I’ve been getting a lot of time to read lately, since I help the baby sleep by staying next to her. So, since mid-July I have been reading the unabridged Les Miserables. I’ve always loved the musical, and wanted to read the book in total which turned out to be about 1/2 social-political commentary and 1/2 plot. So if you want a republican, social justice view of 19th century France, this is your book! There also is a good amount of history, which I supplemented with wikipedia (lol). Anyway, I don’t know any French, but apparently “les miserables” translates into something like “the outcasts,” and if you look at each of the main characters, they are all some sort of outcast from society. You have Jean Valjean the exconvict, Fantine the former mistress of a wealthy student who was left with an illicit child, Cosette the orphan child being raised by the exconvict who is ignorant of the whole, the Thenardier family who spend their whole lives stealing from people, Javert who is a police officer standing outside society to keep order, Marius the orphan and republican student and so on.
The person I want to look at here is Jean Valjean. He spent 19 years in jail for things he realized he was stupid to do, but is filled with rage and hate. When he is on parole he discovers society’s terror of him because he is an exconvict and while the bishop shows him love and mercy, he always retains this horror of himself. So while he successfully disguises his former identity as a prosperous mayor and factory owner, he lives in fear of his former self. He knows it exists within him, and no matter how many good deeds he does and no matter how virtuous he becomes he is always aware of who he is, Jean Valjean the exconvict. It does not matter that all he did was break a window and steal a loaf of bread when he was starving, he is an exconvict. As soon as people know who he is they are afraid of him and think he is awful. Yet, when they do not know who he is they recognize his saintly deeds and virtue and admire him.
There are several turning points where Valjean struggles with choosing the morally right thing, after his meeting with the bishop his conscience always overcomes and the choice always leads to him exposing his true self and being condemned by those who respect him. So naturally he is terrified of his exconvict self as well. No one seems to believe that an exconvict can be any good, that is until at the end one person knows his criminal history, but also all the good he has done. This person recognizes that he is a saint.
Jean Valjean represents the life of a saint. He has a conversion, turns from his old life, never does a wrong thing again and is constantly running from his former sins. He seeks the life of virtue and union with God, but is always aware of his sinful nature. He constantly condemns himself when he is already so good. He continues to find his weaknesses and overcomes them until he has completely abandoned himself to the point of physical death. I think this is how we are called to overcome our sins, to become more and more selfless so that we completely lose ourselves in God. We need to be horrified at our ability to sin and our past sins. Fortunately, God is much more forgiving than society, and we must run to him.
If we truly live the call to sainthood, we will be cast out of society like Jean Valjean was, though not in the same way. He was legally an outcast, but the way he lived also set him apart. He lived on the bare minimum and his only luxury was his love for Cosette, and when he lost her, he died. We also need something to flourish on, and Valjean says that this is love–without love the human soul dies, the human dies. So we must live the lives of saints with those whom we love and not fear the call to be outcasts. Tough stuff…