Monday, March 20

Les Miserables

I have a sister whose main goal in life is to get me to read as many books as possible. I think she does this because she wants to talk with someone who has similar morals about the subjects covered in the books she reads. As it stands she has gotten me to read some very interesting books. One book that she convinced me to read was Les Miserables the unabridged version. While I found it tough to slog through the 40ish pages that describe the field where the battle of Waterloo was fought (in painstaking detail), I really enjoyed the in-depth character descriptions that never seem to make it into the movie adaptations. In fact, many of the books major characters are never even mentioned in movies, cliff-notes, and musicals.

The thing that disturbs me the most about the condensed version of the story is that the underlying truth that Mr. Hugo is trying to convey is lost. Every last person in the story is miserable, hence the title. Every character is a victim, and is a tragic figure. Valjean, Cosette, and Fantine are obviously tragic. They suffered at the hands of a corrupt system of government, and at the hands of others. The Thénardiers are often reduced to comic relief and cheap villainry. Javert is dehumanized and seen as only a mechanical monster. Marius and the other students are seen as noble martyrs, lofty and high-minded, using their tragic fate for a noble end.

Reading the book, undoes much of that. Valjean is a villian to Fantine by his ignorance of his factory's practices. The Thénardiers are undone by government and their own greed, and reduced to poverty that eats at the morals they once had. Eponine, their daughter, is a victim of Cosette's good fortune. Eponine's love for Marius, and the chance that he had to rescue her from her circumstances is lost or ignored because of his blind love for Cosette. Javert was raised in a prison by a cruel father, and was never able to see a good person. His belief that criminals are absolute, and can never be changed was such a part of him that he saw no choice but death when he learned of Valjean's goodness.

The only person who escaped his own misery, did so by taking the sufferings of others on himself. The Bishop Myriel chose when and by whom he would be made a victim. In so doing he shaped his own world, in a way that the others could not. He learned that one cannot escape misery, they can only chose it. By trying to escape it, you surrender your choice of misery to chance. I believe this is what Christ meant when he said to turn the other cheek. Don't escape your demons, choose them, and by choosing, control them.

I think Les Miserables was really the story of the plan of salvation. Eve ate the fruit knowing that life would happen like this. That every person to walk the face of the earth would be a tragic figure. That no person would escape sorrow and suffering. (Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.) But, by enduring the suffering, we will all move on and we will all find rest, comme la nuit se fait lorsque le jour s'en va.


Anonymous said...

Starfoxy, once again some powerful and interesting insights from you!

I confess I've never read it, but have seen several film and theater renditions, and enjoyed them very much. I've always been impressed by the idea portrayed by Javert that the inability to forgive festers and cankers the soul, and ultimately destroys us.

I'm putting it on my to-be-read list now thanks to you. And I still wish I'd studied French in school instead of German. Tja! 

Posted by Rich

Anonymous said...

I've always idolized Bishop Myriel. I've read all of Les Mis but once, but I've reread my favorite parts (esp. the first section) over and over again.

Heh. That's also one of my 2 or 3 fave quotes from the Princess Bride. It pops into my mind quite often. (Only slightly less often is "Have fun storming the castle boys!")

I really like your reading of the Bishop. As much as I love Buddhism, I don't like that its primary goal is to escape suffering. Though I've never really thought of him in terms of his suffering (I think of how peaceful and happy he looked when the moonlight shone on his sleeping countenance), you've presented him as someone who has chosen the suffering of others.

Christ, compassion embodied, could've escaped suffering and also chose to take upon himself the suffering of others.

I'm musing out loud here. I've recognized in myself (and others) a powerful desire to constantly escape from the suffering of the world. But there's a part of me that would like to take Myriel's route instead. I want to face and confront and embrace my demons instead of constantly trying to run and hide from them or even pretend that they're not there.

"Think it'll work?" "It would take a miracle." :) 

Posted by John

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