Sunday, 22 March 2015

Rehabilitation and Forgiveness - Part 3

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

At the core of Victor Hugo’s massive book “Les Miserables” is an intensely personal story. The book revolves around two people – Jean Valjean, convicted and sent to the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family, and Javert, the Inspector (and later political spy), who hounds him. One th galleys, he saves a man’s life by using his tremendous strength to life a broken beam so that the man can be pulled clear. This is noted by Javert, who is a supervisor.

The turning point for Valjean comes early. Released from imprisonment, but with a yellow passport showing he is a convicted felon, he has to make sure he reports to the police; he is effectively on bail. It is dark and late, and no one in the town where he finds himself will take him in. He has tried every door – but one. That is the door of the Bishop, who welcomes him in, and he dines with the Bishop and sleeps there.

But in the night, he takes the silver plates he has just eaten on, and steals away silently. He is brought back the following day by the police, who do not believe his story that he was given them by the Bishop. But, to their amazement, and to his amazement – the Bishop says that the story is true, and berates Valjean for forgetting to take the candlesticks. But as he now leaves, the Bishop reminds him that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use money from the silver candlesticks to make an honest man of himself.

The next major part of the story occurs when he is now Monsieur Madeleine. He is a prosperous factory owner, and becomes Mayor. He has provided employment for the town, and gives generously to charitable causes, including a convent. He saves a man’s life when a cart falls on its side by using his strength, just as he did in the galleys. The newly arrived Inspector Javert ponders that.

Javert sees the Mayor to tell him that he had reported him as Jean Valjean, but he could not be, because Valjean has been captured and is facing trial. Now Valjean has to face the choice: to leave the town, and all the good he has done, or to save a poor wretch, a halfwit, from being hanged in his place. Finally he decides to do the latter, and is on the run again with Javert in pursuit..

More trials lie ahead, but this is a story of a man who commited a crime once, and has redeemed himself every since. Even when he has inadvertently caused suffering, as when Fantine is dismissed by the factory supervisor, he tries to make amends, to care for her as she dies, and to look after her daughter Cosette like a father. At one point, he even saves Javert’s life when Javert is unmasked as a spy.

But despite this, the law, as personified by Javert, will hunt him down. He has broken the law, he has failed to report with his yellow passport in the distant past, and the law knows of no exceptions. As Charles Laughton says in the old black and white movie – “It’s no matter of mine. The law, good bad or indifferent, it’s the law”.

And so a good man, and a man whose story involves so much rehabilititation, is not seen as rehabilitated in the eyes of the law, but is hounded, almost to the end.

As Hugo notes:

“The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”

Jean Valjean is finally caught by Javert, but asked to be allowed a brief visit to his home, to say goodbye. The law does not allow this, but Javert relents. Javert has to face the dilemma of justice and mercy, of what the law demands, but what justice says should be a higher good.

The lessons on the way, the other characters like Marius or the Thenardiers, all show us decisions to be made, and make us ask ourselves: how should we live our lives. Are we blind to evil? Are we participants in the evils of society? Do we address the issues of poverty? And do we learn the lesson that good people can still be hounded by the law, despite all that they have done to turn their lives around?

Hugo concluded by noting of his book:

“I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: "open up, I am here for you".

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