Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables, set in post-Napoleonic France, explores a broad range of political, philosophical and religious issues. Two of the novel’s major philosophical themes are Christianity, personified by Valjean, and democracy, personified by Marius. In my opinion, Les Misérables represents Hugo’s attempt to reconcile the two; he fails.
The entire first volume is devoted to the development of Valjean’s character, and Christianity is the driving theme. First we meet the Bishop of Digne, known to the people of his town as a “just man”, and Hugo reinforces this. The Bishop gives up his episcopal palace because it’s needed by the hospital. The largest item in his budget is “for the poor”. A sudden windfall goes to the soup kitchen and orphans. He spends all day with a condemned murderer before his death.
Yet all this is preparatory to the entrance of Valjean, an unredeemed convict and outcast taken in by the priest after being turned away from every inn. “This is not my house,” he tells the stunned man, “it is the house of Jesus Christ.” Valjean betrays the Bishop’s trust, steals his valuable silverware and sneaks out the back door. Captured by the police, he is returned to the priest, who not only covers up for him by claiming that he gave him the silverware, but insists that he take the silver candlesticks as well, exemplifying Jesus’ commandment that if a man should take your coat, give him your cloak as well. The Bishop then imposes a benediction on Valjean:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
The Bishop’s generosity triggers a profound spiritual crisis in Valjean, and he converts to Christianity. His is not an outward conversion of baptism or communion, but an deeper, inward conversion. Though he never sees the priest again, his life changes dramatically. Under an assumed name, he establishes himself in a small town, makes a clever invention which pulls the local industry out of recession, and in a few years is able to erect his own factory. With its proceeds, he improves the local hospital, builds two new schoolhouses, and funds a dispensary for the poor. In time, the King prevails upon him to become mayor. The bishop dies; Valjean wears black to mourn for him, symbolically taking the torch of Christianity, which he is to carry for the rest of the novel.
His willingness to restrain the police earns him the enmity of the town constable, Javert, destined to become his lifelong nemesis. Valjean once declared that there are no bad plants or bad men, only bad cultivators. Javert states that “these men are irremediably lost”. Javert, who knew Valjean in prison, suspects his true identity, and becomes more and more withdrawn from the mayor. The last straw comes when Valjean sides with a prostitute Javert is determined to imprison, invokes his powers as mayor, and frees her. He learns that she turned to prostitution to support her daughter. The woman dies, and Valjean promises on her deathbed to support her daughter, Cosette. Yet Valjean’s cover is soon blown, by his own refusal to let an innocent man, mistaken for him, go to the galleys for life, and he flees with Cosette. As the child grows into a young woman, Valjean lives in Paris, frequently changing identities to avoid the determined Javert.
Enter the last of the novel’s major characters – Marius, destined to fall in love with and marry Cosette. Like Valjean, he inherits a symbolic torch – the torch of revolution. His father was made a Baron by Napoleon on the battlefield of Waterloo, and passed the title to his son on his death. Marius has a hundred cards printed bearing the name “Le Baron Marius Pontmercy”, and fancies the restoration of the Napoleonic empire.
“Le Baron” is soon disowned by his maternal grandfather, and cast off into a life of poverty. He meets the Friends of the ABC, a revolutionary society of students, philosophers and poets led by the fiery Enjolras. While the Bishop of Digne converted Valjean through simple acts of generosity and mercy, Marius’ new friends resort to wit, philosophy, and a barrage of words to convince him to abandon Napoleon’s empire and adopt a new cause – republic and democracy – but the means remain the same: the sword, the cannon, the barricade.
Hugo goes to great length to present us Marius in the most sympathetic light. He gives his poor neighbor twenty-five francs for rent when he himself has only thirty. Yet he also appoints himself judge over his neighbors, declares “these wretches must be stamped upon,” when he realizes that a robbery is about to take place next door, and sends for the police. He regrets this judgment when he realizes that the ruffian about to commit the crime saved his father’s life at Waterloo, and begins fumbling for another way out, but ultimately it is Javert who bursts into the room and disrupts the crime. Hugo conveniently arranges for this act to save Valjean, but did the Bishop of Digne “stamp upon” Valjean after his crime? Wouldn’t it have been a simple rationalization for the Bishop to think he had to stop others from being victimized by Valjean? Let’s not forget Valjean’s original crime of stealing bread to feed his younger brothers, which lead him to the galleys and a life of crime. Marius has good intentions, but never adopts the Bishop’s willingness to turn away from a wrong, determined instead to fight his oppressors.
As revolutionary fervor again sweeps France, Enjolras rallies his secret society. Thirty years had passed since “Library, Fraternity, Equality” became the swish of the guillotine, the roar of cannon, the tramp of legions, and still they want more. The revolution comes, and Enjolras springs his plan into action, turning their favorite wine-shop into a fortress and erecting a barricade across the street. Valjean passes through the army lines wearing his National Guard uniform, enters the barricade, then gives up his uniform so a man with a family to support can slip away and be saved.
The government is determined to crush the uprising, and soldiers surround the barricade and storm it. Marius becomes the hero of the rebellion after winning the battle by threatening to blow up the barricade, himself, the soldiers, and all his friends. Now, if he could have blown up only the soldiers, would he have hesitated for a second? Moments earlier, Valjean was faking the death of his arch-nemesis Javert to free him on a side street. Would Marius fake the death of the soldiers? If the soldiers had not retreated, would Marius have carried out his threat of martyrdom? Probably. “Victory or death!” has been the rallying cry of radical patriots since day one.
Valjean, though present at the barricade, fires not a single shot. After freeing Javert, he turns his attention to Marius, determined to win his revolution or die fighting the soldiers. The government attacks again in force; the barricade falls. Marius, badly wounded with a broken collar bone and multiple head injuries, faints into the arms of Valjean, who lifts a sewer grate and drops in carrying the half-dead revolutionary. As he escapes through the sewer with the unconscious Marius, the wine-shop is taken, Enjolras is executed by firing squad, the ABC Society goes down fighting and Revolution of 1832 falls to pieces.
Marius recovers from his wounds to find much of his world collapsed around him. All his close friends are dead; what is left is his love for Cosette. They marry. Valjean confesses to Marius that he is a fugitive convict. Marius, not yet knowing that it was Valjean who saved him at the barricade, believing that Valjean shot Javert, and wondering if his six hundred thousand franc inheritance was stolen, gives Valjean the cold shoulder and gradually pushes him out of Cosette’s life. Valjean, believing that the girl has a husband and no longer needs a father, acquiesces.
Marius ultimately learns the truth – that the inheritance is legitimate, that it was Valjean who saved him at the barricade, that Javert’s murder was faked – and regrets having estranged Valjean. With Cosette in hand, he rushes to redeem himself with Valjean, only to find him on his deathbed. So Valjean dies, in the presence of his adopted daughter and son-in-law. Perhaps this is meant as another symbolic torch passing, but who will carry it on, and in what form? Will Marius “love his enemies”? Will his wife resist corruption by his hot-headed rebellion? Has the Bishop of Digne’s torch passed or finally died?
The failed 1832 uprising featured in Les Misérables was but one in a series of violent clashes spawned by the French Revolution. After declaring a constitutional monarchy in 1789, the French assembly within five years had executed its constitutional monarch. No provision for trying the king had been provided by the constitution; the national assembly simply tried him anyway. The masses packed into the Place de la Revolution and cheered as Louis XVI’s severed head was hoisted aloft. Of all the Marius’s leading the government, not one Valjean stepped forward to spirit the king away through the sewers under the city. After the king and the aristocrats went to the guillotine, next came the leaders of the revolution themselves. Robespierre, Saint-Just, Coulton – each got the six-inch haircut.
At last came Napoleon, who Marius once exulted as a “sun rising”. After leading the French to devastate Europe, he was finally defeated and exiled. Yet any doubt that his was anything but a popular dictatorship was put to rest following his escape from Elba, during the “100 Days”, after he landed on the French coast with 1200 men. Every town told to oppose him threw open its gates; every army unit sent to reverse him cried “Vive l’Empereur!” After being defeated in Russia, losing their entire army, and seeing their country in ruin, thousands still turned to the conquering general.
To this day, the masses insist on immolating themselves on the barricades in pursuit of truth, justice, and the French legions storming across Europe. How many millions of Germans cheered for Hitler as he proclaimed the Anschluss? How many millions “believed” in communism when Lenin proclaimed a worker’s state in Russia? How many millions today think that greed is the driving force behind all human progress? How many will surrender their prized silverware to a convict and a thief? Yes, Christianity can save democracy, but only by dragging it unconscious through the sewers of Paris.
Democracy is a system of government where the majority of people choose not only their own leaders, but everyone else’s. Democracy has little do to with right; nobody has the right to choose someone else’s leader. Democracy is primarily about responsibility; the majority has the responsibility to choose everyone’s leaders. If they choose wisely, it will succeed; if they choose poorly, it will fail.