Never did I ever think I’d be attempting to read “Les Misérables” again, yet here we are.
I blame Emma over at The Terror of Knowing for luring me back to The Brick, which I first tried to read in 2016-17ish. It’s OK, though. Reading something overwhelming like this deserves to be blogged about, and I needed a reason to revive my Reading Notes gig.
So far, it hasn’t been that horrible. On Sunday, I completed the first volume, which centers on Fantine. Before I go any farther with my notes, I’m going to go full disclosure on y’all. Ready?
I have never seen the musical.
I know, I know. It’s shameful. Do I get a pass if I watched a movie adaptation of it in high school? No, I don’t remember which one. Sorry. I guess I’m still in trouble.
Anyway. Please try not to let your newfound hatred of me cloud your judgment as I share some of my thoughts on the first 300 pages of “Les Mis.”
I don’t have a whole lot of earth-shattering insights to share, quite honestly. Many of my impressions are likely the same as those of anyone else who’s read the book.
First of all, I did not realize just HOW little I read the first time I tried to get into this book. I think I had gotten about to where Jean Valjean stole the bishop’s silver.
Ah, the bishop. Why are there 60 pages devoted to the fact that he is a good man? I don’t need all the illustrations as to why; the fact that everyone else is terrified of admitting Valjean into their homes and inns when the bishop is like, “Y’all come!” seems to indicate he should probably be canonized after his death.
How did NO ONE recognize Valjean? I’m so confused by this. Did he have reconstructive surgery? Not only did he rise to the ranks of a well-respected mayor, but when he appeared at Champmathieu’s day in court, there’s this awkward moment where he finally stands up and identifies himself as the real criminal … and everyone’s like, “That mayor done lost his mind.”
Now, for some sort of deep thoughts
In all seriousness, though. Setting aside some of the more incredible aspects of the storyline, I’m seeing some central themes that I really enjoy.
Grace and mercy
As a believer in Jesus Christ, the tenets of grace and mercy are things I try and usually fall painfully short of upholding. We laugh a lot about how much Hugo paints Bishop of Digne as a good man, but like I said — he really is. He takes Valjean in, giving him food and a warm, comfortable place to sleep, knowing full well that the guy will probably steal from him. Which he does. Valjean steals ALL of Digne’s silver and just bounces out of there. And Digne had the perfect opportunity to get his silver back and have Valjean thrown in jail. Instead, he tells the gendarmes that he gave the silver away.
But the bishop doesn’t totally let Valjean off the hook, telling him, “Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.”
And he does! Well, eventually.
Knowing the bare bones of the “Les Mis” story and remembering scant bits of the movie I watched in high school, I had a sneaking suspicion that this Mayor Madeleine guy was actually Jean Valjean making good on what the bishop had prayed over him about becoming an honest man.
So when poor Fantine has hit rock bottom and has been arrested, Madeleine/Valjean shows up and bails her out — even though she despises him and blames him for the state she’s in. She believes she lost her job because of him, and as a result couldn’t afford to take care of Cosette and had to put her in the care of a wickedly cruel family.
Madeleine/Valjean takes Fantine home, trying to nurse her back to health. So now, not only has he redeemed his own life with God’s help, but now he’s trying to save the life of this poor woman and her daughter. What a testimony.
Madeleine/Valjean is despondent when he learns that an innocent man has been taken into custody because the authorities think the guy is Valjean. So, as I said before, he goes to court and listens to the charges against Champmathieu, hears the guy being sentenced to death. He feels so guilty over seeing the wrong man take the punishment that he himself deserves, that he tells the truth before everyone in the court. As a result, Champmathieu is free to go and Valjean will finally be brought to justice.
While it seems like such an outlandish scenario, it’s a really good illustration for some of the situations we face. It’s tempting to let someone else take the blame for our actions so we can get off scot-free. But one way or another, it’ll catch up with us eventually.
“The most beautiful of altars is the soul of an unhappy man who is comforted and thanks God.” -Bishop of Digne
… one can no more pray too much than love too much.
Grief everywhere was only an occasion for good always. Love one another: (Bishop of Digne) declared that to be complete; he desired nothing more, and it was his whole doctrine.
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!” -Bishop of Digne
We have said that Fantine was joy; she was also modesty.
Each of our passions, even love, has a stomach that must not be overloaded.
“My friends, remember this: There are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” -Mayor Madeline/Jean Valjean
The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves — say rather, loved in spite of ourselves.
There you have it, my notes on Volume 1. Next up is Volume 2 on Cosette. I’m a bit behind now, as I’ve barely started reading Volume 2. Yikes! Stay tuned for another installment of Reading Notes; hopefully it won’t take me as long to write the next one now that I kinda sorta know what I’m doing.