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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa, I've noticed that you're taking a hiatus from your blog (kind of) and I just wanted to say that I'm glad to have you read along still with us :)

I do agree to your view that whilst money will not buy true happiness, it will definitely help (A LOT). Being poor is never a good thing. You may have some little happy moments but ultimately you'll be too tired to feel anything else really.

I reckon we'll have to keep in mind that Javert worked hard to get where he is and that he most probably would have made sure that he never stepped out of line - that he'll not be open to any sort of criticism etc to ensure his progression. He is also very ambitious. Whilst Valjean, well... he also worked hard but he was blessed truly by the kindness of M. Myriel noting that no one else is willing to give him a chance any other way. Only through this kindness and the remembrance of it that Valjean continues to be generous - returning the favor in kind but towards others.

Thanks for posting your thoughts, Lisa.

Lyn Cote said...

Hi Lisa,
I've been too busy to drop by for A LONG TIME! But am playing hookie from my writing.
You bring up an interesting point about what money can buy.
I think it's all balance. Money is to be used not hoarded or loved or used as a weapon against others.
And I always try to keep in mind that as an American, even though I am not thought wealthy, I am just by being born here.
So now that I've confused things more, I'll try to make myself write a few more sentences.

Lyn Cote said...

Well, Lisa, I wrote you a long comment and then your blog ate it.

Susan said...

I love Les Mis, both the musical and the book. It's been years since I read it though. I won't mention my most memorable scenes until you get to them. I'm glad to see you persisted through the beginning. I've heard people say you need to get through the first 100 pages to really get into it. I don't remember having that problem, but I read it just after seeing the musical for the first time. Come to think of it, that's been a long time. It might be time to revisit. Glad to see you back Lisa!

Lisa Rosenberg Sachs said...

Thanks, Susan. It's good to be back.