Defining Les Misérables in the 21st Century

Featured Illustration: Cristiano Gonçalo

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The first time that I heard of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was in a café. 

The shop looked something out of an auteur’s Elysian: the splendid oranges, shaded by moody hues of blues, the bale-like arrangements of fluffy breads and pastries. It was this pseudo-Parisian place — the mahogany walls, lined with framed noir paintings of the Louvre and the Eiffel, and this craggly lit, yet magnificent chandelier, its slightly addled tilt illuminating the room in delicate shadows. In the background, there were the melodies of Debussy, Ravel, and Saint-Saëns — after each piece, there was a comforting ambiance of the place, the clinking of plates, the sips of cappuccinos, and the bustling flurry of it all.  

And through the back corner, there was a reading corner, of sorts; the front was decorated with the covers of all these books, those from Dumas, Proust, Camus, and Voltaire. Yet, through all of the old, or as a seven-year-old would describe it, “like a soggy raisin” white men, there was a young girl. Her poster was in the middle of the corner, and the largest of them all. 

She looked no older than I did at the time. Her hair, swept up to the left, her forehead, entrenched in a beret, and her eyes, those large, doleful, circles — seemed to have this indelible sorrow, yet in some ways, an impenetrable precognition on the future. 

The girl, of course, is Cossette. Les Misérables is Victor Hugo’s pièce de résistance, his obra maestra, his masterpiece, through different languages, times, and people. It is the story of the human experience; of suffering, of redemption, of love, of sacrifice, of all things wonderful and terrible and beautiful that a world can be. 

The preface of Les Misérables, since its initial publication in 1862, famously reads: 

“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century — the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light — are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world; — in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.” — Hauteville House, 1862

It is these issues — the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of flight — that are ever-present, regardless of man, woman, child, or neither. It is these issues, with the rest of the world, that are eternal.

I must admit that it was only until this year in quarantine that I mustered the courage to attempt to read the full version, albeit translated to English — the novel is of a terrifying size, first of which is divided into five volumes, with a chapter count culminating to the total of days in a year. 

Les Misérables follows the journey of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, beginning in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. The novel examines, further, the nature of law, and of grace. Through it all, Hugo writes a detailed history of France, of Paris’s architecture and urban design, politics, morality, justice, religion, and romantic and familial love. Les Misérables has been further popularized through numerous adaptations, including in film, television, and theater.

Once you look past the exterior grandness of what is Les Misérables, however, it’s eye-opening, and perhaps depressing to realize that many of the same problems that plague 19th-century France are still relevant today. Jean Valjean is released from prison at the beginning of the story; he stole a loaf of bread so his sister’s child wouldn’t starve. For this, Valjean is sentenced to five years, with an additional 14 years for trying to escape. Yet, what is most troubling is that Valjean must carry around a yellow ticket identifying him as an ex-con — it’s almost as if he’s branded for life. Subsequently, Valjean doesn’t have a legitimate way to support himself. Once his employers and neighbors realize he’s an ex-con, he’s perpetually evicted and rebooted from each location, job, or house.

It’s on one night where Valjean stumbles upon the doorstep of a cathedral that he ends up stealing silver from the kind Bishop who takes him in for the night. When the police confront Valjean, however, the Bishop claims that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift; privately, the Bishop tells Valjean that he must start anew to become a new man.

Valjean ditches the yellow ticket, breaks parole, and assumes a new name — and a new life. 

And here is where we diverge into our current world. As it was for Valjean, it is still incredibly difficult for a non-violent ex-offender to find their way in the world; Valjean’s story shows the impact of a fundamentally flawed criminal justice system that serves to punish rather than rehabilitate. 

Brandon Bernard was executed on December 10 for a role in the 1999 murder of the couple Todd and Stacie Bagley. Despite pleas from former jurors, numerous criminal justice advocates, and celebrities, he was killed just as planned, making him the ninth federal inmate to be executed this year.

It’s incredibly frightening seeing the parallels in our modern justice system and of one over two centuries ago. For Valjean, there is a Javert; a Javert who is a man of law and order, who sees the world in black and white, of right and wrong, of good and bad. 

For Bernard, it is our government. The government killed him, and they did not have to kill him. Bernard was 18 when he was convicted — the federal government hasn’t executed someone who committed a crime when they were that young since the 1950s. 

The chain of legal appeals and filing that led up to Bernard’s execution rubs up against the brutal simplicity of the ac. There is no sense, only the law. There is no morality, only the law. There are no exceptions, only the law.

From the 158 years spanning from 1862 to 2020, our definition of the law — and our government — have retained much of the injustices that Les Misérables works so hard to push back on. As Hugo might say, “In other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world; books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”