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# 108 “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo (#873 on The List)

Les Miserables

by Michael Niewodowski

#108 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (#873 on The List)

There is a LOT to say about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  At over 1400 pages, the novel is a sprawling, detailed epic depicting the lives of the poor in the early 1800’s in France.  Set against the backdrop of the on-again, off-again French Revolution, the novel delves deeply into the historical and cultural aspects of the time period.  Hugo gives comprehensive descriptions of the battle at Waterloo, the history of the sewers of Paris, the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the revolutionaries, and the language (Argot) of the poor lower classes (les miserables).

The many movies, abridged versions, and Broadway play have made the story and characters of Les Miserables quite popular and recognizable in modern culture.  The characters are vivid and unforgettable.  Fantine, a single mother who sells her hair, her teeth, and eventually herself, has become the symbol for the self-sacrificing mother.  Javert, the police inspector, is emblematic of stringent law and order.  Enjolras is the consummate revolutionary.  Thernardier is a scoundrel; not necessarily driven to a life of crime by his poverty, rather, he embraces it willingly.  The most important and stunning character in the novel is the protagonist, Jean Valjean.

Jean Valjean is the noblest character I have ever come across in literature.  He stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family; for that, he spent nineteen years in the galleys (he attempted several escapes, prolonging his sentence).  Upon his parole, he is driven to a life of crime, as he cannot find work, shelter, or food.  When a bishop shows him compassion and mercy, he is forever changed, undergoing an incredible transformation.  From that point on, where he encounters anger, he shows compassion: Fantine is angry with him for not saving her job, leading her to a life of prostitution; Valjean rescues and raises Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.  When he encounters greed, he shows generosity: more than once, he is overly generous to the greedy scoundrel, Thernardier.  Where there is ignorance, he shows wisdom; although Marius doesn’t know that it was Valjean that saved his life and carried him to safety through the sewers, he doesn’t tell Marius for the sake of Cosette’s marriage and honor.  Jean Valjean is a truly inspirational character.

Reading this novel has inspired me to try to be more like Jean Valjean.  Throughout the novel, he attempts to improve the lives of others.  For nearly a decade, he is a businessman, and then mayor of a town, helping the economy and livelihood of the townspeople.  However, it is temporary; when Valjean must reveal his true identity and abdicate his position, the townspeople fall back into poverty.  Similarly, I attempted to help others when I was a teacher for nearly ten years.  Although I know I made a positive difference in my students’ lives, it was only temporary and fleeting; like Valjean, I had a propensity for civil disobedience, and I was forced to resign my position.

Jean Valjean found his true redemption and nobility as a father to Cosette.  As a debt to her deceased mother, he rescues her from the Thernardiers, and raises and supports her with every privilege and love a father can give to a child.  Likewise, my main focus in life is my six year old son.  Instead of a career-centered life, as I spent my early adult years, I now choose a family centered life to spend more time with my son; I don’t make a lot of money, but I spend lots of time with him.  I play with him, I read to him, I swim with him, I discipline him, I try to answer all his questions, and I volunteer in his classroom.  I tell him that I love him every day.  I try to remember that I am his first and most influential teacher.  I was never the best chef or the best teacher in the world, but I am the best father I can possibly be to my son.  Like Cosette was to Jean Valjean, my son is my life.  Jean Valjean inspires me to be an even better father.

Look!  I fail my inspirer already!  Jean Valjean never bragged or boasted; in fact he often denied his own good deeds.  He was much more humble than I.  Clearly I have a long way to go before I can consider myself to be on his level.

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