Friday, January 21, 2011

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables (Signet Classics)I count it no small accomplishment to have read Les Misérables in 28 days - yes, all 1463 pages in just 4 weeks! Now, I must admit that I skimmed some of the more lengthy historical parts, but I did slough my way through 60+ pages on 19th century Parisian sewers. That's got to make up for skimming the parts I read ten years ago during my first attempt when I only made it about two-thirds of the way through the book.

There is so much that could be said about this novel, and I immensely enjoyed our book club discussion which delved into many and varied topics. Julia's insights into the lack of father figures was particularly insightful!

As for me, the characters are what make a great book, and Les Misérables has an amazing cast of characters that evoke a whole spectrum of emotions. The bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, is inspiring and endearing. Jean Valjean is marvelous, complex, troubled, and above all good after the act of forgiveness and generosity that transformed him. Thenardier, well, he simply makes me shudder, and his wife is just as dreadful. Cosette and Eponine...I could go on and on...

But the main topic that I have debated myself is the idea of redemption in this novel. I think my expectations must have been too high to start with because I had been told that Les Misérables is the greatest story of redemption ever written, apart from the Bible, and I read it with that in view. I think I was looking for a more obvious correlation to the gospel, an actual spiritual redemption, not simply a moral one. But I suppose that was too much to expect from a story set in Roman Catholic Paris and from an author who rejected his Roman Catholic upbringing and called himself a freethinker.

Redemption is certainly a theme, but I must question if it is truly a Christian view of redemption since Christ is noticeably absent. Though the bishop's words certainly convey the idea "You were bought with a price..." (I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23), that price was paid by the bishop himself, and it is to him that Jean Valjean's thoughts always turn when he wrestles with difficult decisions about the right path to follow. This charge: "Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man...Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying from you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God" (106) becomes the guiding force of Jean Valjean's life, but in the absence of the gospel - of a clear declaration that Christ died for you, now you must live for Him - Jean Valjean's goodness is only a compilation of merits accumulated to assuage his conscience and overcome the social stigma of a convict. Now it must be granted that such a view is in keeping with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church where redemption would be the process of a lifetime, a conjoining of the work of Christ with the works of man. This is understandable in the historical context of 19th century France, but while a works-based idea of redemption may be true to the historical context and setting of the novel, it simply is not the penultimate illustration of redemption since true redemption cannot be separated from the true and complete gospel.

Thus, my Protestant and Reformed sensibilities have a hard time applying the term "redemption" to the whole story. It could be construed as a story of sanctification, though there are theological difficulties with that, as well, given the Roman Catholic context of the novel (see above). But if we shift the focus from man to God, it becomes quite obvious (to me, at least) that Les Misérables is a story of providence. Maybe this was even Victor Hugo's intention. He writes, "This book is a drama whose first character is the Infinite. Man is the second" (509). At the very least a testimony to providence is the result he could not hide in spite of his vague deist ideas of God, for he crafts a story in which it is only too obvious that something, someONE is superintending all events, bringing the exact people and circumstances together at the right times to preserve life, to give second chances, and yes, to further moral redemption, even if not salvific.

Now I'd like to hear your thoughts on this. Have you always considered Les Misérables a story of redemption? Can you see how it is a story of providence from first to last? Whatever your opinion, I'm sure we can agree that Les Misérables remains one of the greatest novels of all time, unsurpassed in its depiction of the depths and the heights of human character. Even though its length is daunting, it was well-worth the time (which really didn't seem that long), and I hope to read it at least once per decade.

On a side note, aren't these original (1862) illustrations of Cosette and Gavroche by Emile Bayard amazing? I would love to see an edition that included all the original illustrations.


Anonymous said...

I haven't yet made it through Les Miserables although I have started it a couple times. I am always overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the book...and the somewhat boring rabbit trails Victor Hugo seems to take. But I do want to make it all the way through one of these days.

~ Melinda ~

Sherry said...

Certainly providence, but also redemption, I think. The conflict between Valjean and Javert is at its heart a conflict between legalism/salvation by works and grace/salvation by dependence on the mercy of God. Javert is an officer of the law who cannot bear even the mercy of man, much less the mercy of God. Valjean is a criminal and sinner, knows himself to be worthless, nevertheless lives by faith after he encounters the grace of God personified in the old Bishop.

Cindy Swanson said...

I've never read the book, only seen the play--and the message one gets from the lyrics of the songs is definitely one of redemption. I wouldn't say it's the greatest story of redemption outside the Bible, but it's fairly clear.

For example, in Jean Valjean's song "What Have I Done?", it sounds an awful lot like a salvation experience:

"I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!"

Later, as Valjean is dying, he sings,

"God on high
Hear my prayer
Take me now
To thy care
Where You are
Let me be
Take me now
Take me there
Bring me home"

And his final words are "Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory."

So, although I can't speak for the book, I do find the play to have a real message of redemption--and I found it extremely moving.

Maybe someday I'll get around to reading the book! :)

Anonymous said...

I'm here from Semicolon's. I enjoyed reading your review. I just read the unabridged version in 2009 (my review is here:

I think you correctly analyzed the novel's portrayal of redemption. I have called it an excellent story of redemption, but it is more of a moral or literary redemption rather than a Christian one and I may have been projecting my own understanding of redemption onto it.

I had trouble wading through some of the lengthy side sections on Waterloo and the histories of convents and sewers, but overall the depth and beauty of the story shone through.

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

One month?!?! Four weeks!?!?! I find that amazing! I tried to read it in 2009, and did manage a good chink of it, but I grew weary and gave up. One year, I will do it!

Page Turner said...

I should clarify that I do think it is both a story of redemption and providence, but in the absence of Christ's work and righteousness, the view of providence that it presents is more theologically accurate than the view of redemption.

Sherry, you are right that Javert certainly personifies legalism, but I'm still not convinced that Jean Valjean quite makes it to the point of grace and faith apart from works.

Amy, I was just as surprised myself that I finished it that quickly. I did skim the Battle of Waterloo and some of the other more cumbersome sections that I had read in my previous attempt. So I guess it might be more accurate to say I read the whole novel in 10+ years!

Carrie said...

Definitely no small accomplishment!

Monseigneur Bienvenu is, I think, my favorite character.

I'm more removed from my reading of Les Mis and I can't remember my exact thoughts about the redemption aspect. I had to go back and read what I originally wrote (concerning Bienvenu) - and I came to the conclusion that he was a picture of Jesus to Valjean in his display of forgiveness.

Here is my original post if you are remotely interested:

You made me want to go back and re-read the story!

Carol in Oregon said...

Oh, oh, OH!!!

I just received the unabridged book in the mail TODAY from Paperbackswap. And now you have given me a challenge. 28 days. Just happens to be the number of days in February. Oh yeah!!!

Bubbling with excitement,

Carol in Oregon

Pam Elmore said...

What a great review! I wish I'd been a part of that book discussion.

Your challenge to the typical redemption motif makes sense. You're right, of course -- there's no real mention of God or Christ or the cross, so spiritual redemption in the true sense is not there. And providence is well-represented, despite no direct mention of God, similar to the way providence shows up in the book of Esther.

I guess I always viewed the story as a sort of stealth gospel, somewhat like The Chronicles of Narnia. Of course, that probably wasn't Victor Hugo's intent (though it was CS Lewis's). But it strikes me that Hugo really must have been wanting something beyond a deistic understanding of God in order to write something that speaks so strongly of redemption and self-sacrifice...