In his book “What is Art”, Tolstoy gives a few “examples of the highest art”. “Les Misérables” is one of them.
“Les Misérables” is not so much a novel as an immense commentary of the world, of society, human nature, religion, history, revolution and progress, the Infinite and the minute, the beautiful and the ugly, the wise and the stupid, the noble and the base, sufferings and triumphs, love and sacrifice.
In a book full of the names, words and deeds of the great men in history, Caesar, Cicero, Dante, Danton, Napoleon, the hero is a condemned convict named Jean Valjean; In a book intended to be a manifesto of social progress, of the enlightenment of the people by art, science and literature, the real progress is the journey of the convict, through many internal battles, trials, dangers and snares, from darkness to light, from death to life.
This book gave me so much joy and hope, that I want to shout: “Vive le Peuple!”
The Gospel Theme
Hugo alluded to and borrowed Gospel themes in quite a few places, for instance, the burial and “resurrection” of Jean Valjean, Jean Valjean’s delivering Marius from danger through Paris’ underground sewer system as though carrying his own cross, because he knew Marius would take his life, Cosette, away from him,
The enduring popularity of this book is largely due to the theme of unconditional love and sacrifice, derived from the Gospels, and exemplified by Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean. “The Last Drop in the Chalice”, the title of third-last chapter of the book, may be a concise summary of the whole. Just as Jesus drank the last drop in the chalice and gave his life for the world, so Bishop Myriel gave up his silverware, the only luxury in his humble dwelling that he cherished with childlike simplicity, that he might save Jean Valjean, who was caught stealing from him. The torch of life had been passed, and Jean Valjean in turn sacrificed himself to save Cosette and Marius and preserve their happiness.
My Reading Experience
I was intrigued by the very first sentence in the preface. “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”, and hooked by this gem, “M. Myriel had to submit to the fate of every new-comer in a small town, where there are many tongues to talk, and but few heads to think.”
What a sharp and persuasive tongue Hugo had! I experienced the whole gamut of sentiments, admiration, adoration, pity, contempt, disgust, even hatred toward the characters, all because of the way he described them. He almost convinced me that being 70 years old and blind could be paradise.
“To be blind and to be loved, is in fact, in this earth where nothing is complete, one of the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness. … Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! a love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it … You are caressed through the soul. You see nothing, but you feel yourself adored. It is a paradise of darkness.”
It amazes me how often Hugo makes an astute observation or a profound statement in such a seemingly off-hand fashion. The quotables / aphorisms alone from his book would fill another volume.
“The peculiarity of the right is that it is always beautiful and pure. The fact, even that which is most necessary in appearance, even that most accepted by its contemporaries, if it exists only as fact, and if it contains too little of the right, or none at all, is destined infallibly to become, in the lapse of time, deformed, unclean, perhaps even monstrous. If you would ascertain at once what degree of ugliness the fact may reach, seen in the distance of the centuries, look at Machiavelli. Machiavelli is not an evil genius, nor a demon, nor a cowardly and miserable writer; he is nothing but the fact.”
On Social Progress
“This conflict of the right and the fact endures from the origin of society. To bring the duel to an end, to amalgamate the pure ideal with the human reality, to make the right peacefully inter-penetrate the fact, and the fact the right, this is the work of the wise.”
“Progress is the aim, the ideal is the model. What is the ideal? It is God. Ideal, absolute, perfection, the infinite — these are identical words.”
Man and the Infinite
God is the Ideal, also the Progress that directs the events in history, removing the old and introducing the new. “There are such curtains which drop down in life. God is passing to the next act.”
Conscience to man is what Progress is to history. It is the compass that directs the path of the individual. The struggle with conscience, even within the most pitiable of all men, is no less grand than the battle of Troy or the French Revolution.