Misery, Mercy, and Justice: The Unresolved Questions Posed By Les Misérables
This essay of mine was originally published on Uisio’s site in 2016. As that site has been taken down, and as I’ve just joined a discussion group on Les Misérables, I’m reposting the essay here.
“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth… so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved….so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”[i] So Victor Hugo wrote in the prologue to his greatest novel. Les Misérables offers a passionate exposé of the artificial hells of Hugo’s time and a clear statement of widespread social complicity in the creation of these hells. It also illustrates, through the lives of its characters, different possible responses to human misery and social injustice.
Hugo’s ‘problems of the century’ are still with us more than 150 years later. So is Les Misérables, though it is best known to many people through highly simplified dramatizations which obscure some of Hugo’s essential questions. People of goodwill today still struggle with those questions: How should we live in the face of so much suffering? How much of this suffering springs from individual wrongdoing, how much from structural injustice? How can individuals or systems be made better? What harm do we do in our efforts to do good? How should we relate to those people whose solutions are fundamentally opposed to our own? Hugo offers no easy answers, but his vivid presentation of the questions may help people trying to live responsibly today.
In the world of Les Misérables extremes of poverty and wealth exist side by side. Vast numbers of people, many of them children, are hungry, homeless and sick. The poor die of tuberculosis, made worse by lack of food and warmth, and of cholera from contaminated water. Many of the rich and respectable feel contempt rather than responsibility for the poor, when they are forced to notice them at all. In one scene a pair of homeless children hide in the shadows of a park, watching an overfed and bored family throwing bread to the overfed swans, wondering whether they can get any of that bread for themselves after that family leaves; they have learned that showing themselves and asking for help arouses revulsion more often than compassion.
This lack of compassion persists even within families. Old M. Gillenormand lives luxuriously, knowing that his widower son-in-law Colonel Pontmercy is desperately poor. Considering that Pontmercy has brought his poverty on himself through his politics, Gillenormand makes no effort to help him. He does adopt his grandson Marius, on the condition that the boy should never see his father and should be raised as a respectable young man who will admire the party in power. Later, when Marius wishes to marry a girl whom he believes to be poor, M. Gillenormand and his daughter make it clear that he can expect no financial help from them if he lowers himself to such a shocking degree. However, when it is revealed that the girl has a substantial fortune, the Gillenormands are delighted and give them more money once it’s clear they don’t need it.
Poverty often drives desperate people outside the law, and once this has happened it’s harder than ever for them to live decently. The young farm laborer Jean Valjean works himself to exhaustion to provide for his widowed sister and her young children. In a hard winter when there is no work he is reduced to stealing bread. He is caught and imprisoned, and his family is left without support; in prison he tries to get news and can’t find out what has happened to them, but fears that they have starved. Prison conditions are brutal. Valjean and his fellow inmates are overworked and chained, given token pay, treated with absolute disrespect, and subjected to beatings and solitary confinement at the slightest provocation. When Valjean tries repeatedly to escape this mistreatment his prison sentence is extended so that he serves nineteen years for one small theft. When he is released his passport identifies him as a convict. Employers are reluctant to hire him, innkeepers won’t serve him, and respectable people shun him. Angry and desperate, Valjean resolves to become a more ruthless and successful thief. When he finds welcome and shelter in Bishop Bienvenu’s house, it seems to be too little too late; he accepts the old man’s hospitality, steals his silver, is caught, and seems doomed to spend the rest of his life back in prison.
When Bienvenu claims that he gave the silver to Valjean, sets him free and tells him to use the money he can get from its sale to become an honest man, the vicious cycle seems to be broken. Valjean changes his name and moves to Montreuil, where he sets up a profitable factory and provides honest work for all who want it so that no one else is driven into crime as he was. He helps small farmers to raise better crops, provides charitably for those who can’t work, and eventually becomes Mayor of Montreuil. For a while the town prospers and many lives are made easier. Then two catastrophes show how hard it is to break free of poverty and stigma in Valjean’s world.
First there is the case of Fantine, a young woman whose lover abandoned her after their daughter Cosette was born. She has committed Cosette to the care of strangers in a distant village, found work in Valjean’s factory and sent the bulk of her wages to her child’s guardians. But the factory supervisor, learning of her illegitimate child, dismisses her. Denied honest work, and still needing to provide for her child, Fantine begins to sell her body. When she tries to defend herself against an assault by a wealthy man, the zealous police officer Javert arrests her, asserting that if a prostitute and a respectable citizen the prostitute must always be in the wrong.
Valjean intervenes in time to save Fantine from being imprisoned, but then his own past catches up with him. Javert begins to suspect Valjean’s true identity, denounces him to the Prefecture of Police, and is told that he must be mad, as the real Jean Valjean has just been found and arrested. Javert, crushed, tells Valjean of this and asks for a dishonorable discharge from his position. Valjean, unable to let another man rot in prison in his place, reveals his true identity and flees. Soon after his departure his charitable projects are abandoned, his factories fail, and the people whom he meant to protect are in need again. Valjean escapes from prison but spends the rest of his life trying to conceal his identity. He still does what he can privately to help the poor and suffering, but he can’t put himself into any public position where Javert might notice him; he can’t even form friendships, since a friend might ask questions he doesn’t dare to answer; in the end he dies of loneliness.
Poverty in Les Misérables drives political insurrection as well as simple crime. In Hugo’s fictionalized version of the 1832 insurrection, some of the people who die defending the barricade and defying the government are dedicated revolutionaries, convinced that injustice can be abolished only by the forcible overthrow of the unjust system. Some are otherwise apolitical workers made desperate by the rising food prices and the cholera epidemic. Others join the revolt out of private despair. The gentle and apolitical old scholar Mabeuf, who has outlived his income and sold all his possessions, joins the defenders of the barricade because he’d rather be shot than starve. The homeless, hungry and unloved girl Eponine also joins the insurrectionists in desperation.
There are many unprotected children in Les Misérables. Eponine and her brother Gavroche suffer from parental neglect as well as social injustice. Their parents, the Thenardiers, spend their lives in the largely unsuccessful attempt to get rich without working. They don’t offer their children much love or care. In hard times they don’t offer them much food either. The only skills they teach them are bullying, begging, fraud and theft.
Gavroche, the least favorite child, leaves home for good at the age of eleven and drifts through the Paris streets, desperately hungry, ‘with the laugh of his age on his lips…and a heart absolutely somber and empty.”[ii] His kindness, ingenuity and courage are consumed by the daily struggle to keep himself alive and out of the hands of the police, and sometimes to help other children in the same endeavor. He joins the insurgents both because he resents the police, who threaten to arrest him for stealing what he needs to live, and because in his loneliness he’s easily drawn into any group of excited people. The National Guard shoot him there, knowing and apparently not caring that he’s a child.
When Eponine’s parents are imprisoned she takes to the streets like her brother, hiding from the police. Her father’s escape from prison only makes her situation worse; he threatens to kill her when she thwarts a robbery by the gang with which he has allied himself. Ignored by the people she admires, and desperate to escape those she loathes, Eponine goes to the barricades intending to get herself killed. She succeeds.
Parental love isn’t enough to keep children safe in Les Misérables. Fantine loves Cosette dearly but can’t keep her; she meets the Thenardiers at a time when they’re relatively prosperous and leaves Cosette with them. The Thenardiers extort all the money they can from Fantine, and they make a slave of Cosette, giving her all the hard and heavy work of their inn, many beatings, little food or clothing, and no love. Valjean rescues her from the Thenardiers, feeds her, protects her, teaches her, and makes it possible for her to live with love and dignity; but the reader is left painfully aware that many children have no such rescuers.
How should people live in this harsh world? Five characters in the novel illustrate fundamentally different responses: Javert, Thenardier, Enjolras (leader of the insurrectionists), Bishop Bienvenu, and Jean Valjean.
Javert is the champion of the existing social order. He is aware of the misery in the world, and he blames it on the miserable; his concern is to keep them from tainting prosperous, respectable citizens with their wretchedness. He sees the wealth gap, and concludes that the wealthy are naturally superior and must be defended against the resentment of their inferiors. He sees the harshness of prisons, and considers it a just punishment for lawbreakers and a deterrent to potential criminals. He is not interested in the motives of lawbreakers; he pursues the murderers in the Patron-Minette gang, the idealistic insurrectionists, and the desperate people who steal out of hunger with equal fervor. He is protecting society. Individuals do not concern him.
Javert is no more concerned with his own personal well-being than with anyone else’s. He is a child of criminals, apparently unloved and miserable; he decides that he himself will never be respectable, but he can at least defend those who are. “This man was composed of two… sentiments–respect for authority, hatred of rebellion…. He had introduced a straight line into what is the most crooked thing in the world… He was a [police] spy as other men are priests….[leading] a life of privation, isolation, abnegation, chastity.”[iii] He cannot be bribed, intimidates, mainpulated—or touched by pity, for anyone else or for himself. When he has transgressed his own austere code he punishes himself severely. There is something undeniably heroic about him.
What are the results of Javert’s heroism? The law he defends turns the young Valjean from an overworked laborer trying to keep his family alive to a hardened convict with no one to care for and with a violent grievance against society. Later, when Valjean has reformed himself and done great good in Montrueil, Javert denounces him for his past and destroys his work. Yet Javert also saves Valjean from being murdered by the Patron-Minette gang, and he arrests the gang members and does all he can to keep them from causing further harm. However, the gangsters, who have more money and influence than the simple unfortunates whom Javert arrests, take advantage of Javert’s more corruptible brethren, bribe their way out of prison, and are soon active on the streets again.
Challenges to the order which Javert represents are posed by different figures in the book: Thenardier and the gangsters, Enjolras and the revolutionaries, Monsignor Bienvenu, and Jean Valjean.
Thenardier and his sometime colleagues in the Patron-Minette gang are not concerned with justice, only with getting what they want – primarily money, power, and revenge. They see the wealth gap, and resolve to be on the right side of it by any means possible; they see the harshness of the law, and do their best to keep out of its clutches by guile, force and bribery, not by obedience.
Thenardier pities himself and no one else. He has neither compassion for the poor nor respect for the rich. Thenardier successfully extorts money from Fantine, who nearly starves herself to provide for her child. He also tries to kidnap and extort money from Jean Valjean once the latter has become a wealthy man and has made the mistake of taking pity on Thenardier and offering him money; only Javert’s interference spoils this scheme.
What are the results of this life? Thenardier’s single-minded pursuit of wealth leaves him poor and miserable. While he is apparently an enemy of the forces of law and order, he helps to ensure the continuity of the system. Thenardier, Patron-Minette and their ilk provide Javert’s livelihood, his raison d’etre, and his justification. Even Marius, who sympathizes with the revolutionaries, goes to Javert for help when he overhears Thenardier and the gang plotting against Valjean. There seem to be some more shadowy connections between the gang and the police as well; Claquesous, one of the leaders of Patron-Minette, is allowed to escape after Javert arrests him, and later appears at the barricades as an agent provocateur apparently planted by the police.
Enjolras and the revolutionaries who follow him to the barricade in 1832 are as deeply and narrowly devoted to justice as Javert, although their conceptions of justice are fatally opposed. Enjolras blames misery on the powerful. He says that prisons are brutal and wealth is unequally distributed because a few people have seized power and wielded it to protect their own interests, disregarding the rights of others. His aim is to raise the downtrodden, redress corruption and oppression, and inaugurate the perfect republic of liberty and love. He has little faith in the existing government’s will or ability to do this. When General Lamarque, the last government official remotely aligned with Enjolras’ views, dies, many of the people of Paris join Enjolras in deciding that their only hope lies in seizing of power and violently overthrowing the order Javert defends.
Enjolras is the mirror image of Javert. “He was an officiating priest and a man of war… He had but one passion—the right; but one thought—to overthrow the obstacle.”[iv] He and Javert both think in straight lines, show absolute commitment to their causes, and disregard the suffering of individuals as they fight for the welfare of mankind. Despite this resemblance, Javert and Enjolras are incapable of understanding one another or even recognizing one another as human. This failure of recognition is one of their strongest similarities. Javert’s reasons for becoming a policeman interest Enjolras as little as Valjean’s reasons for stealing interest Javert. Enjolras sees the captured police spy at the barricade as an obstacle, not a person, and sentences him to death as willingly as Javert has sentenced the miserable people whom he apprehends.
What does this passion for justice bring about? Enjolras’ insurrection may, in some hearts and minds, rekindle the vision of justice that sparked the French Revolution. It certainly results in many deaths—of Enjolras’ partisans, of National Guardsmen, of Mabeuf and the Thenardier children and other innocents—and also, perhaps, in tighter government control afterward.
It might be argued that the results are unsatisfactory simply because the 1832 insurgency was soon put down. But in his later novel Quatre-Vingt-Treize, set in 1793, during that late portion of the French Revolution known as the Terror, Hugo looks at the problematic results of a revolutionary victory. Most of the book depicts the armed struggle between the royalist Catholic insurgents of Vendee and the forces of the ruling Revolutionary government. In this total war, neither side shows much respect for Christian charity or human dignity. One of the Revolutionary leaders, Gauvain, believes that the sacred cause of liberty requires its defenders to show mercy to their enemies; when he persists in acting on this conviction he is executed by his own partisans. Some parts of the book are set in Paris, removed from the immediate tumult of war. The revolutionary government there passes commendable laws providing for the poor and abolishing various forms of servitude, but its members mistrust each other and the people whom they lead, and they carry out a series of violent purges spreading death, fear and distrust. Injustice and misery appear to have been changed but not abolished. It may be that Enjolras’ revolution would have had similarly mixed results if it had succeeded.
Bishop Bienvenu, unlike either Javert or Enjolras, is unwilling to disregard individual human beings in pursuit of broader ideals. He blames the suffering of prisoners and the poor on the hard-heartedness of the rich and respectable. He says, “The faults of women, of children, of the feeble, the indigent, and the ignorant, are the fault of the husbands, the fathers, the masters, the strong, the rich, and the wise,”[v] and he refers to luxuries as goods stolen from the poor. So far Enjolras might agree with him. But his solution is dramatically different from Enjolras’s. He gives away most of his possessions, understanding this to be a duty not an act of saintly generosity; he says, “the priest speaks in the name of pity, which is a higher justice.”[vi] He urges his parishioners to practice this kind of justice, but he is quite unwilling to compel anyone.
Bishop Bienvenu has no overriding theory of life. “That which enlightened this man was his heart…No systems; many works…. The universe appeared to him like an immense malady; everywhere he felt fever, everywhere he heard the sound of suffering, and, without seeking to solve the enigma, he strove to dress the wound.”[vii] For most of his life this seems sufficient to him. Then he goes, with great reluctance, to visit the deathbed of a former member of the Convention, the defeated French revolutionary government. He means to offer spiritual comfort; instead he reproaches the dying man with the violence in which he has participated. The Conventionary, nothing daunted, points out the violent abuses of the old order—abuses which the Church and the kindness of individuals did not abolish, some of which the Revolution has weakened or destroyed—and says that he’s not ashamed of having risked his life and ruined his fortune and his reputation to redress those abuses by force. The Bishop asks for the Conventionary’s blessing and goes home deeply troubled, though not converted. It is after this unsettling encounter that Bienvenu welcomes Valjean into his home, is robbed of his most prized possessions, and gives them away to the thief.
What are the results of this life? Some sufferers are relieved. The inmates of the cramped charity hospital receive more spacious quarters in the Bishop’s palace; hungry people are fed; dying people are comforted. Some people who have rejected society after being rejected by it are turned back toward brotherly love by Bienvenu’s influence. When Bienvenu is asked to celebrate a Mass in a remote region haunted by bandits, people warn him not to go without a military escort; he goes alone, and instead of robbing him the bandits make him a large donation of goods previously stolen from richer churchmen. Jean Valjean is freed from hopelessness and hate as well as from prison when the Bishop pardons him.
The Bishop’s challenge to the rich and respectable, however, falls mainly on deaf ears. He lives and preaches in Digne for many years, at the end of which his parishioners still deny food and shelter to a hungry and weary ex-convict. Young priests avoid Bienvenu, fearing that they’ll be infected by his stringent charity and lose their careers.
Jean Valjean inherits the Bishop’s mission of mercy as well as his silver, but his motives and his challenge to the social system are more complicated than Bienvenu’s. Like Bienvenu, he knows that society bears great responsibility for the crimes of individuals. After turning himself in to save the man falsely suspected of being Jean Valjean, he tells his judges, “The galleys [the prison] make the convict what he is…The galleys wrought a change in me. I was stupid; I became vicious: I was a block of wood; I became a firebrand. Later on, indulgence and kindness saved me, as severity had ruined me.”[viii] This is part of what he and his author know to be true. But they also know another truth. Free again, just after receiving the gift of the Bishop’s silver and the Bishop’s trust, Valjean steals money from a poor vagabond child, an act which shows him that evil is deeply rooted in himself as well as in the wider society. Thereafter he watches over himself as severely as Javert watches him. Later, re-imprisoned and brutally treated, he risks his life to save a man at risk of drowning.
Having seen evil in himself, and knowing what led to it, Valjean can pity the evil in others instead of condemning it. He spends the rest of his life extending a sort of terrible mercy. He acts to materially help the poor and the sick, and to save those whose lives are threatened—even the lives of those whom he has reason to hate or fear. Sometimes this generosity confronts other people with the same painful self-knowledge and choice which the Bishop bestowed on him.
What does he accomplish? Like the Bishop, he relieves many sufferers: Fantine spends her last days in peace, Cosette is raised with love, sick people are tended and hungry people fed. He tries to create a culture of justice and mercy in Montreuil, as the Bishop does in Digne, with the same largely unsatisfactory results. Even while he is known as the Mayor and not as an ex-convict, respectable people suspect his reluctance to advance himself; after his past is revealed they dismiss all that he said and did. On the large scale, nothing changes.
But in some of his encounters with individuals entrenched in the social order Valjean brings about a conversion. His passion for mercy, and his fear of becoming a bitter and self-centered man again, drive him to join the revolutionaries at the barricade—not to fight for their vision of justice, but to save Cosette’s beloved Marius and whomever else he can. He rescues Javert from his would-be executioners, and in so doing destroys Javert’s well-ordered world. Javert’s vision of justice rests on the assumption that all lawbreakers are evil. He can’t think that of the man who has just saved his life at great personal risk. His straight line is bent, and he becomes human enough to let Valjean go free instead of rearresting him. But the burden of moral responsibility is too great for him. He can’t live without being sure that he is right. He chooses to die.
Marius is unconscious when rescued and doesn’t know who saved him. Finding the revolution thwarted, he retreats into his own private romantic happiness, marries Cosette and abandons larger questions. When Valjean confesses to Marius that he is a felon, Marius recoils in horror and sends Valjean away. He learns the rest of Valjean’s story too late to make amends, when Valjean is already in the last stages of dying of loneliness. As the book ends Marius is left deeply shaken as Valjean was after encountering Bienvenu. We don’t see what he decides to do as a result of this experience; Hugo leaves Marius, and his readers, with a burning sense of responsibility and a great many unresolved questions.
Victor Hugo’s life testifies to the thorniness of these questions. Like Marius, he changed political affiliations drastically over the course of his lifetime—a royalist, a liberal democrat, a republican with revolutionary sympathies. Through all these changes his urgent sense of misery and mercy remained unchanged. He was generous and charitable in private life, and his early public speeches urged the government to take more care of the poor. He spoke consistently and fervently against the death penalty and against brutal prison conditions.
Sometimes he tried to advance these concerns through the normal process of government. It seems that he always had some doubts of how well this worked. In 1830 he wrote, “Gentlemen of the Right, gentlemen of the Left, the great mass of people suffer…You are at fault…When you pass laws, what are they but expedients and palliatives?”[ix] Nevertheless in the insurrection of 1832 and the second revolution of 1848 he deplored the haste and violence of the insurrectionists. However, in 1851, following a coup d’etat which undid all the reforms he had worked for, Hugo encouraged the Parisians to revolt. He fled the country and wrote most of Les Misérables in exile. In 1871 he returned home. Later that year, when the Parisian workers’ commune—one of whose leaders named herself Enjolras–declared its independence and tried to maintain that independence by force, he condemned the violence done on both sides; when the insurgents were brutally suppressed he advocated for them publicly and sheltered those who were able to escape. Always he wrote, throwing down his challenge to his contemporaries and to future generations.
What can we make of this challenge today? The miseries and injustices of our time parallel those of Hugo’s. The gap between rich and poor remains catastrophic. Half the world’s wealth now belongs to 1% of the world’s people.[x] This disparity exists within nations as well as between them. In the US in 2015 the average CEO made 204 times as much as the lowest-paid worker employed by his or her company. The people at the bottom end of the economic spectrum face hunger, homelessness, crippling lack, and also disease. In the US poor families in Flint, Michigan were given lead-contaminated water for months and told that it was safe, though a few people tried to raise an alarm. In many parts of the world incinerators, toxic waste dumps, and other high-polluting facilities are located in poor areas, whose residents are sickened by poisoned air and water.
Poor and unemployed people attempting to feed their families still face arrest. In the US migrants who have not even stolen bread, who are doing hard labor for little pay, are detained if it’s found that they have crossed the US border in search of work without getting official permission. Citizens or non-citizens, the poor suffer disproportionately from the harshness of the law. This was dramatically illustrated in the case of Kalief Browder, a teenager who committed suicide after spending three years in prison, nearly two of them in solitary confinement, and being repeatedly beaten, because he was accused of stealing a backpack. He was never tried or convicted. He was not released while waiting for his trial because his family couldn’t afford $3,000 in bail. Prison conditions remain brutalizing, not only in the US. The European Court of Human Rights reports inhumane prison conditions, including overcrowding, repeated strip-searching, unsanitary conditions, and violence perpetrated by fellow inmates and guards, in prisons throughout the EU. [xi] Released ex-convicts still find it difficult to reintegrate into society, partly because of social stigma, partly because of trauma from their time behind bars.
Cosette and Gavroche have their modern equivalents. Child slavery is still with us, even in the richest nations. In 2008 about 50,000 people, mostly domestic workers, were held secretly in slavery in the US. Many of these were girls, some as young as five years old.[xii] Loving parents in impoverished countries are still often forced to leave their children for long periods of time while they go abroad in search of work.
As any social worker can attest, there are still too many homeless and hungry children. In 2014 fifteen homeless children died on the streets of France from hunger and exposure; national statistics agency INSEE estimated that more than 30,000 children were homeless in France.
There are also too many children, homeless or not, rich or poor, who live without love, a sense of purpose, or any clear way forward into a decent life. Modern-day Gavroches may end up addicted to drugs which devastate their minds, their bodies, and their chances for a better life. Some of them also find their way into gangs, or into extremist groups.
How shall we live in such a world?
Javert’s voice can still be heard in discussions of law, order and security. Opponents of prison reform argue that prisoners must be punished, not coddled, and that prisons should be ugly enough to deter the commission of crimes. Proponents of immigration restriction argue that we are not responsible for foreigners, whether they are fleeing poverty, gang violence, or brutal civil wars (and whether or not the foreign policies of our nations have contributed to these evils) – that our first duty is to protect our own safety and prosperity. Opponents of progressive taxation and economic reform describe poor people as non-contributors, ‘moochers,’ and ‘looters’ who resent, rob, and endanger the rich.
Bienvenu’s voice can also be heard in political and religious discussions, urging personal charity and peaceable social reform, proclaiming that we are our brothers’ keepers. Pope Francis has repeated this very publicly. He asked, “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?… Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”[xiii] Some people and churches are inspired to charity; a few laws are reformed; some hungry people are fed… and the system continues largely unchanged; food is still thrown away, and people still starve.
In many parts of the world people have concluded that the systems which permit and perpetuate injustice are so entrenched and so corrupt that they cannot be reformed by moral suasion or the legislative process, that they must be overthrown. Despair at injustice and corruption may drive insurrections by conservative religious extremists. In her 2015 book Thieves of State, Sarah Chayes argues that when the poor and powerless are without hope and see no sanctioned way to redress their grievances, they are likely to turn to violent religious uprisings which promise a return to purity and justice. She backs this argument with examples from contemporary Muslim and Christian insurgencies in the Middle East and Africa, and also from the Protestant Reformation in Europe. She describes the escalation of conflicts as governments justify increasingly violent crackdowns by invoking the violence committed by ‘terrorists’ and insurgents justify increasingly devastating attacks by invoking the violence committed by the government. Like the forces of Law and the Revolution in Les Misérables, the two sides too often come to resemble each other in their tactics, if not in their goals. Too many innocent people are caught in the crossfire.
Many of the Arab Spring uprisings bore more obvious resemblances to Enjolras’ revolution in the name of personal and press freedom, work and food for all, justice and equality, although many of them remained largely nonviolent even in the face of violent suppression. The abuses they protested were very real. Their courage was admirable. The results of that courage may not be all that the protestors hoped for… in Egypt, as in France, a coup followed the revolution, and civil liberties are denied again; in some other places there has been much chaos and destruction.
Even in countries whose governments are intact, there are rumblings of discontent. In the US, police killings of unarmed black men, combined with a long history of legalized discrimination, has convinced many black people that the law does not protect them. Their protests have been suppressed by highly armed police. The level of fear between police officers and civilians has grown, endangering both sides.
Between Hugo’s time and our own there have been many movements which tried to combine the transformation of systems with care for individuals and to fight evil without doing evil. Some of these largely nonviolent revolutions have achieved great successes—freeing India from British colonial rule, ending overt legal racial discrimination in the US, terminating the brutal system of apartheid in South Africa. They have managed to escape the escalating spiral of violence, to demonstrate that another way is possible. And yet their long-term results are mixed. Both India and South Africa still struggle with extreme poverty, extreme wealth, political corruption and violence. Racial discrimination in the US has gone underground but remains real and destructive.
There is still need, then, for Jean Valjean’s spiritual heirs—for people willing to concentrate on the individuals around them rather than on some larger social vision; people who are aware of the mixture of good and evil within each of us; people who reach out to the individuals around them who are broken and endangered, either by the System or its opponents; people who practice good works, caring for their neighbors, and also good work, devising ways of using limited resources well for the common good. And yet this work, deeply necessary as it is, does not, by itself, right the wrong and heal the world.
How shall we live in such a world? Perhaps there are no simple answers, only the obligation to live with the uncomfortable truths Les Misérables presents. We are our brothers’ keepers, and our brothers suffer. We are responsible for the systems in which we participate as well as for our individual actions. Those who oppose us may be working heroically for the Good as they see it, and how can we be sure whether we or they are more blind? Those whose actions revolt us may be broken by pains we can’t imagine. All of us, however broken and blind we are, are capable of acting justly and mercifully. This capability is both a gift and an obligation.
Joanna Hoyt is a self-taught student and full-time volunteer who lives with her family on a Catholic Worker farm in rural New York State, USA, where she spends her days tending goats, gardens and guests, her evenings reading and writing. She has published essays and short fiction in US and British magazines. She is still trying to figure out a fully human way of living in a broken world.
[i] [Victor Hugo (1862), Les Miserables, translated by Isabel Hapgood, 1887, Thomas Crowell and Co, New York]
[ix] Victor Hugo (1834), Claude Gueux, quoted in The Works of Victor Hugo, Walter J. Black Inc., New York
[x] Jill Treanor [October 13, 2015]: “Half of world’s wealth now in hands of 1% of population – report”, The Guardian Weekly, UK
[xi] European Court of Human Rights, January 2016, “Detention conditions and treatment of prisoners”
[xii] Benjamin Skinner (July 11, 2008) “Slavery in America: an undeniable truth,” ABC News
[xiii] Pope Francis, 2013, Evangelii Gaudium, US Conference of Catholic Bishops