When Victor Hugo published “Les Miserables” in 1862, the world looked nothing like it does today.
Barely a billion people roamed the Earth. Average life expectancy hovered around 41 years, and America was staggering through its Civil War. Railroads and light bulbs were relatively recent inventions, but several decades would still pass before the advent of automobiles, airplanes or telephones.
Yet the visionary Hugo infused “Les Miserables” with enough timeless themes about God, redemption and social justice that the epic story of Jean Valjean remains as vital and relevant today as 150 years ago.
The Deseret News recently screened the new movie “Les Miserables” that arrives in theaters on Christmas day and is an adaptation of the stage musical. The film remains true enough to Hugo’s original work that the enduring themes of the novel shine through.
'Committed to God'
Born in 1802, Victor Hugo managed to keep organized religion at arm’s length throughout his life even though he came of age at a time when the Catholic Church played a preeminent role in French society.
“Hugo wasn’t baptized as a child, and was baptized only so he could be married,” said Marva Barnett, editor of the anthology “Victor Hugo on Things That Matter” and a French professor at the University of Virginia. “He didn’t attend church even at a time when all French people were Catholic and it was very important to go to church.”
But Hugo’s lack of religiosity did nothing to diminish his faith in the divine.
“Hugo always believed in God,” Barnett told the Deseret News. “He was committed to God — you can see it in the (‘Les Miserables’) novel, and you can see it in his poems. He saw God in nature; he saw God in people. He wrote a lot of poetry where he said by loving people you are connecting to God.”
On at least two occasions during the plot of “Les Miserables,” Hugo clearly depicts divine providence as a powerful force capable of interceding in moments of personal crisis and despair. The first such instance occurs early in the book when Jean Valjean is caught stealing silver from a church — and the only thing that saves him from being sent back to prison is a wise priest who mercifully declines to denounce Valjean to the police.
Although the religious overtones are more overt in Hugo’s book than in the new film, a second allusion to God’s intercessory hand happens when Valjean and Cosette meet for the first time.
“(In the book) Jean Valjean appears miraculously in the woods and finds Cosette with the water bucket struggling to carry it,” said Kathryn Grossman, a Penn State University French professor who has written several books about Victor Hugo. “At the depths of her despair she says, ‘Oh God, my God.’ And then this hand comes down and carries the bucket. Clearly he intervened in her life as a kind of divine presence.”
How Hugo inspires
Barnett — who the French government recently recognized with the honorific title of knight in the Order of Academic Palms — taught a seminar course to 17 University of Virginia freshmen during fall semester about the enduring legacy of Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”
“About two-thirds of them love the staged musical,” she said. “The others took the course to read a great classic. They have been able to step back from their beloved musical version of the story and recognize what theatrical constraints have sometimes done to the story and in what ways the musical is faithful to and, in effect, reinforces the power of the novel.”
Barnett recently penned an op-ed piece for the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper in which she recalled her recent conversation with actor Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean in the new “Les Miserables” movie. Jackman told Barnett that he read the novel twice before filming began, and then on the set he reviewed relevant excerpts from the book every day depending on what scenes he was acting. Ultimately Barnett concluded there is no substitute for Hugo’s original words, and exhorted her audience to read the book in addition to seeing the new movie.
“With philosophical insights and poetic language,” Barnett wrote, “Hugo keeps us beside Valjean and thus inspires us to continue our struggle: Anyone can lead a better life, feel more love, move toward God, as does Valjean. We can work our own transfigurations if we truly work at them. Even if we feel as downtrodden as Valjean, we have hope.”
Redemption and social justice
After the merciful priest inspires Jean Valjean with the notion of God’s redemption, the protagonist’s odyssey essentially amounts to a series of redemptive acts. For example, Valjean singlehandedly raises Cosette after the death of her mother, Fantine; spares the life of his nemesis, Javert; and rescues young Marius from the barricades.
But the ever-present redemption of Jean Valjean is more than just a means for advancing plot; it’s also symbolic of Hugo’s hope that his beloved France could be redeemed from the French coup d’état of 1851 that ended the Second Republic and re-established a ruling emperor in the form of Napoleon III.
“The (world) will identify with jean Valjean as we watch his moral progress, from moral failure to redemption,” Grossman told the Deseret News. “That’s really important in the book as a parallel between individual and collective progress. Hugo is hoping for the redemption of his country. His country has taken a huge step backward: A lot of people are miserable, and the country is a dictatorship.”
Barnett explained, “The redemption (of Valjean) would be connected to Hugo’s belief that people were progressing, that people could get better, that civilization could get better. That’s taking the idea of redemption up to the whole idea of society or culture or civilization.”
In making the case that France’s redemption is not just possible but actually necessary, Hugo steadfastly shines a light throughout “Les Miserables” on the social ills that, by the 1860s, had come to permeate French society. Fantine, for instance, epitomizes the plight of the desperate women who turned to prostitution in order to survive.
The fact that decent, honest people are still being exploited today is surely an integral part of why “Les Miserables” never stopped resonating with audiences.
“Certainly Hugo is looking at the whole question of the exploitation of men, women and children, which continues to this day all around the world,” Grossman said. “He lays it out very clearly in the book, just by enacting the lives of the famous characters. It’s a very strong push for this human dignity and faith — you know, caring about your fellow man, woman and child.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
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