Finally completed, the almost two years long arduous journey of reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I used a penguin classics version translated to English by Norman Denny. It was quite a difficult read for a non-native english speaker but I was able to appreciate the words painstakingly selected so as to make the translated version maybe as rich as the original. I haven’t read the original french version (would love to if I could master french one day) but each sentence in this translation was rich with vivid imagery.
I had started reading this novel back in the August of 2017 when I had just arrived in Bangalore for my internship. I had planned to finish this within 3-4 months. But external circumstances coupled with the frequent digressions by Hugo to War scenes, French history, discourses on monastery life, parisian sewers etc. made this into a long journey of two years. Many times, I felt like just leaving this book and starting with something else which would be an easier and more interesting read. I did read some smaller books in between. But somehow managed to find the strength to go back to this giant after every small reading detour. One thing is sure, this novel rewards every patient reader with profound experiences as I realized quite a few times along the journey and particularly after I read the Part five.
Hugo is a blessed writer for sure as the aphorisms, analogies and metaphors that his pen churns out have the power to penetrate to the depths of your being. The entire novel is speckled with aphorisms that testify to the fact that above all things and at all times, Hugo is a romantic poet.
Coming to the story, the scene where Bishop Myriel hands over the silver candlesticks to Jean Valjean and says “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good” is the most touching scene of the novel for me. The transformation that happens in Jean Valjean as he finally realizes his wretchedness and the greatness of the kindness shown by Bishop drives the story thereafter. The central message that Hugo seems to have wanted to convey from this episode can be captured by this beautiful thought posed as a question : “Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine, indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and flame into glorious flame, and which evil can quite extinguish?“. The transformation of Valjean is a testament to Hugo’s belief that every act of kindness has a transformative potential in it and that the progress of humanity rests on acknowledging the power of kindness and mercy. Throughout, the novel we can see Hugo ridiculing the guillotine, that oppressive and barbaric device devised by mankind to eliminate those it considered going against the law. Hugo takes no sides while speaking of the guillotine, he condemns all those who used it cutting across the political spectrum.
Hugo believed strongly in the power of knowledge or education to positively transform an individual and thus become a contributor in human progress. He says, “If there is anything more poignant than a body dying for lack of food, it is a mind dying for lack of light“. Hugo seems to have believed that a utopian world is just in the horizon where everyone would be educated, poverty will be eradicated and everyone would be rich. Sadly, such a state of world has not arrived even after 150 years of the novel. But yes we should continue to strive for it even though knowing that such a world may never be realized on earth because of human weakness. We should continue to do whatever we can to make it possible.
This novel will always remember a classic for it tries to lay bare the truth that human progress cannot be achieved without mercy and kindness because ultimately our God is merciful and kind. Justice without mercy may lead nowhere, for justice is fulfilled in rightful mercy. Both have to be balanced properly. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “Mercy is what moves us toward God, while justice makes us tremble in his sight“.
As long as ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value.