I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a quick update on my thoughts on Les Mis after view the movie – something along the lines of “only after seeing the movie did I really appreciate how Hugo’s thoughts and opinions on the social structure, ect.. of the time tied the novel together and gave it depth and meaning that no movie version could achieve” yadayadayada…
And then today, whilst browsing book reviews on WordPress, I ran across a really interesting review on Les Mis. Interesting because the author read the book in a completely different way than I did.
First, the author read it from a Christian perspective – the blog picks out books that are good for Christian children. She recommends teenagers read it with their parents. Well, I lack any Christian perspective, so that’s a huge difference right there. Also, I wouldn’t really recommend this book from teenagers – I wouldn’t discourage them, but this is a book that really requires some thinking. I’d like to believe that my college education makes me a better thinker than the majority of teenagers, and even so, I think there’s a lot to be gotten from this book that I’m simply not getting. Right off the bat we have a serious disconnect.
Anyway, onto the book itself. Jean Valjean came off, as me, as a commentary on social injustice; the ridiculousness of 19 yrs’ – or even 5 yrs’- sentence for stealing a piece of bread! More importantly, the absurdity of placing the poor in untenable positions, with no assistance, and more importantly, no education; no way out of their situations; and then punishing them for acting as is natural. (To the point where he had never seen true kindness until he met the bishop!)
She read Valjean as an example of God’s grace helping one overcome sin, that one can rise from the ashes of one’s mistakes to become a better person.
I read Fantine as another example of social injustice; though more so on the part of society’s attitudes than resources. That a man could callously abandon a child and mistress with no second thoughts; then, that, so rightly afraid of others’ judgments and so desperate to keep her child safe, Fantine eventually ends up prostituting herself to pay for her child, whom she’s left with virtual strangers (there’s a lot to be said about education of young girls here, as well).
She read it as Fantine being punished for her promiscuity. And invites the reader to raise the question of whether Fantine choose to prostitute herself, or whether there was another choice.
I didn’t pay much attention to the historical aspect of the novel, outside of reminding myself that it was the 19th century and attitudes towards women were quite different then, but she invites you to consider the difference between the French and American revolutions and wonder if maybe it had something to do with the godliness of the countries? (May I remind you that, at this time in history, the Americans were still very invested in the institute of slavery, and the French were much more enlightened, though still prejudiced, in their treatment of people of African descent.)
Okay, the thing is that none of the observations she brings up are bad observations to make, per say. But leaving them outside of the social context, ignoring everything but the religious implications, without consideration of the obligation society has to offer people at least a chance at a decent life, is doing a disservice to Hugo’s brilliant work, especially if you’re suggesting a teenager reads it.
Hugo, at least in my mind, isn’t trying to push a religion where thieves are punished and whores villianized before their oh-so-generous-redemption, but rather a view where religion is meant to step in where society has failed. When society offers neither resource nor understanding, religion offers charity and grace. Where society punishes others for its own failures, religion gives them means and a chance to better one’s self. Society is harsh and imperfect, oblivious to its own flaws. Religion is gentle and aware, and seeks to fill the need that society has created.
My point is, please don’t read this book and then ask how it fits into your world view. Read it and let it change your world view. Truly, it is a much more rewarding experience that way.
Also, because I did not develop the author’s views as fully as she did, which may mean that I am oversimplifying her arguments – here’s the blog link.
It’s a three part review.
Which interpretation do you agree with? Mine? Hers? Neither?