Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has once again gained status as a pop culture icon. It was bad enough when it was just a Broadway musical. I hadn’t seen it at all in high school, and yet I was very familiar with many of the songs. I’m sure many of you can say the same. Every time a girl in high school has to audition for a part in the school musical or has to sing a solo for the school talent show, nine times out of ten, she’ll pick either “On My Own” or “I Dreamed a Dream.”
It has been made into a movie more times than most people care to count, even as far back as 1934. It’s been done in English and in French, in black-and-white and color, for the theater, and made-for-TV. Then Liam Neeson played Jean Valjean in another movie version, and propelled the story back into the spotlight. Now, even the musical is now available on DVD and instant streaming. Then the new movie version of that musical was released last year, and all the Les Miz geeks came out of the woodwork, singing their favorite selections and, in general, driving the rest of the world bonkers.
I know, because I was singing along with everyone else.
I had avoided the musical for most of my life. I actually read the book before I ever saw the musical, and I read the complete and unabridged version. I did my undergraduate thesis on Les Miserables, and so I have spent more time on the work and its author than most fans of the musical.
Which is why when Catholics I respect tell me that Victor Hugo was anti-Catholic, and give me this funny oh-you-poor-unfortunate-soul condescending smile when I tell them what my thesis topic was, I start to lose my temper.
The story is a pop culture icon; there’s no way around that at this point. And as good Catholics, we need to be able to live in the world, while still not being of the world, and that means speaking the pop culture language. And that is why a frank discussion about Victor Hugo is a good thing to have, not just because his work is popular, but because of why it’s popular.
And yes, because the story is really that good. It’s beyond good. It’s one of those stories, the timeless ones that keep coming back, no matter what culture they’re in. The ones we read (or watch) over and over and over again, and keep finding new aspects of it to love. The kind that can penetrate the overtly-secular pop culture and change it, even if it’s just a little bit, for a very little while.
We can’t be afraid of something that powerful. We either learn how to fight it, or find a reason to embrace it.
In the case of Victor Hugo, it is the latter.
The I-will-brook-no-argument statement that Victor Hugo was anti-Catholic is usually where the haters start, so I will start there as well.
Without a doubt, the most difficult part of my thesis research was trying to figure out what the hell Hugo actually believed. His political and societal opinions changed so many times in the course of his career in post-Revolution French politics that it was hard to keep track of them. I had to put a disclaimer in my thesis, saying that only his views that relate directly to the story in Les Miserables will be discussed in this work. Otherwise, Dr. Marciano might have had me assassinated for the number of pages in my thesis (especially when her other thesis student was doing hers on a compare/contrast between Frodo and Harry Potter, and she had never read Harry Potter or Les Miserables. Poor Dr. Marciano). And, more importantly, that would have been straying from the topic.
Because of the changeable nature of Hugo’s opinions, it’s hard to discuss him from that standpoint, and I won’t even try to do it. You can say with certainty that the man was a pacifist, and that he had some funny ideas about fixing poverty with universal free education and reform of the political system, but beyond that, there’s just too much to deal with, and it actually has very little to do with Les Miserables, as strange as that is to say.
It’s much more practical to judge Victor Hugo and Les Miserables by the content of that book, and nothing else. If you want to discuss Victor Hugo’s political history, go talk to a history major. Over here, we’re talking about literature, and we’ll stay firmly planted in that field. Contrary to some popular liberal beliefs, it is possible to judge a work on its content alone. You don’t need to use individual rose-colored lenses, or the even more changeable lens of historical or political circumstances, to understand a work like this, or any other work, for that matter. Shakespeare might have lived in Elizabethan England, with all its strange ideas, but his work is still universal. Victor Hugo is the same way. Just because he was in post-Revolution France doesn’t mean that his ideas have to be filtered through that lens, either. To say that something like Hamlet is only relevant in the historical circumstances in which is was written is insulting to the author, and to the modern reader, because the work speaks to the timeless in all of us.
The same can be said of Les Miserables. We don’t need to know about Hugo’s politics to discuss his work. All we need to do is read the work, and judge it on its merits, or lack thereof.
And that is another thing about this topic that makes me angry. Most of the haters haven’t even read the book, and yet think that they’re qualified to judge it. Someone told them that Victor Hugo was anti-Catholic, and so, like good little Catholic-Bots, we must avoid him like the plague. And tell all our Catholic friends that he’s dangerous. And look shocked when a good Catholic girl does her thesis on that evil anti-Catholic.
If you think that Hugo is anti-Catholic, you haven’t read the book. If you had, you wouldn’t think so. It’s that simple.
His politics might have been weird. His personal life might have been contemptible. But neither of those things invalidate his work, and the messages in it. Some of his soap-box rants in the book itself might be a little on the crazy side, but no one remembers those. They remember the story he told, and that is what is important.
Just to use a good Catholic example, let’s look at one of the greatest, if not the greatest philosopher and Doctor of the Church the world has ever known: St. Thomas Aquinas. He didn’t believe that the Blessed Virgin was immaculately conceived, and made a quite convincing argument about it. At the time, this was not a matter of dogma, and he was allowed to think that.
Now, though, it is a matter of dogma. It has been proclaimed to be true (as of 1854), and all Catholics must believe it to be so.
Wait. Am I saying that St. Thomas Aquinas, that great philosopher and Doctor of the Church, was wrong? Not just a little wrong, but completely dead-wrong on something so fundamental and essential to our faith?
Now, let’s take the Summa Theologiae and throw it out, because if he was wrong in Third Part, Question Twenty-Seven, we can’t believe anything else he says.
Said no one. Ever.
So, why would we judge a man like Victor Hugo by a standard that not even one of the greatest Saints in history could achieve? Are we really going to stand around and say that because Victor Hugo was wrong about some things, he couldn’t ever be right on anything else? That is preposterous, and yet it is exactly what these naysayers have done to him.
And just like throwing out the Summa because of that error would be a disgustingly stupid thing to do, so is this. The Summa can teach us so much about God and ourselves, even though the author was wrong on that point. Same with Hugo–he can teach us so much about God and ourselves, even though his politics and personal life were pretty messed up.
And that is why this one book is so very popular, even in a secular world that has turned its back on most aspects of religion. Hugo was able to sneak in a lot of religion right under their noses, and they didn’t notice.
That is how we speak the pop culture language. We use their words, tell stories that can move them, and sneak the message in without them ever realizing it. We can learn from Hugo, and we should. His story hasn’t just lasted; it has penetrated our culture. Every decade or so, someone makes it into a movie. The musical is one of the longest-running in Broadway history, and it keeps coming back for more.
Because the story is still relevant. It has achieved that timeless status, and speaks to us even in this secular world.
We’re the fools for not listening.
There are some very specific Catholic moments in Les Miserables, and those alone should be enough to convince us that, no matter what his personal habits or political standpoints, Victor Hugo had at least a great respect for, if not a real belief in, the Catholic Church.
The first character we meet in the book is not Jean Valjean. It’s the Bishop — M. Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel. And not only is the Bishop mentioned first, Hugo spends the first fifty pages of the book telling is nothing more than how holy the man is. He’s not just a good bishop; he’s the perfect model of what a Bishop should be.
I have been told that this character isn’t good “because” he’s a bishop; he’s good “in spite of” being a bishop. I find that utterly preposterous. Sure, Hugo might have gotten a few digs in about the Church as an institution, especially about the wealth and political prominence of people like bishops, but think of when and where he lived. That was a real issue then. And, come to think of it, we have our own version of the same issue today. The sex scandal in the Church has wreaked havoc on us far and wide. Does that mean the Church herself is corrupt? Or that all priests are pedophiles? Not at all. Hugo draws attention to the bad parts of this institution, and then illustrates with his story what it should be, what it could be if people were just a little more like this particular Bishop. There’s nothing wrong with that. And it sure as hell doesn’t make Hugo anti-Catholic.
Of all the people he could have chosen to be the man to save the hardened convict, Jean Valjean, he picked an unusually holy man. He could have picked a former revolutionary. Or a politician. Or a teacher. Or an ordinary Citizen of France. But he didn’t. That speaks volumes.
After learning all about the Bishop, we finally meet Jean Valjean, the character whose conversion tale has lasted more than a century, and has inspired so many adaptations. That is the important part — no one cares about the political soap-box messages Hugo pauses his story to give you. They care about the story, and it is the story that tells us what we need to know.
I don’t have enough space to go through and dissect the story for you here, no matter how much I want to (yes, I am THAT much of a geek), so I’ll keep it to the bare bones, for the sake of brevity. If you want to experience it for yourself (and I encourage you to, by the way), read the book. I recommend the Charles Wilbur translation — it was done the same year that the original was published in French, and it is beautiful. The kind of beautiful that makes you sit in your dorm room and cry as you read it.
Jean Valjean, when we first see him, is a terrible person. The musical does a very good job portraying him as such, and with far fewer words than Hugo did in his original. He didn’t start out bad; he was made that way by what happened to him. We all know the story — he broke a window and stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children, and got caught. For that, he was sentenced to five years in prison, and ended up serving nineteen because he tried repeatedly to escape. By the time he was released, he was the vicious criminal he was accused of being in the first place. He was just intelligent enough to know that he had been done an injustice by the legal system. So he tried that system in his own head: “Those questions asked and decided, he condemned society and sentenced it. He sentenced it to his hatred. He made it responsible for the doom which he had undergone, and promised himself that he, perhaps, would not hesitate some day to call it to an account” (77). This is the person who was released from prison and found his way to the Bishop’s house.
And then stole the Bishop’s silver, was re-arrested, and returned to the Bishop by the gendarmes.
What does the Bishop do? “But! I have you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” The Bishop lies to the gendarmes to allow Jean Valjean to go. He tells him:
Now, go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you need not come through the garden. You can always come in and go out by the front door. It is closed only with a latch, day or night. . . . Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man. . . . Jean Valejan, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God! (92)
As Hugo says about Sister Simplice later in the story: “may this falsehood be remembered to thee in paradise” (261).
In the original, it takes one more event to complete Valjean’s conversion — the theft of the forty-sous piece from Petit Gervais, but that is usually cut from the movie (and musical) versions, so again, for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave that out, because the end result is the same. Jean Valjean changes from a vicious thief and into a humble, charitable man, the kind that can be held up for all of us to emulate.
This is not the end of the story, and the way it proceeds from this point on should be sufficient to convince any skeptic that Hugo was not anti-Catholic.
Jean Valjean turns into an honest (mostly — he did have to lie about his name to keep his past as a criminal a secret, but most of the time, he was content to simply say nothing about his past. I think we can forgive him for that one), upright citizen, and is even eventually made mayor of a small town. As such, he also becomes a very wealthy man, and what does he do with his wealth? Everything that the good Bishop would have done — founding a hospital, schools and orphanages; providing jobs to local citizens; walking through the streets with his pockets full of money, and returning home with them empty; improving his education by reading; and all the while keeping to the shadows with rare humility.
The most important of his selfless acts is how he saves Fantine from the streets.
She is another character that becomes exactly what she was accused of being in the first place. She made a mistake — she fell in love with a cad, slept with him, and got pregnant, only to have him leave her — and is trying to live with those consequences. When the town finds out about her child, she is fired from the Mayor’s factory, and is turned out onto the streets.
The movie version of the musical shows this quite well, putting her song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” after all these unfortunate things happen to her (in the 25th Anniversary version, it’s the other way around, and is significantly less moving), and Anne Hathaway does a magnificent job portraying her. First, she sold her hair to earn money to send to Cosette, then her teeth. Then, still needing money to ensure that her child isn’t turned out to starve, she says, “Come, I will sell what is left” (162). Hugo tells us: “The unfortunate creature became a woman of the town” (ibid.). That was why she was fired — she was accused of being a loose woman, and a bad influence on the others — and it became true, just like Valjean becoming “a dangerous criminal” after he was released, not before.
Jean Valjean is the one to pull her out of that misery. That one act of kindness saves her from a sorry death in the street or in prison, allows her time and opportunity to repent before God (especially of the sin of hating the Mayor for firing her, which he had nothing to do with, in fact) before she dies.
The point is that it wasn’t universal free education or reform of the political system that saved her or her child — it was one man’s selfless act of kindness.
That is a significantly Catholic story.
Jean Valjean repeats that kindness to save Cosette from the viciousness of the Thenardier family. She is a slave in their home, no question about that, and is well on her way to becoming a frightful, contemptible liar (mostly because that is the only way she can think of to protect herself from their cruelty). Jean Valjean escapes from prison (after being re-arrested by Inspector Javert after the death of Fantine — something which is usually cut from the movie versions), and the first thing he does is keep his promise to a dead woman, even though he exposes himself to discovery.
Again, an instance of selfless charity.
Jean Valjean raises Cosette while hiding in Paris. They stay in a convent, with Valjean as a gardener, and Cosette as a student. One part of that relationship that most of the movies leave out is that he decided to leave the convent, not because he wanted to, but because he had to allow Cosette to make her own choice: “He said to himself that this child had a right to know what life was before renouncing it; that to cut her off, in advance, and, in some sort, without consulting her, from all pleasure, under pretense of saving her from all trial, to take advantage of her ignorance and isolation to give her an artificial vocation, was to outrage a human creature and to lie to God” (761). He had hoped she would simply join the order and remain at the convent for the rest of her life, and therefore, for the rest of his. He knows he is exposing himself to capture if he leaves, and does it anyway, for her sake.
Again, more selflessness and humility. He wants what is best for her, not for himself.
Probably the best of Valejan’s selfless acts is how he acts on the barricades. The movie depictions are all a little different, but they end up with the same result — even though he didn’t want to give up Cosette to anyone else’s love, he goes to the barricades, endangers his own life, and saves Marius not only from death on the barricade, but from execution as a traitor after the fact. In the course of that, he saves the life of his worst enemy — Inspector Javert. He knows that Javert will never let him go, and he could have shot and killed Javert and saved himself from that pursuit. He was even ordered to execute the prisoner — “The last man to leave this room will blow out the spy’s brains” (1064) — by the other revolutionaries, and didn’t. He let Javert go, and even told him his address, so that after the fighting was over, Javert could find and arrest him.
Valjean saves Marius by running through the sewers of Paris, and is re-captured by Javert:
Inspector Javert, you have got me. Besides, since this morning, I have considered myself your prisoner. I did not give you my address to try to escape you. Take me. Only grant me one thing. . . . Dispose of me as you please; but help me first to carry him home. I only ask that of you (1128).
His desire to save the man Cosette loved led to his capture. He knew that would happen, and did it anyway.
Even Inspector Javert’s suicide is another instance of hidden Catholicism. He finally realized that the civil law could be wrong: “There had been a new thing, a revolution, a catastrophe in the depths of his being; and there was matter for self-examination” (1138). He had followed the civil law as if it had been his religion all his life (probably the biggest change made in the musical versions was Javert’s motivations. He was not a religious fanatic in the book, unless you want to call the civil law his religion). And now, after pursuing Valjean for decades, he knows that to re-arrest him would be wrong, because this man is not a dangerous criminal. When Javert realizes that the civil law was actually wrong, he can’t handle the discrepancy: “He saw before him two roads, both equally straight; but he saw two; and that terrified him — him, who had never in his life known but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, the two roads were contradictory” (1139). His goal in life was “not to be humane, not to be great, not to be sublime; it was to be irreproachable,” and “now he had just failed” (1142). Letting Valjean go, while good according to his conscience, was wrong according to the law, and now, he was no longer “irreproachable.” As he sings in the musical: “my heart is stone, and still it trembles.” His lawful superior was a M. Gisquet; suddenly Javert found himself confronting another superior, God: “The subordinate is bound always to yield, that he ought neither to disobey, nor to blame, nor to discuss, and that, in presence of a superior who astonishes him too much, the inferior has no resource but resignation. But how manage to send in his resignation to God?” (1143). Javert takes the only solution he can find — he commits suicide by throwing himself into the Seine.
His suicide might have been wrong, but the fact that his conscience was awakened by the goodness of another man is a very Catholic sentiment. Yes, the civil law can be wrong. It can be harsh; it can even be cruel. There is a higher, more important law. Criminals who break the law are not all equal in guilt. Javert realizes that too late.
Jean Valjean’s death is the finishing touch on the story, and I dare you to read it with a dry eye. I won’t spoil its power by quoting it, so I’ll give you the highlights instead. It’s not about Cosette and Marius, now happily married, saying goodbye to a good man whom they loved, although that is a part of it. It’s a perfect illustration of a man who has tried to redeem himself from his past sins, and who has succeeded:
The night was starless and very dark. Without doubt, in the gloom some mighty angel was standing, with outstretched wings, awaiting the soul (1260).
To my great delight, they put that into the recent movie version of the musical, with the exceptionally holy Bishop holding out his hand to welcome Jean Valjean.
The point of the story is not just that Jean Valjean was saved from poverty and viciousness, led a good earthly life, and helped others; it’s more that he saved his soul, and helped save the souls of others — Fantine, Cosette, and Marius. Les Miserables is a story of salvation through great suffering, and it doesn’t get any more Catholic than that.
Now sit there and tell me that Victor Hugo is anti-Catholic. I dare you.
This timeless salvation story has managed to work its way into popular culture, without most people realizing what it’s actually telling them. It moves people, even people who aren’t religious. Just watch the 25th Anniversary Version, and see that at the end of the musical, there isn’t a dry eye anywhere in that audience.
Les Miserables is full of hidden Catholicism. You can find these messages in any Sunday School class at any parish in the country, and yet here they are in one of this country’s most popular stories. Repentance, humility, selflessness, charity, and the most difficult one of all for us fallen human beings — loving one’s enemy. Even better, romantic love (a very popular story to tell, as we all know) takes a backseat to real love — desiring the good of another person even at the cost of oneself, up to and including one’s own death. The characters encapsulate all of these great, powerful virtues, and yet no one sits around watching it and complains that they’re watching “message fic.” They go to see it over and over and over again, and cry every time. They sing the songs when they’re alone in the house at the top of their voices. They sit and talk about it with their friends.
That’s powerful stuff.
And more important than that, it’s powerful stuff that we as Catholics can learn from. We don’t need to preach; we need to write characters like these. We don’t need to imitate Victor Hugo’s penchant for ranting on a soap box about how society needs to be changed. That part of his book we can disregard. We need to do as he did and show the virtues we want people to imitate. We need to tell stories that can move the soul, as he did. We need to change the world, and we can leave our soap box at home to do it. Hugo’s preaching has fallen by the wayside; his story has lived, and will continue to live, in our culture.
If we write half as well as he did, we will change the world, and we can do it without ever preaching a single word.
Follow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.