Monday, October 15, 2012

In 2012, The Issues of "Les Miserables" Live

I had a Les Miserables moment last week when my husband and I volunteered at our synagogue’s soup kitchen. As I helped to cook and serve over 100 of my hungry neighbors, I mused about whether or not we had progressed since the time that Jean Valjean was sentenced to prison for breaking into a bakery to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. Yes, we have some social safety net programs in place but due to their inadequacy, soup kitchens are still necessary. And yet, many in our country resent the tax dollars that are spent on feeding the poor. In fact, Congress has failed to pass a law to extend food stamps because Republicans want to cut down on the amount being spent and can’t agree on how little to spend.

But I was digressing there. My task is to discuss the Cosette section of Les Miserables that my friend Tien has put together so that all of us from around the world can have this online discussion. Thank you, Tien for doing this. As sadly relevant as the book is to today’s American issues, I would never have read it if not for your invitation to participate in this read-along.

Before answering Tien’s discussion questions, I have to say that I unwittingly bought an abridged copy of Les Miserables. It is edited and abridged by Laurence M. Porter and translated by C. E. Wilbur. The part about the battle at Waterloo was severely cut and so, I won’t comment about that question.

As for Cosette, I feel that everyone is born with some personality traits and each person reacts differently to trauma and hardship. Evidently, Cosette was endowed with a sweet nature. When she meets Jean Valjean, she senses immediately that he is there to rescue her from the degradation in which she’s been living. Not remembering her mother, all she remembers is being abused. This would make most people bitter and angry, but why isn't she? In the my version of the book, that question isn't explained. Maybe we should keep in mind that his book was written way before Freud or any psychological studies as we now know them. Perhaps, Hugo didn’t consider that question. Or perhaps Les Miserables was meant to be a larger than life study of the plight of the poor and Hugo didn’t want to delve into the psychological makeup of each character.

What do I think that life in a convent would be like for Cosette? I can only project on the basis of what I’ve read thus far. After life with the Thenardiers, Cosette may find the convent a haven. After all, her savior and protector Jean Valjean is there with her. At the end of the story, Hugo suggests that Fauchelevant paves her way with the Mother Superior pointing out Cosette’s homeliness. If the nuns like Cosette and treat her as equal to the other girls in the school, she may feel sheltered in the convent. It may prove to be the most peaceful years of her tumultuous life. This remains to be seen and I look forward to reading the next section of Les Miserables. Good reading, my fellow read-alongers.  


Monday, October 1, 2012


I was very intrigued when my friend Tien invited me to participate in a read-along of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. What I remembered from seeing the musical Les Miz over a decade ago was Jean Valjean’s being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. As any former high school French student remembers, Les Miserables broke new ground in 1862 in depicting the plight of the poor in France. I thought that this book would be relevant to today’s struggles of the poor, working poor, and embattled middle class in America.

At the same time, I was intrigued to be invited by someone in Australia to participate in an on-line book discussion with people throughout the English speaking world, the Philippines, and Indonesia. I look forward to reading everyone’s opinions and seeing how our outlooks are shaped by place and time.

That said, I enjoyed reading the first section Fantine of Les Miserables more than I thought I would. Although the book describes the plight of the poor in France at that time, it is also a book about redemption. Although Jean Valjean’s desperation is a major factor in his decision to commit his crime, he had control over whether or not he did it. Evidently the view of Victor Hugo was that Jean Valjean had free will and used that free will to break the bakery’s window and steal the bread even though he was driven to this act to a large degree by the hunger of his sister’s children. We could argue that he, in fact, had few remaining opportunities and so he did what he did. Nevertheless, I don’t think that was the point Hugo was trying to make. The point was that after he was released from 19 years in prison, he was able to redeem himself by leading an exemplary life. In my view, becoming wealthy enough to have many more choices made it considerably easier to do so. I’ve never wholly subscribed to the adage that money cannot buy happiness. Although it can’t buy happiness, it can buy health care, an opportunity for a good education, and more alternatives in sticky situations which can aid us in reaching happiness. The converse is that not having money for the rent or food can lead to a lot of unhappiness. Hence, Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread.

Bishop Myriel comes across as a character in a fable. He is part allegory and part reality placed in the story to show how one can influence another to turn his life around. For the most part, he seemed to be too good to be true and maybe he was.

As we all are, Javert was a product of his socio-economic environment embittered by earlier injustices done to him. As it can make some more compassionate, it seemed to make him more rigid. Thus, he is the perfect counter-point to Jean Valjean. They are two sides of the same coin showing how people are affected by a life of poverty. It will be interesting to read how they each grow and change as the story unfolds. I look forward to finding out how Victor Hugo handles this unfortunately timeless topic.