When I read a book, I often find myself connecting with the characters and becoming invested in the story. But when I dedicate the amount of time required to complete a book like “Les Miserables,” then this connection takes on an entirely deeper dimension. It is impossible to spend almost 1300 pages peering into the lives and souls of characters and not feel an emotional bond with them.
While there is so much that could be written about this book, I will choose to focus this post on the struggles of Jean Valjean.
On the surface, Valjean struggles against his societal label, that of a convict, but his real struggle is internal. Valjean carries his guilt with him like Jacob Marley’s chains. He dedicates his life to charitable acts as a way of doing penance for his past actions, even though he knows that this will never absolve him in the eyes of society or the law.
Throughout the book, Valjean makes numerous sacrifices, but none quite as painful as letting go of his adopted daughter, Cosette. All parents must go through the pain of letting go of their children, but for Valjean, this pain is epic. The only joy and pleasure he allowed himself in his austere life was to spend time with Cosette. But like everything else in his life, he gives her away, thinking more of her happiness than of his own.
It is not until the end of his life that he is rewarded for his charity, and the reward comes in a spiritual awakening and the renewed love and connection with Cosette. His stoic acceptance of his suffering elevates him to the status of sainthood, demonstrating that the truly saintly are the unknown people who suffer quietly and, like Sisyphus, continue on in spite of their lot in life. As Valjean feels death approaching, he becomes aware of his saintly status, as expressed in what I found to be one of the most poignant passages in the book:
“He walked with a firm step to the wall, thrusting aside Marius and the doctor who tried to help him, detached from the wall a little copper crucifix which was suspended there, and returned to his eat with all the freedom of movement of perfect health, and said in a loud voice, as he laid the crucifix on the table: ‘Behold the great martyr.’ ” (p. 1267)
The martyr was not Christ; the martyr was Jean Valjean.