the divine will.
Hugo incorporates an extensive depiction of monastic life and readers experience the positives and negatives of Christianity. The goodness of Bishop Myriel contrasts with the corruption of other religious figures. Religious ideas sometimes cover more selfish pursuits: “The convent is a contradiction – its object salvation, its means self-sacrifice. The convent is supreme egoism resulting in supreme self-denial.” Of course, we can question whether wanting heaven invariably reflects a self-centered pursuit. (See my “Purity of Motivation and Desiring the World to Come,” Torah U-Madda Journal 14.)
The preceding few paragraphs explain the importance of returning to this novel at the present time. In our polarized political environment, we need to hear a nuanced voice that simultaneously acknowledges the great value of religion with the serious danger of religion’s corruption. In terms of the former, Hugo writes:
Those who deny the infinite are like a mole pitying people for their sun. Denial of the infinite leads directly to nihilism, nihilism denies the existence of the interlocutor and is not quite sure he exists himself.
One Caveat: The novel is quite long (my edition ends on page 1,463) and includes several extended tangents not crucial to the plot. Topics of those tangents include convents, the Battle of Waterloo, argot or underworld slang, and the Paris sewer system. Though I found most of the tangents interesting, a reader can skip them without harming his or her enjoyment of the novel.
Yitzchak Blau, an associate editor of Tradition, is Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta. Read his Tradition essays here.
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[Published on August 7, 2020]