A Representation of Virtue in Les Misérables

Most people are familiar with the long-running West End production, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010, whereas some were first introduced to the tale through the 2012 film, which featured an ensemble cast including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.

Let’s go back to the origin of it all.

The oppressed and forgotten in society, Les Misérables is a historical narrative of heroism, justice, revolution and redemption. The original unabridged version consists of nearly two thousand pages and remains one of the longest novels ever written.

In this post, what I would like to explore is how virtue as a value of humanity is represented in Hugo’s work, drawing from incidents involving two side characters, Bishop Myriel and Sister Simplice.

The Credit in Falsehood

The bishop and the nun are pure, untainted figures throughout the story and are presented to readers as the personification of gentleness, goodness and light. Yet they broke one of the most significant rules in any religion of the world: they lied.

In our modern, everyday life, the idea of lying is almost a childish act of deception. According to a public survey by National Geographic, a person tells an average of two lies a day.

But it’s easy to lie for our own self-interest. To lie for another person – a stranger? Would we deceive the law to help an innocent person neither kith nor kin, when the lie carries the risk of us being lynched, blamed or prosecuted?

Almost instantly, the fear instilled since childhood gives an uncomfortable nudge. The human survival instinct kicks in to save our altruistic selves.

“What if I’m found out? Is this worth it?”

Doubt and reason then comes to a reassuring conclusion: “A lie is a lie. It’s wrong to lie.”

Often, this failure to step forward enables the unfair treatment of another.

Hugo’s work presents a paradox, a juxtaposition. In many cases, right and wrong are parallel yet overlapping elements. Human law may look the other way, people may accept a crime of injustice simply as an inevitable product of a flawed society, but amidst the gloom, an act of true kindness breaches the legal and conventional, contributing to faith, hope and morality.

At the beginning of the story, Valjean’s selfish desperation led to his theft of the kind bishop’s silverware. Caught by officials and brought back to the humble, dingy residence, the old curé denies, without a moment’s hesitation, that Valjean stole them. He takes up the story with ease that it was he who gifted them to the poor man.

In the symbolic scene, the elderly bishop smiles and hands an additional pair of silver candlesticks to Valjean.

“… this time,” he chastised gently, “you must not forget your candlesticks.” At the turning point of Valjean’s life, the lie was the bishop’s blessing, forgiveness and hope in his conscience.

From the 2012 film: the bishop welcomes a famished and exhausted Valjean into his home.

Cynical viewers may perhaps feel that the bishop’s belief in the goodness and salvation of humans is naive and unrealistically utopic. This is not entirely baseless. Readers who patiently read through the first 70 pages of the book may remember this humorous yet matter-of-fact exchange:

“But the brigands, Monseigneur – if you should fall foul of them -“

“Just so,” said the bishop. “Since you mention it, I may meet the brigands. They, too, must be need of someone to speak to them of God.”

Bishop Myriel to the Mayor of Chastelar

However, religion is not the single contributing factor to the bishop’s way of life. Though childlike by nature, he is not ignorant to suffering. He is highly conscious of the unjust system of prosecution in which Valjean was another victim – a once harmless true pruner, thrown to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. It was the sad fate of another struggling soul who spiralled downwards into society’s ruthless and irredeemable abyss.

The silver candlesticks, then, are literal symbols of light. Along Valjean’s life of inner conflict and struggle, they serve as a reminder that Jean Valjean the man could be good; that he was alive and forever a changed person after the meeting; that there was someone in the world who sensed honesty beneath his harsh exterior. In real-life, one time or another, hasn’t someone bestowed a second chance upon us as well? In the end, with relief that he has redeemed himself and done what he is meant to do, the candlesticks represent prayer and transition into the light of the afterlife.

Where the beloved Monsieur Bienvenu has invented non-existent anecdotes during his preaching journey, Sister Simplice, on the other hand, holds truth as the highest authority when she took the veil.

“There is no white lie. A lie is a lie.” This was how Hugo described the nun’s uncompromising commitment to honesty. To overcome personal conviction and defy the words of long-revered teachings is the most difficult.

Once again relentless pursued by Javert when he voluntarily exposes his true identity, Mayor Madeleine – Jean Valjean – has a brief meeting with Sister Simplice, Fantine’s caretaker in her final days. Within minutes, Javert steps into the very room of their meeting. Valjean hides into a shadowed corner.

In the inevitable exchange with Javert, two words of falsehood slip through her lips.

“Sister,” he asked, “are you the only person in this room?”

There ensued a terrible instant during which the trembling servant thought that she would faint. The sister looked up.

“Yes,” she said.

“Forgive me,” said Javert, “if I ask you one thing more. Have you seen anyone this evening, a man? He has escaped from the prison and we are searching for him – the man called Jean Valjean. Have you seen him?”

“No,” replied the sister.

Sister Simplice to Javert

These very words decided the fate of Valjean.

Reflecting real-life, rigid faithfulness to the flawed constitution of men has condemned the undeserving and deflected the true criminals. Such is the example illustrated by Javert’s actions.

Wisdom and consciousness can and should rise above the flawed rulings and conditioned systems created by mankind.

Transformation of the Condemned

There are interesting parallels in how the story repeats itself. As the tale progresses, it strongly demonstrates how the actions of one individual has a direct, life-changing impact on another.

The bishop’s visits and journey of preaching was a form of kindness extended to the greater community where he was situated. He comforted the man who lost his wife and the mother who lost her child, “transforming the grief which sees only a pit into the grief which sees a star.”

When Valjean assumed the role of Mayor Madeleine, he benefited the lives of countless civilians in similar ways. From hatred and disillusionment, he has turned to kindness and care for others precisely because of the meeting with the Bishop.

From the 2012 film: Jean Valjean and Cosette, played by Hugh Jackman and Isabelle Allen.

Fantine, not unlike Valjean, was a victim of a hierarchical and unforgiving society. Her fall to destitution was a sad mirror of his former life. Poverty drove the sweet, innocent girl to prostitution. She was scorned by society and bore the mark of a shamed woman, where every day is a struggle to earn and support her infant daughter, who was housed with the greedy Thénardiers.

Through the eventual discovery and interference of Valjean, she went back to moments of happiness in the care of the nuns. She returned to a girl simply filled with uncomplicated joy in the hope of seeing Cosette. Unfortunately, the reunion between mother and daughter would never happen. On the run, Valjean had (strictly speaking) no obligation and certainly no guaranteed means to care for Cosette. But he did so out of an unconditional promise to an unfortunate woman he barely knew.

For one night, the Bishop provided food and shelter to an exhausted Valjean. More than a decade later, he bestowed the same warmth, safety and acceptance upon little Cosette, who would have otherwise died a lark who never sang.

Reflecting on this classic, we need to ask ourselves: Are we kind and good as we think we are? Are we contributing to the existing system of oppression?

In the words of Hugo, “… so long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” If we fall into a dilemma on what is the right thing to do, perhaps we need to remind ourselves that virtue and kindness is upheld as long as good is done for a living fellowman in need – and that is what matters in the end.

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