If there were just one male role model I could pick for my boy, it might be Jean Valjean.
(Who would yours be?)
It’s kind of cheating, though, since Victor Hugo created Valjean to represent all humanity, how we relate to God and the people around us. His struggles are our struggles and how he responds to what is thrown toward him is fully intended to inspire us to be better.
Hugo writes in the Preface of the novel:
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.
If the story of Les Misérables were told in a few pages, or even a couple of hundred, this could make Valjean the star of a flat fable, a sugary moral tale. But this is an epic, full of detail and nuance, where even minor characters are fully three-dimensional, and things don’t always go as you expect. People are allowed to change. Some do, some don’t.
In nineteenth-century France, revolution and counter-revolution have failed to bring bread to the poor and justice to the streets. The young, unusually strong Jean Valjean is driven to theft to feed his sister’s family. He is caught. What punishment should the judge dish out? Does five years of hard labour sound about right?
The main action of the novel, the stage show, and the newly-released film musical all begins nineteen years after the theft, when Valjean is finally paroled, having served extra time for trying to escape.
Bitter, broken, starving, ill, and forced to carry papers telling no one to trust him, he falls into the arms of God, in the person of the Bishop of Digne.
Bishop Myriel welcomes and feeds him. In the night, Valjean thanks him by stealing the silverware he’s just eaten off. Caught, again, Valjean is brought to the Bishop, protesting to the police officers that his Grace gave him the treasures.
The Bishop does something extraordinary. He goes along with the story, dismissing the officers, and adds that Valjean seems to have forgotten to take the silver candlesticks with him. I’d like my son to look up to the Bishop, too, as he stretches out his arms to Valjean and drags him out of the despair he’s drowning in. Privately, he ‘reminds’ Valjean that he promised to use the candlesticks to become an honest man. In the words of the musical:
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God
Valjean is stunned. He’s been starving and mistreated all his life, and has become a hard man. He is bewildered by the Bishop’s mercy.
How does a person respond to mercy? This is the central question of Valjean’s life.
It may seem that I’ve outlined most of the story, but this is just the beginning. What Valjean does with his life, and how his decisions contrast with those of the other characters is the treat you have in store for you if you haven’t yet encountered him.
I urge you to do so! The novel is vast and vastly satisfying. A 1500-page exploration of Parisian history is not for everyone, though. If you are not in the market for a big book, fair enough. It has been adapted more than once for the screen – the 1998 version stars Liam Neeson and is not a musical – and the current musical version is a textured, dramatic, stirring piece of cinema.
This new Tom Hooper version is able to do more justice to the book than a stage adaptation can, and what it does particularly well is bring out two major themes of the novel. The unfolding of Valjean’s response to the Bishop’s grace – which I won’t spoil for you – and the contrasting experience of Valjean’s nemesis and pursuer Inspector Javert is clearly laid out, though the vocal struggles of Russell Crowe do undermine it a bit.
Les Misérables is also a story of new beginnings, endlessly offered, and the movie shows this well. All the characters – even the disgusting Thénardiers – get repeated chances to start afresh, and their varied responses are moving.
But there are always costs, and people’s attitudes to paying are also contrasted. Valjean is confronted, again and again, with having to choose his own safety or to offer kindness or rescue to someone else. At enormous cost (much greater in the book than the adaptations), and after such intense struggle that on one such occasion, his hair goes white overnight, Valjean chooses the good of other people each time. This is one part of his life I want my boy to think about.
There’s a lot of darkness, grime and tragedy in Les Misérables, but the novel and the musical both close with scenes of hope. We are reminded in both that there is something better to be worked for in this life and something better still to arrive beyond that.
The final song of the show has all characters, including those who have died, call this future into being:
Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes…
Jean Valjean’s story of grace, selflessness and self-sacrifice, and complicated integrity in a corrupt system is one I hope to introduce my boy to one day. It has started already, with singing him to sleep tonight with the show tunes.
This is part of an occasional series on characters in fiction whom we want our kids to meet. It’s called Mighty Boys/Girls in homage to this excellent resource site.