In my vacation, over the last two weeks, I visited the birthplace of Victor Hugo in Besançon, his home in Paris where his children were born, and his grave in Pantheon. I also read his “Les Miserables” again, that is 21 years after I read it for the first time in my High School in France, and I was surprised to see how differently I reacted to this book.
Then I realized the book has not changed over these 21 years, but it’s me who has changed!
At the school, I was obliged to read this book as a part of our curriculum, and it came across as something heavy. But, now that I have been blazed a few times in my life, I could relate to this book a lot better, and, at times, even felt healed by it.
The aspect that struck me the most is how Victor Hugo has constructed his characters: they’re neither entirely good, nor entirely bad; they’re humane, yet extraordinary.
The police inspector Javert values his duty of keeping law and order above human beings, until he is humbled by Jean Valjean, when he saves the life of Javert, his worst enemy, during the barricade. Then Javert enters his irreconcilable internal conflict between ethics and law, that is between his moral duty to preserve a good man like Jean Valjean and his legal duty of turning him in as a fugitive, and Javert ends his life to save Jean Valjean.
This comes across as a surprise, because Victor Hugo had set up all along Javert as a man of unbending principles, yet not incredible, because we’ve also seen Javert to be a man of good heart and conscience.
Victor Hugo didn’t set up Jean Valjean as a paragon of virtue either. We can see his humane side, even after his conversion into a good man, when he enters his severe inner conflict vis-a-vis the man about to be condemned in his place, for having stolen the forty sous from Petit Gervais. You can see his temptations to evade law and save his own life; you can also see traces from his life of ex-convict when he gets angry with people, and the use of his force when his personal ethics conflict with the law. And, even for a powerful man like him, you can see his fears, his anxieties, and his insecurities about Cosette.
Even for the rogue Thenardier, Victor Hugo has made him humane, by letting him save the father of Marius in the battle of waterloo!! Hugo also gave Thenardier a realistic end, in the sense that, in spite of all his dirty tricks, he ‘succeeds’ in life, from Thenardier’s perspective of course.
Gavroche, the son of Thenardier, earns his bread by stealing, but he also steals your heart when he saves the two kids, and gives up his life at the barricade. His sister, Eponine, is another thief and manipulator, but she sacrifices her life at the barricade too, trying to save Marius, her secret love. Marius, the closest in resemblance to Victor Hugo (whose middle name is ‘Marie’ by the way), is a political idealist, yet insensitive to many in life, including Jean Valjean; you’re in love with him, and angry at him at the same time.
It’s this powerful use of contrast, in the characters and in the events of the novel, that I find absolutely fascinating in Victor Hugo’s work, particularly in Les Miserables. And, I think this is what makes his works so lifelike, because, just like in life, you can’t really put a definite label on any of his characters or story events; that’s why you can never predict anything, and you remain hooked in suspense till the end.
Of course, there are his big philosophical discourses about life and love, but, if you focus on the core drama of this novel, it’s just absolutely gripping. The way he details the inner landscape of the characters, and the values of the society he touches upon, are as universal today, as they were during his time. It’s because those details are so unique and specific that they no longer remain individual; they become us, the universal.
This evening I’m going to see the grave of Juliette Drouet, who was the muse of Victor Hugo, for fifty years!! As a woman, I wonder what was there in her spirit that could inspire a writer like Victor Hugo, for so long.