Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Les Miserables

The other day, I went to see the new cinematic production of Les Miserables. Whatever one might think about the movie or individual performances within it, I was once again struck by the grandeur and profundity of Victor Hugo’s story. I read the book again last year (I am proud to say that I read it in French). It is an astonishing undertaking (the writing, that is; although the reading is not a bad effort either). I suspect that one could spend many hours discussing the various messages that the story contains. Here I just want to say a few brief words, mainly about two of the central characters, Jean Valjean and Javert.

It would be easy to regard Jean Valjean as the hero of this piece, and Javert as the villain. Certainly they are antagonists. Nevertheless, I don’t believe it was ever Hugo’s intention to paint Javert as a villain. Jean Valjean certainly doesn’t. Javert is a good man. He is a moral man. He is a man of duty. His behaviour is faultless, in terms of the moral values that he holds dear. The contrast that Hugo presents is not between an evil man and a good man, but between a good man and a holy man. Jean Valjean is a saint, in all but name, despite being “immoral” according to the standards of the day. I think that Hugo is trying to point out that holiness or saintliness transcends morality. Morality is highly dependent on the context and culture of the day. What was considered immoral one hundred, fifty or even ten years ago is not necessarily considered so today; and vice versa. But holiness or sanctity is a timeless quality that transcends such human and social contexts.

If there is an embodiment of evil in Les Miserables it is to be found in Thenardier. He is the true villain of the piece. Unfortunately this is obscured in the musical version of the story, which turns him and his wife into the comic relief. Interestingly, the other figure in the novel that to some extent embodies saintliness is the daughter of this evil figure: Eponine. Despite the extreme poverty into which the Thenardier family has fallen, despite the hardships that have ruined Eponine’s health and appearance (she is not “pretty” in the novel), she exhibits saintliness when she brings Cosette and Marius together, despite her own love for him; and she exhibits saintliness when she sacrifices her own life to save Marius. Saintliness can and does arise from the filth of evil.

Les Miserables is a wonderful exploration of evil, morality and holiness. Holiness is not embodied in the people of perfect morality; on the other hand, the imperfectly moral person can be holy. But the perfect morality of someone like Javert is not considered evil by Hugo – just limited, narrow and oh so terribly human. If we can force ourselves to consider the possibility of both positive and negative transcendence, true evil is itself something that transcends morality, but in the opposite direction to holiness. This is Thenardier.

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