I spent the last four months teaching Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Misérables” at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey. My students—like Hugo’s main character, Jean Valjean, who served 19 years in prison—struggle with shame, guilt, injustice, poverty and discrimination, and yearn for redemption and transformation. The novel gave them a lens to view their lives and a ruling system every bit as cruel as Hugo’s 19th-century France.
“Les Misérables” was wildly successful when it was published, including among Civil War soldiers in the United States, although Hugo’s condemnation of slavery was censored from Confederate copies. It was American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs’ favorite book—he read it in French. The socialist British Prime Minister Lloyd George said “Les Misérables” taught him more about poverty and the human condition than anything else he had ever read and instilled in him a lifelong ambition “to alleviate the distress and the suffering of the poor.” Hugo’s novel, however, enraged the ruling elites. It was panned by French critics. Copies were burned in Spain. Pope Pius IX put it on the church’s list of banned books, along with “Madame Bovary” and all the novels of Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac.
“While through the working laws of customs there continues to exist a condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilization, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; while the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjugation of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child in darkness, continue unresolved; while in some regions social asphyxia remains, while ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value,” Hugo wrote in the preface.
My students interpreted the novel through the peculiar reality of prison, something that would have pleased Hugo, who relentlessly chronicled the injustices meted out to the poor by ruling institutions and agents of the law. The heroes in his book are the outcasts, the demonized and the impoverished—les misérables—as well as the rebels, usually doomed, who rise up in their defense. The theme that runs through the novel can be summed up in Leo Tolstoy’s dictum: “The only certain happiness in life is to live for others.”
Jean Valjean, after 19 years in prison—five for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry children and 14 more as punishment for attempts at escape—is released with no home, no occupation and little money. He tramps through the French countryside, ending up in the town of Digne. He is required to present to local authorities his yellow identity card, a document that brands him for life as an ex-convict. He is refused a room at several inns, despite having the money to pay for lodgings. Finally, after Valjean is found sleeping outside, Monseigneur Bienvenu, the local bishop, gives him a place to rest in his modest house. Valjean arises early and, leaving before the bishop wakes, steals the household silver—platters, forks, knives and spoons—the cleric’s last and only extravagance after having given away most of his possessions to the poor. The gendarmes spy Valjean on the road with his plunder. They haul him before Monseigneur Bienvenu. The bishop lies to the gendarmes, saying he gave the silver to Valjean. After the police leave, he turns to Valjean: “Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man. … Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
Valjean, shaken, nevertheless commits one final crime. He robs a boy of a coin, almost instinctively, but it was “an act of which he was no longer capable.” The theft plunges him into despair. He desperately searches for the boy to return the coin. He cannot find him. The boy has run away in terror. Valjean vows to become a different man.
The decision by the bishop to lie on behalf of Valjean triggered an intense debate in my classroom.
“Who would do this?” a student asked.
“No one,” another student answered.
Several students dismissed the scene as improbable.
And then from the back of the room a student, speaking in emotional undertones, told this story.
“I came back to my bunk one day,” he said. “There was a new Bible on it. Inside was a letter. It was from my victim’s sister. She wrote, ‘I forgive you. Now you must forgive yourself.’ I broke down. I could be more than a criminal. I could change. She made that possible.”
My students will spend their lives condemned as felons. They, like Valjean, will never completely wash away the mark of Cain. Transformation, even when it occurs, will not free them from the criminal caste system. Transformation must be carried out not for what it will achieve, for often it will achieve nothing, or how it will be perceived, for most of the wider society will not perceive it. Transformation is about making peace with yourself. It is about obeying your conscience, which Hugo equates with the divine. It is about never living at the expense of another. Transformation is about rising above the hatred many feel, with justification, for a society that has betrayed them.
“If you are persecuted for virtue, why be virtuous?” a student asked.
“Those who have nothing need other people,” another student said. “We can’t survive alone. The more we sacrifice for those around us, the more we reduce our collective suffering; the more we recover our humanity, the more people reach out to us when we need help, and we all need help. Goodness is contagious.”
And yet, as my students know, this internal battle is hard and fierce within a society that denies the poor dignity and respect.
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“Obscurely he perceived that the priest’s forgiveness was the most formidable assault he had ever sustained,” Hugo wrote of Valjean, “that if he resisted it his heart would be hardened once and for all, and that if he yielded he must renounce the hatred which the acts of man had implanted in him during so many years, and to which he clung. He saw dimly that this time he must either conquer or be conquered, and that the battle was not joined, a momentous and decisive battle between the evil in himself and the goodness in the other man.”
Hugo was aware that there are some who cannot be redeemed. They are incapable of empathy or remorse. They are driven by greed and ambition. They take a perverse joy in inflicting suffering on others. They are capable only of deceit. These people must be kept at bay. In the novel they are represented by Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, “human creatures which, like crayfish, always retreat into shadow, going backwards rather than forwards through life, gaining in deformity with experience, going from bad to worse and sinking into even deeper darkness.”
This cold reality, nevertheless, proved to be a painful one to digest in the classroom. Several students argued passionately that everyone, no matter how depraved, could ultimately be redeemed, and yet the reality of prison, my students conceded, amply illustrates that there are human predators to whom one can never show vulnerability or expect mercy. Fyodor Dostoyevsky described hell as the inability to love. These predators inhabit this hell. This internal hell, a barrenness of the soul, is exemplified in the police inspector Javert, who hounds Valjean throughout the novel. Hugo wrote, “The Austrian peasants believe that in every wolf-litter there is a dog-whelp which the mother kills, because otherwise when it grows larger it will devour the rest of her young. Endow this dog with a human face, and you have Javert.”
Javert, born in a prison to a mother who was a fortune teller and a father who was a convict, came from the underclass he persecuted. The social backgrounds of corrections officers, police and prisoners were then, and are today, often the same; indeed it is not uncommon for prisoners and corrections officers to have familial ties. Javert embraced the rigid code of the law and absolute state authority, which absolved him from moral responsibility. “His duties were his religion,” Hugo wrote. Javert’s iron fealty to the letter of the law is juxtaposed with Valjean’s fealty to empathy and justice, which is repeatedly criminalized by those in power.
There is a moment in the novel when a man named Champmathieu is hauled into court and accused of being Valjean, who has broken parole and is living under the assumed name of Monsieur Madeleine. Javert and three witnesses who were in prison with Valjean insist the man is Valjean. Valjean, under his pseudonym, has become the prosperous mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. If he remains silent, allowing the innocent Champmathieu to go to prison in his place, he will throw the police off his trail permanently. During a night of anguished indecision, he burns his last personal effects from his life as a convict, but then sees the coin he stole from the boy when he left the bishop’s house—a coin that represents his last crime and his transformation. He goes to the courtroom. He announces to the stunned court that he is Valjean. He condemns himself, but recovers his name. He saves his soul.
The importance of a name, and the idea that carrying out a moral act means you will be crucified by the ruling elites, intrigued my students, most of whom, like Valjean, are known by their prison numbers. Valjean, Hugo wrote, sacrificed “his personal security to his moral principles” and “had, it seems, concluded after the manner of saints and sages, that his first duty was not to himself.” Jean Valjean, through this act of self-sacrifice, emerged from the court “even more honored and secure than before.” He had, in Hugo’s words, taken up the cross. Hugo went on:
Certainly his life had a purpose, but was it simply to hide himself, to outwit the police? Had everything he had done been for no better reason than this? Had he not had a greater purpose, the saving not of his life but of his soul, the resolve to become a good and honorable and upright man as the bishop required of him—had not that been his true and deepest intention? How he talked of closing the door on the past when, God help him, he would be reopening the door by committing an infamous act, not merely that of a thief but of the most odious of thieves. He would be robbing a man of his life, his peace, his place in the sun, morally murdering him by condemning him to the living death that is called a convict prison. But if, on the other hand, he saved the man by repairing the blunder, by proclaiming himself Jean Valjean the felon, this would be to achieve his own true resurrection and firmly close the door on the hell from which he sought to escape. To return to it in appearance would be to escape from it in reality. This was what he must do, and without it he would have accomplished nothing, his life would be wasted, his repentance meaningless, and there would be nothing left for him to say except, “Who cares?”
Hugo added: “It was his most melancholy destiny that he could achieve sanctity in the eyes of God only by returning to degradation in the eyes of men.” He is filled with terror, yet proceeds. “Whichever way he looked,” Hugo wrote, “the course of duty glared at him as though the words were written in letters of fire—‘Stand up and say your name!’ ” He could “cling to his paradise and become a devil, or become a saint by going back to hell.”
To save Champmathieu, Valjean gives up his freedom. In this singular act of justice and heroic self-sacrifice he exposes the bankruptcy and corruption of the courts, including the lie of authority. He elevates a convict, Jean Valjean, to a higher morality. He redeems his name and the names of all convicts. The price is catastrophic. But the price for moral acts is usually catastrophic. No one is rewarded for virtue. In my class this chapter triggered a discussion of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative,” the idea that there are things we must do no matter what the consequences. The moral life, as Hugo pointed out, is not pragmatic or rational. It does not guarantee that we as distinct individuals survive. And yet, it permits us, by living for others, to become our best selves. It allows us a bittersweet happiness.
Valjean finds his ultimate fulfillment in raising the orphan Cosette. Most of my students have children. They struggle in prison to hold on to their role as fathers. Their children are often the only way left for them to have influence on the outside. But, as in the novel, these children grow up and drift away.
One of my students, serving a life sentence without parole and unable to be with his small daughter, structured his day as if she was in the cell with him. He woke her up in the morning. He cooked for her. He spoke to her. He read books to her. He wrote long letters. Every night he said goodnight to her as if she were in the next bunk. This ritual was not only about loss. It preserved his identity as something other than a prisoner. It allowed him to retain the title of father. It kept alive the virtues of nurturing, tenderness and love that prison can often crush. Hugo’s understanding of the titanic internal struggle to be human in an inhuman environment was intimately familiar to my 26 students.
Valjean, at 80, is consumed by the isolation that grips many in prison, dying alone, condemned as one of les misérables with no friends or family. Cosette has married. He feels forgotten. In the final scene his beloved Cosette appears as he dies.
We began each class with a student summarizing the main points in the week’s reading. On the day of the final class a student, Joel, rose to speak, holding two pages of notes.
“I think about the final interaction between Valjean, Cosette and Marius [her husband],” he said. “I think about the strength in [Valjean] for all he had suffered, all he had sacrificed, all he had endured just for the beauty and simplicity of love. I think about those last moments between them, the thankfulness for the opportunity to love; the opportunity to not be alone in his last moments; the opportunity to live. I thank Hugo for the picture he painted for me here. … I think about the man who became my father and how much pain and suffering I have caused him. I think about the things he sacrificed for me. I think about all the challenges he took on for the sake of me. Yet despite it all I think about how much love I have had the opportunity to share with him, how much life he has given me. I pray that on his last day he may be able to rest his hand on my head, to feel a sense of accomplishment when it comes to his son, to be free of this world with a sense of happiness. That I too can one day say [quoting lines penciled onto Valjean’s gravestone]:
He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,
He lived; and when his dear love left him, died.
It happened of itself, in the calm way
That in the evening the night-time follows day.