Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo

A man steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven hungry children. For this crime, a French court sentences him to five years in prison. While in prison, his sense of outrage festers and he breaks out repeatedly, only to be recaptured and sentenced to additional time for each escape. While serving his time the man, Jean Valjean, exhibits almost superhuman strength in his ability to lift and carry great weights. His prison guard Javert, a man of questionable heritage, becomes obsessed with bringing Valjean to his knees. Nineteen years after stealing the loaf of bread, Jean Valjean walks out of prison a free man. Javert, however, cannot let go of his need to crush his mighty nemesis and devotes the rest of his life to this pursuit.

Les Misérables is an intricately crafted novel that is both epic in scope and hugely entertaining; hidden inside the story is a treatise on how the human condition depends on the will of the people to improve their collective lot. Literally translated, the title means “the impoverished” or “the wretched”. In 19th century France, following the fall of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror, the poor found themselves, once again, at the mercy of the rich, forced to steal food and then being mercilessly prosecuted for trying to survive. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and his contemporaries believed that wretched conditions created criminals, in contrast to the prevailing view that one’s basic nature and potential were determined at birth. Outsized punishment for desperate acts of survival fueled the still simmering rebellion which had brought down a series of leaders as France struggled to govern itself. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the government wavered between attempts at forming a republic and reverting to a monarchy, and this instability provided a charismatic Italian artillery officer the opportunity to stage a coup d’état. During his reign, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte restored to France a false sense of glory by waging wars of aggression. Hubris led Napoleon to believe he could conquer Russia, leaving France weakened for the next many decades.

In Les Misérables Jean Valjean represents the voiceless underclass while Javert represents the abuse of power, under the guise of maintaining law and order, in service to authoritarian rule. Jean Valjean is no angel: upon his release from prison, he steals from a priest and is cruel to a little boy. The priest, representing the Christian notion of forgiveness, enables Jean Valjean to redeem himself by thwarting Javert’s prosecution of the theft. Javert knows that the priest is covering for Jean Valjean and reports the theft anyway. Humbled by the priest’s kindness, Jean Valjean devotes his life to atonement by doing good in the world. In order to live in peace, he changes his name to Monsieur Madeleine, becomes a successful businessman and prominent member of society, and lifts many out of poverty by providing jobs at his factory. None of this matters to “blind justice” in the person of Javert who discovers the true identity of “M. Madeleine” in an ironic plot twist. Javert gleefully arrests his quarry, but once again, Jean Valjean escapes, this time with money in his pockets. While on the lam, Jean Valjean rescues a little girl from servitude at the hands of her foster family and the two bond as father and daughter. Jean Valjean places the child, Cosette, in a convent for her safety while he stays one step ahead of Javert. Meanwhile, other characters and events conspire to bring Jean Valjean and Javert together repeatedly over the next few years.

While Javert pursues Jean Valjean, the Emperor Napoleon becomes desperate to hold onto power. Following France’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Russian General Kutuzov in 1812, the emperor’s former European allies turned against him and formed the so-called Sixth Coalition, putting as many as one million soldiers at the ready. Napoleon, by contrast, had fewer than 500,000 loyal troops remaining. This disadvantage did not stop him from attempting to retake parts of Germany which France had once controlled. The battle at Leipzig resulted in Napoleon abdicating the throne and being exiled to Elba, a small Italian island in the Tuscan Archipelago. A few months later, Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to France where his followers awaited his return from exile. King Louis XVIII left Paris as Napoleon returned in a blaze of glory. Given his outlaw status, a Seventh Coalition of nations established a strong military position along the border shared by France and The United Kingdom of the Netherlands (present day Belgium and The Netherlands). Rather than wait for the Seventh Coalition forces to invade France, Napoleon went on the offensive and quickly found himself surrounded on three sides by British, Dutch, German, Austrian, and Prussian forces. Three days later, on June 18th, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo ended with Napoleon’s final defeat.

Fifty thousand men died at Waterloo, a geographically small area, and the battlefield was literally an enormous pile of rotting bodies. While looting the bodies, Monsieur Thénardier, Cosette’s former guardian, discovers an injured colonel. M. Thénardier claims to be one of Napoleon’s soldiers and promises to help the colonel but instead moves out of sight. A short while later, Jean Valjean discovers the same unconscious colonel and carries him out of the battlefield. M. Thénardier gets credit for the rescue, however, and this leads to the colonel’s son Marius tracking down the wicked Thénardier family in order to give them a reward. By chance, Marius also meets up with Jean Valjean and Cosette who coincidentally all find themselves in the same place at the same time. Marius overhears the Thénardiers plotting to kill Jean Valjean and Cosette, with whom he has fallen in love, and reports this to local police inspector, who is none other than Javert.

Meanwhile student groups in Paris, outraged by the oppressively conservative Orléanists who seized power following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, stage a rebellion to support creation of a republic which would provide justice for the poor. Marius is part of this movement and believing that Cosette has left Paris, throws himself into the fray. Jean Valjean, none too pleased that Marius and Cosette are in love, can’t decide whether or not he wants Marius to survive the fight, but in the end does the right thing by carrying the injured young man to safety through the sewers of Paris.

The sewers serve a number of purposes in Les Misérables. First, to Victor Hugo and his contemporaries, sewers were a modern day marvel which enabled cities to grow and thrive by carrying away the human waste responsible for cholera epidemics. Sewers are an acknowledgement of the ugly reality of human existence: that everyone’s body produces foul waste regardless of social status. Jean Valjean, fugitive from twisted justice, must enter this fetid underworld conduit in order to save Cosette’s lover and himself. In the same way that blind justice is often unjust, sewers can carry away good things along with waste. Binary thinking, in other words, denies the complexity of humanity.

A prolific writer and poet, Victor Hugo, studied a number of political and philosophical themes throughout his life including good and evil, the “social contract”, equality, justice, utilitarianism, and morality. Les Misérables brings these ideas to life and demonstrates how public will in the form of representative government is the best way to advance the human condition and provide “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Governments “of, by, and for the people” acknowledge both our flaws and our aspirations and, when functioning properly, protect us from ourselves. The people of France followed America’s lead in attempting to create a state based on “liberty, equality, and brotherhood”; unlike forming a new nation where none existed inside of one hot summer, France struggled for more than a century to achieve political stability. While misery and injustice still exist in France, as in the United States, the overall human condition has vastly improved in these two countries.

As we have seen in Japan, however, the human condition can change in a day. We Americans take our government for granted, often vilifying it, even though it is a reflection of ourselves – good, bad, and ugly. State governors who disdain the federal government, are usually first in line for handouts when disaster strikes, and then quick to criticize the assistance as too little too late. Considering the alternatives to our imperfect more perfect union, certain politicians doth protest too much methinks.

Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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