Victor Hugo’s great 1862 novel Les Misérables tells a story that means a great deal to me personally. It’s about a prisoner redeemed by God’s grace.
I’m really thrilled that Ken Boa tackles this monumental work in this month’s Great Books Audio CD. As Ken tells us, Les Misérables is one of the greatest tales ever told about injustice, redemption—and about the tension between law and grace.
Ken explains, “In his preface, Hugo sets forth three problems of the age: the degradation of men by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night...Each of these conditions is represented by one of the [novel’s] characters.”
But the story applies not only to Hugo’s age; it is just as relevant to our own. As long as poverty, injustice, and “moral struggle” exist, this story will have an audience, and rightfully so.
The moral complexity of this story of an “honest thief” does not blur the distinction between good and evil. Instead, it gives us a very rich picture of the struggle between good and evil.
The redemption of ex-convict Jean Valjean plays itself out against the story of “the redemption of a nation.” The moral, philosophical, and military upheavals that France had experienced over the years serve as a fitting backdrop to this story of the upheavals in one man’s heart and soul.
Just released from prison, Valjean robs a bishop, only to have the bishop forgive him and make him a present of the silver that he stole. We see how this kindness, forgiveness, and “unconditional love” help heal Valjean’s soul.
And we see Valjean become a kind and loving man who in turn helps transform others, even while having to elude recapture by the fanatical policeman Javert. He helps the prostitute Fantine, showing her compassion when no one else will, and later adopts her destitute little girl after her death.
Valjean eventually rises to heroic levels of love and sacrifice, able to show astonishing mercy to his enemies as well as those he loves—a mercy so great that Javert cannot comprehend it, and suffers a breakdown. It is through loving others that Valjean shows his love for God, and truly becomes transformed and fulfilled.
Through the intertwined stories of these characters, we see Hugo calling for better treatment, equality, and dignity for all the wretches signified in the novel’s title. The novel is a passionate plea for human rights that has resonated with readers worldwide ever since its publication.
As Ken points out, some characters have to deal with terrible circumstances in their lives, while others—sometimes even children—have the courage to rise above them. But it calls us, whatever the circumstance, to treat each other with the dignity that every human being made in God’s image deserves.
As Ken puts it, “Les Misérables is not just a novel, it is a monument...a huge Gothic cathedral of a book.” I join him in urging you to experience this great classic for yourself.
Now many of you I realize, like myself, have seen the Broadway performance, which broke all kinds of records. Or you’ve seen some of the great movies made. But there’s nothing like the original work itself.