Yesterday I wrote about how I didn’t like The Sun Also Rises because the whole point of the novel is the LACK of growth and moral development in the characters. That’s really important to me! I’m in it for the characters. Who are they as people? What are their goals and purpose in life? What are they striving for? How do they grow and change in facing challenges?
And that got me thinking about my favorite novel, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Odd that it is my favorite, as generally I cannot stand the Romantics at all. But I love Hugo.
Yes, the unabridged version can be rough going (I KNOW the section is all about developing the theme of providence, but do we really need fifty pages about the Battle of Waterloo that add nothing to the plot? Nothing at all?)
Yes, the plot is engaging with a lot at stake. Barricade, anyone?
Yes, one of my own characters in The Crimson League was definitely influenced by Fantine in some obvious respects, even though Fantine isn’t one of my favorite characters in Les Miserables.
And yes, I know a lot of people care a lot about the Marius/ Cosette/ Eponine love triangle. I did when I was younger. But now that I’m older, I’m just fascinated with the character development arcs of Valjean and Javert.
It is so powerful when the bishop manages to touch the hardened, disillusioned heart of Valjean. And it is incredible to watch Valjean, after his conversion, fight interiorly to truly live as a Christian, to forgive himself for his past, and to atone for his past sins. He is a fictional saint. He’s amazing. If I could eat dinner with any one fictional character, I’d probably choose Valjean.
His development and growth are not only engaging, but personally, I find them inspiring. They challenge me in my own spiritual battle for sanctity. And it’s especially amazing to consider his path alongside that of Inspector Javert.
Javert is an amazing character. On the surface he is Pharisaical, stern, unbending. But you get the sense that he has always been faintly tortured at heart by…. something or other. You realize that he is trying to earn God’s mercy, trying to convince himself that someone or other he deserves mercy and salvation by comparing himself to the criminals he arrests and calling himself better than they. He is convinced men cannot change, certainly not for the better.
As self-righteous and arrogant as Javert is, you get the strong impression that he is terrified of God deep down. He doesn’t love him at all. He never can truly convince himself that he IS better than those criminals. He knows at his core that he isn’t. He just won’t admit it to himself.
As the novel progresses, you see as a reader as Valjean’s simple existence totally discredits Javert’s worldview and sense of who God is. And you get to watch as Javert, in shock and horror, comes to realize the same thing. When Valjean spares his life, he relizes Valjean IS a better man than he. He realizes that Valjean HAS truly changed and has bcome a saint while he himself is nothing of the kind.
Javert has his chance at that moment to BECOME a second Valjean. He could accept the mercy and love of God and let grace soften his heart. Instead, he tragically chooses to double down on his previous worldview, deciding that he cannot live in a world in which it has been proven wrong.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
It’s a cliché of creative writing that good writers “show” rather than “tell” what the reality is of their characters and what is going on inside them. I think Valjean and Hugo do a great job of that in a philosophical sense.
Hugo never tells you explicitly “Valjean is right and Javert is confused.” He never tells you, “Javert here could be a second Valjean.” But you see it very clearly as the reader based upon where their decisions take them. “By their fruit you shall know them.” You see it in the peace Valjean clearly comes to know that Javert never does. You as the reader are shown how the truth of God’s love and mercy bring peace, when we accept them.
Les Miserables a beautiful story with very human characters. And that’s why it’s my favorite!