Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Les Miserables: In Which I Commend an Ax Murder Above a Saint

In my last post, I discussed the wrong Jean Valjean does to Marius in tricking Marius into excluding Valjean from his life by calling himself a convict, without giving Marius enough information to make a fully informed decision.  But the wrong he does Marius is dwarfed by the wrong he does his adopted daughter, Cosette.  Once again, I will make my point in part by referring to other works of literature, specifically two, A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Valjean, after all, is merely Marius' father-in-law.  The two men don't know each other very well, so Marius loses little (or so he believes) in excluding Valjean from his life.  To Cosette, on the other hand, Jean Valjean is a beloved father, the only father she has ever known.  Upon her marriage, her husband replaces her father as her primary relationship, but that does not mean she wants to cut all ties to her father.  She loves him and definitely wants him as part of her life.  As he is slowly pushed away from her, she is saddened and confused, wondering why he is cutting her off and longing for him.  Furthermore, all of this is done without her consent, not even the partial and uninformed consent Marius gave.  The two men conspire together to move Jean Valjean out of her life to keep her from sullied by contact with the convict.  (Her upbringing by the same convict apparently doesn't count).

Valjean and Marius wrong Cosette by cosseting her, so to speak.  Both men have an intense, all-consuming, almost idolatrous love for her.  Yet we never see anything about her that could justify such devotion.  Cosette is not very well characterized; to the extent she it, it is as a frivolous little airhead.  I suppose what so attracts both men to her is her status as an innocent, unsullied by this cruel world.  They are driven by a desire to protect her (cosset her) from life's harsh realities.  But learning to deal with the harsh realities of a cruel world is part of growing up.  People who go through adulthood without having to deal with life's harsh realities come across as, well, frivolous airheads.  Granted, Valjean allows her to grow up in the sense of giving her up and letting her devote her life to her husband.  But her husband simply assumes the role her father once held* -- protecting her from reality and allowing her to remain an innocent, or an airhead, depending on how one sees it.  In the end, Cosette simply ended up annoying me, and I much preferred the women in the novel who were too poor to escape life's harsh realities -- Cosette's mother Fantine, and her rival Eponine.

The comparison to A Doll's House is obvious.  That is exactly what Nora complains in the final act.  Her father protected her from reality and then turned her over to a husband who acted as a sort of surrogate father, still protecting her from reality.  She tells him:
[Y]ou have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa's doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.
She recognizes that, in protecting her from reality, her father and husband have done her a great wrong -- they have denied her the opportunity to be her own person.  In their case, their sheltering did not help her when her husband was gravely ill and she had no money to pay for a doctor.  She forged a signature on a note to borrow the money.  And she personally paid it back by sewing and the like without telling her husband because she wanted an achievement she could call her own.  In Cosette's case, her husband and father have denied her the opportunity to decide for herself whether she still wants her father in her life, knowing he is a convict on the run.

But then, Ibsen was a man well ahead of his time, with radical, scandalous ideas about the proper role of women.  But what can we say of Dostoevsky, a deeply conservative author.  His main character, Raskolnikov, after all, is no petty thief who cannot forgive himself for being brutalized by the system.  He is an ax murderer, a crime his loved ones might legitimately want to shun.  Yet, unlike Valjean, he gives them the choice, and in the end they choose to have him in their life, even though he is an ax murderer.  Admittedly, Raskolnikov's girlfriend Sonya and his sister Dunya, unlike Cosette, are women too poor to be cosseted from life's harsh realities.  Sonya was forced into prostitution by poverty while Dunya, working as a governess, was at the mercy of a lecherous employer.  Before killing the old pawnbroker, Raskolnikov wrote an article that could justify his actions.  He argues that all great lawgivers were criminals because they transgressed against the old law and that, furthermore, whoever has "the faintest capacity for saying something new" has the right to commit whatever crimes are necessary to advance the "new word" they have to offer the world.  In his case, murder of the pawnbroker would be justified by his need for funds to advance -- well, whatever it is he proposes to advance, which he had not worked out very well.

Raskolnikov does try to pull away from his mother and sister, and understandably so.  The desire not to burden one's family with an ax murderer is, after all, quite a different thing than not wanting to burden them with a petty thief-turned-saint.**  But he cannot face his burden all alone; he has to confess to someone, so he chooses his girlfriend Sonya.  Sonya, as a prostitute, understands well the desperate measures desperate poverty can lead people into and assumes he did it for money.  He says that was not it and tries to explain why he killed the pawn broker -- not very successfully.  And the reason he is not successful is not that Sonya's vapid female brain just can't handle anything so profound; it is because the theory, when put into practice, does not make a great deal of sense.  Somehow it turns out that justifying crimes by invoking the great lawgivers of the past and claiming to have something valuable to offer the world is one thing in theory.  Using the theory to explain one's murder of an actual, flesh-and-blood human being is quite another.

Dunya's lecherous former employer overhears the conversation and tells her about it in an attempt to extort sex.  He repeats the theory Raskolnikov had attempted to explain to Sonya.  As it turns out, Raskolnikov's best friend, Razumikhin, has shown her the article.  (Apparently he didn't think her female brain too vapid to understand it either).  She recognizes that what her ex-employer is saying matches what her brother said in his article.  There is no way for her former employer to know about the article, so she knows that it is true.

Needless to say, both women are shocked and horrified that their beloved Rodya is an ax murderer!  But in the end, both decide that they still want him in their lives, despite his crimes.  This is not the same as saying they want him to escape punishment.  You do the crime, you do the time is both women's attitude.  But if he will submit to punishment, both women will stand by him.  Sonya, especially, says, "I will follow you to Siberia."  But she also tells him, "Kneel down, kiss the earth thou hast defiled, and say in the presence of all the people, 'I am a murderer.'"  After he turns himself in, they do, indeed, visit him in prison.  He is sentenced to eight years in the salt mines of Siberia.***  Sonya follows him to Siberia, while Dunya regularly corresponds.

One family member Raskolnikov does not tell is his aged mother.  Everyone agrees that the truth should be kept from her.  But it does not go well.  The endless strain of suspecting the worst but not asking for fear of finding out, of concealing what she knows and pretending all his well proves too much for his aged mother to bear.  She ends up losing her mind and dying.  It is hard to escape the impression that it would have been kinder to tell her in the first place.

And all I can say is that in the respect he shows for women and their right to make their own decisions, the ax murderer Raskolnikov compares favorably to the saint Valjean.  Valjean conspires with Cosette's husband to keep the truth from her -- both that he is a convict, and that Marius wants him out of their life.  Unable to live without her, Valjean crawls off into a hole and dies.  I understand why he might not want to tell her directly about his past.  I also understand that asking her outright whether she wants him in her life is unfairly putting her on the spot.  But why couldn't Valjean explain his past -- good and bad -- to Marius and ask him to talk it over with Cosette and decide whether they want him in their lives.  He could withdraw to his own dwelling to avoid putting pressure on them and let them send for him if they still want him in their lives.  But -- and this infuriates -- his insistence on so abasing himself and so wallowing in his own unworthiness that he deceives Marius into rejecting him and and then conspires with Marius to take Cosette out of his life and then crawls off to die of a broken heart is simply an outrage!  Self-loathing and self-punishment are not the same as virtue!  Proper humility is understanding how small one is in the cosmic order, not extravagant acts of groveling self-abasement!  In his inexplicable determination to hurt himself, Jean Valjean needless hurts the two people closest to him.  This I cannot forgive.

*To both men's credit, they do consult Cosette about her money.  Valjean asks her why they don't spend it on nice things like a carriage, a lady's maid, or a box in the theater.  Marius asks if she is willing to live without the income her money produces.  And when Valjean, dying, writes a letter explaining the origins of his fortune, to show it was honestly made, he addresses it to Cosette.  Still, once again he wrongs Marius here.  When he was a factory owner, he spent his fortune making the world a better place.  Why does it not occur to him that Marius might want to spend the fortune the same way?

**Keep in mind, also, that Valjean was a convict before he ever met Cosette, so she was brought up by a convict.  Why does he become such a burden to her only when she marries?  Raskolnikov, by contrast, only recently committed his crime, so his changed behavior toward his mother and sister is understandable.

***A term for a convict at forced labor that translates very well.  Considering the severity of his crime, eight years is staggeringly lenient.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Les Miserables: The Last Great Crisis of Conscience

All right, on to Jean Valjean's third and final crisis of conscience, the matter I have been building up to all this time.  Those final, damnable 100 pages that make me want to throw the book on the floor and stomp on it.

The final great crisis occurs after Cosette and Marius have married.  Clearly, Valjean has done the right thing in letting go of his daughter and allowing her to grow up and marry, instead of trying to keep her all for himself.  But can he at least remain a part of her life?  After all, there is nothing extraordinary about continuing to be part of the life of his married daughter.  Indeed, it soon becomes clear that Marius and especially Cosette want him to be part of their life.  They are now living in the great house of Marius' grandfather, and there is plenty of room to allow Valjean to lodge there as well.

So why shouldn't he?  Well, because he is a convict.  He is no longer on the run in any meaningful sense.  Javert was the only one who really cared about capturing Valjean, and Javert is now dead.  Valjean, at the barricades, asked to be allowed to execute him but instead took him out of sight and fired into the air.  Javert, finding that he owes his life to a convict is unable to assimilate the contradiction into his world view.  He reacts like one of those computers that Captain Kirk presents with a logical paradox -- smoke starts coming out of his ears, and he self-destructs.  So he will not be subjecting them to the dangers of life on the run.  He has already absolved himself of being inherently evil, or of committing any serious crime in stealing a loaf of bread.  And I see no evidence that he wants to stay out of their life because he was once brutalized by the system.  And yet he torments himself with the thought, "Should he impose his galleys on those two dazzling children, or should he consummate his irremediable engulfment by himself? On one side lay the sacrifice of Cosette, on the other that of himself."  I can only conclude that he does not want to impose himself on Cosette and Marius because of the social stigma associated with a convict.  Furthermore, as it later becomes clear, Valjean cannot live without Cosette in his life, and when excluded, he crawls off into a hole and dies.

This is, indeed, a severe excess of humility.  It is, after all, one thing to blame one's self for being brutalized by the system, to consider one's self never really worthy because of what one once became.  But it quite another to consider one's self utterly unworthy to be part of other people's lives, and to insist on going off and dying of a broken heart instead.  It is the sort of groveling self abasement that makes me want to retch, or at least to throw the book on the ground and stomp on it.

But still, if Jean Valjean merely wanted to grovel in self-abasement, he would wrong only himself, that that would be annoying, but forgivable.  He does more than that.  In considering himself so unworthy that he must go off and die rather than soil the innocent with his presence, Valjean also subverts his author's intentions.  After all, Les Miserables is meant as a clear statement that the judgments of society, and the criminal justice system, are often unjust, that its severity needlessly brutalizes men who are not evil by nature, and, in short, that one should not unthinkingly condemn a convict without looking behind society's judgments to see the fuller truth.  Still, fictional characters are not always as obedient as their authors might wish.  Having a character develop a will of its own and do things the author didn't intend (or refuse to do things the author wants) is is one of the risks any fiction writer takes.  So any wrong he does his author is also forgivable.

What I cannot forgive is the wrong he does Marius and Cosette.  Let us start with Marius.  The day after the wedding, he visits their house and speaks to Marius in Cosette's absence.  In order to create an illusion of choice, he gives Marius a very incomplete account of his past.  He gives his true name, his background as a peasant, that he brought Cosette up but is not related to her, and that he is a convict, who served 19 years and is currently on the run.    Marius recoils from him in horror.  He promises not to tell Cosette, but says it would be "better" if Valjean never saw her again.  When Valjean cannot bear such a sentence, Marius partly relents and allows him to visit.  But he takes action to discourage the visit, like putting out the fire, or removing the chairs.  Valjean, proving once again that he is not the sort of saint who never lies, accepts responsibility to Cosette.  This time his lie does not make us like him.  He also manipulates her into being away when Valjean calls.  Eventually the visits stop.  Jean Valjean is broken hearted.

Furthermore, Jean Valjean also denies Marius sufficient information to make an informed decision.  There are some things I can understand him withholding.  He may not want to tell Cosette directly about his past.  He may also want to keep secret the truth about Cosette's and her mother's past.  He may not want Cosette and Marius to know that if they reject him he will crawl off into a hole and die.  He may fear that they would act out of guilt and not want to inflict it upon them.  All of that is understandable.  Furthermore, Marius very much wants to know who saved his life at the barricades.  Jean Valjean doesn't tell him because he does not want to create an obligation to him.  Again, this is understandable.  But if he wants Marius to be able to make an informed decision, he should at least tell him everything that does not involve the young couple personally.  After all, as Hugo acknowledges, Marius is wrong in automatically condemning Valjean for being a convict:
Marius, on penal questions, still held to the inexorable system, though he was a democrat and he entertained all the ideas of the law on the subject of those whom the law strikes. He had not yet accomplished all progress, we admit. He had not yet come to distinguish between that which is written by man and that which is written by God, between law and right. He had not examined and weighed the right which man takes to dispose of the irrevocable and the irreparable. He was not shocked by the word vindicte (sic). He found it quite simple that certain breaches of the written law should be followed by eternal suffering, and he accepted, as the process of civilization, social damnation. He still stood at this point, though safe to advance infallibly later on, since his nature was good, and, at bottom, wholly formed of latent progress.
So why does Jean Valjean allow his son-in-law to persist in his error?  Why not set him right on it?  Why, instead of embracing the stigma society has so unfairly placed on him, does not not seek to educate Marius on the real injustices of the criminal justice system?  Marius is a radical, after all, who questions to social order.  Why would he object to having his vision expanded a little further?

And what would happen if Valjean did tell Marius the whole truth about himself, except the parts that directly touched Marius and Cosette?  What if he told him about the petty theft and how he was brutalized, but also how he was redeemed by the kindness of the Bishop, how he became a factory owner, and how he was forced to turn himself in rather than let an innocent man suffer in his place.  He could also explain his escape and his rescue of Cosette.  As for why she was in the hands of the wicked inn keeper, he could tell part of the truth -- that Cosette's father deserted her mother and left her destitute, that she was forced by poverty to leave her daughter with the inn keeper, and that she died of consumption brought on by poverty.  It would all be true -- just not the whole truth.

How would Marius respond?  Well, we find out, at least in part, when the wicked inn keeper comes by intending blackmail.  Marius knows about the mayor/factory owner and greatly admires him, despite his past as a convict.  If he had known his father-in-law was the same person, that alone would be enough to reconcile him.  As it is, he believes that Valjean informed against the mayor and stole his money.  He also believes that Valjean killed Javert at the barricades.  The inn keeper presents contemporary news articles establishing that Valjean and the factor owner were the same person, and that Javert killed himself.  If Valjean had told Marius as much in the first place, would Marius have wanted him in his life?  "Jean Valjean, who had suddenly grown grand, emerged from his cloud."  Marius calls him a "hero" and a "saint."  So yes, apparently he would have wanted Valjean in his life if he had known enough to make an informed decision.  And that is before he finds out that Jean Valjean saved his life.  Upon learning that last, he rushes over to his father-in-law, vowing to spend his life at his feet.  As it is, Marius and Cosette arrive just in time to say goodbye before Valjean dies.

In short, Jean Valjean denies Marius the opportunity to make an informed decision.  He makes for himself the decision that he should not impose the stigma of the convict on Marius, even though Marius, if he had known anything close to the truth, would have considered it an honor to have Jean Valjean in his life.  Why does he do such a thing?  It cannot be to spare Marius, who would not have wanted to be spared if he had known.  I can only assume, out of sheer love of suffering and a desire to wallow in maximum humility.  Here is where the saint overdevelops his virtue and makes me resent him.

But the wrong Valjean does to Marius is dwarfed by the wrong he does to Cosette.  I will discuss that in my next post, with more literary comparisons.

Les Miserables: A Quick Note on the Second Great Crisis

For me, Jean Valjean's second great crisis is his least interesting.  He has adopted Fantine's daughter, Cosette, and she becomes the only person he loves.  When she becomes a young woman, he intercepts a letter that reveals she loves a young man, and that he is heading off to the barricades to be killed.  He is mightily tempted to simply allow it to happen so he can have Cosette all to himself.  But he knows that to do so would be wrong, so he goes to the barricades to protect her love (Marius) and, when Marius is wounded, carries him, unconscious for miles through the sewer to safety.  Clearly to do such a thing for a bitter rival who threatens one's own happiness is a noble act, the act of a saint, even.  But it is not a dilemma to test the heart of a saint, or the reader.  The right thing to do is clear and obvious.  The second great dilemma is therefore less interesting and challenging than the other two.  I will therefore confine myself to describing it (as done here) and move on to third great dilemma, the one I believe Valjean decided wrong.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Les Miserables: The First Great Crisis of Conscience

As I have said before, to me Les Miserables revolves around the three great crises of conscience Jean Valjean experiences.  No doubt Victor Hugo intended them as escalating crises, each worse than the last.  But to me they are exactly the opposite -- descending crises, from the first, a great moral dilemma that should be the great turning point of the book, to the second which is merely a temptation, not a moral dilemma to the third, which I believe Valjean decided wrongly.  In this post, I want to focus on the first and greatest moral crisis.

As we have seen, Jean Valjean jumps probation and robs a chimney sweep and is now facing a life sentence if caught.  He then has his great conversion and becomes a saint. He goes to work at a factory making glass jewelry and develops a process using cheaper raw materials and a simpler method of making clasps.  The town prospers as a result.  He offers work to anyone who needs it.  He uses his new-found fortune to endow hospitals, schools, pharmacies and retirement funds.  Furthermore, he freely dispenses money to the poor, breaks into houses to leave a gold coin, goes to funerals to comfort mourners, pulls carts out of the mud, shows peasants secrets to farming, and teaches children how to make ingenious toys.  As mayor, he prevents lawsuits and reconciles enemies.  In short, he makes the world (or at least his small corner of it) a better place.  All is well -- until he learns that an innocent man has mistakenly been arrested as Jean Valjean and is facing life imprisonment.

Let no one say that saints are uninteresting characters!  Truly, this is a dilemma fit to vex even a saint.  On the one side is all the prosperity he has built for his town and everything he has done to make his little corner of the world better.  On the other is knowledge that if he does not act, it will be built on the sacrifice of an innocent man.  His agony of indecision is entirely understandable, and we share it with him.

This is the great fork in the novel.  Once Valjean makes his decision, the rest of the novel should describe the consequences of his living with it.  If it had been written by Dostoevsky, let us say, or by Nathaniel Hawthorne, we can imagine the outcome.  After much internal agonizing, Valjean would reach the conclusion that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few -- or the one.  He would therefore stay and continue the good work he started and let an innocent man face life imprisonment in his place.  Of course the decision would haunt him.  The guilt would torment him.  He would have no peace, considering what he had done.  He would make every effort to atone for his sin by doing ever greater and more noble deeds.  Each noble deed would raise public acclaim for him and convince people all the more that he was a saint.  But public acclaim would simply serve to inflame his guilt as he knew that it was all built on the blood of an innocent man -- so he would seek to assuage his guilt by even greater noble deeds, raising public acclaim even more, and so the seemingly virtuous cycle would slowly eat away at him.  In the end, of course, he would be able to bear it no longer and finally turn himself in.

By contrast, if the novel had been by Tolstoy, let us say, or by Stowe, after much internal agonizing, Valjean would recognize that his accomplishments mean nothing if they are paid for by the suffering of an innocent man, and would turn himself in.  At first, of course, he would curse the fate that brought him down, but over time he would spiritually grow and develop and become a minister to his fellow inmates in their spiritual need.  Eventually, his spiritual grandeur would become known to the authorities and he would be offered a pardon, but refuse it, saying that he understands now it was all part of God's plan, and where is he more needed than here, among the very lowest of the low.  Or perhaps he would accept it and go on to become a prison chaplain.

Either version would work.  Either version would make a well-constructed, internally coherent novel.  But to all appearances, Victor Hugo is aiming for something much closer to the second alternative.  And it makes sense.  Recall that, although Valjean becomes a saint, he can never forgive himself for having once been brutalized by the system.  Or, as he humbly puts it, "I was saved by indulgence and kindness, as I had been lost by severity."  But how can we know he is truly a changed man and not merely the beneficiary of a better environment?  There can be only one way -- send him back to the environment that once brutalized him and see if he can resist being brutalized all over.  Admittedly, Hugo is at a disadvantage here.  When Dostoevsky, (to say nothing of Solzhenytsin) writes about the utter brutality and degradation of the chain gang, along with the flashes of nobility one nonetheless sees there, he wrote from personal experience.  Hugo apparently consulted with a former convict in writing Les Miserables, but nothing can match the intensity of a first-hand account.  Still, he addresses the subject indirect when Jean Valjean , on the run, he takes refuge in a convent as the gardener.  He compares the physical hardships endured by convicts to those endured by nuns and finds them similar.*  And yet, "What flowed from the first? An immense curse, the gnashing of teeth, hatred, desperate viciousness, a cry of rage against human society, a sarcasm against heaven.  What results flowed from the second? Blessings and love."  Clearly, then, what brutalizes convicts is more than mere physical hardship.  Hugo never answers what it is that brutalizes convicts.  To find the answer would be to find the key to how Valjean could return to the old environment and not be brutalized by it.

So, if that is the potential of this agonizing dilemma, how does Hugo, in fact, treat it?  First of all, as if the dilemma by itself is not enough, he attempts to heighten it by having it occur just as Valjean is about to bring back Fantine's daughter from the evil innkeepers who are using her to extort from her dying mother.  Furthermore, although Fantine is dying, we are given hope that she may yet recover if she sees her daughter. The trouble is that this sets up a false choice.  Fantine has dictated a letter commanding the innkeepers to turn her daughter over to the bearer and be paid for any remaining debts.  Valjean is, after all, a factor owner and mayor of a town.  As such, he must have learned to delegate.  Are we seriously to believe that he cannot delegate to someone else the job of retrieving Fantine's daughter?  Granted, when he finally does show up (after escaping), the innkeeper attempts extortion and Valjean has to act forcefully.  In this, he beautifully demonstrates that being a saint is not the same as being a pushover and makes us like him.  One might almost believe that he has to go himself because his agent might not be forceful enough.  Except that he brings the need to be forceful on himself by showing up in rags and not presenting the letter until the end.  A well-dressed agent, presenting the letter at once would not appear vulnerable to extortion and therefore would not need to be forceful.

In any event, this attempt to heighten the dilemma, besides being artificial, is unnecessary.  Weighing the prosperity of the town, the schools, the hospital, the pharmacy, and everything else against an innocent man going to prison for life is dilemma enough.  After a night of torment, Valjean does, indeed, decide in favor of the innocent man facing life imprisonment, and rightly so.  If his legacy cannot carry on without him, then ultimately Valjean has failed.**  After all, in the words of France's greatest statesman of the 20th Century, the graveyards are full of indispensable men.  Valjean steps up in court and reveals himself as the escaped convict Jean Valjean.  The innocent man is freed.  How does Valjean cope with the brutality of a convict's life?  We never learn.  One thing we do see, however, is that he gives himself up in July and has not been brutalized by October.  In October, a sailor is dangling from a rope, unable to climb back up, and certain to fall and die when Valjean bursts his chains with one blow and rescues him.  While all assembled call for him to be pardoned, Valjean appears to fall (but actually jumps) overboard and escapes.  He goes to rescue Fantine's daughter Cosette, takes refuge in a convent and lives there several years, and then emerges to use the fortune he accumulated as factory owner to live a respectable life.  But his vision has shrunk.  Although he is a good father to Cosette and gives generously to the poor, he no longer seeks to make the world better.  It is a reasonable decision for a convict on the run to make.  But once again, Hugo seeks to heighten the tension by making things needlessly difficult for his hero.  If Valjean had only stuck around long enough to be pardoned, he might have been spared all the difficulties of a convict on the run.  The novel would be less intense, but more sensible.

I will next touch briefly on his second crisis of conscience, before getting to the final one and deciding why I think Valjean decided wrong.

*Aside from the obvious fact that nuns do not do the backbreaking labor of convicts and are not in chains.  Although Hugo would presumably say that nuns are in chains -- spiritual chains of their own making.  
**And, indeed, his legacy fails without him.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Les Miserables: Jean Valjean's Real Sin

So, that little detour out of the way, I want to get back my old question about Les Miserables.  What is it that accounts for the hero's excess of humility.  Or, as the New Yorker puts it:
Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another.
Jean Valjean, for all his saintliness, does seem to think he has something to make up for, something that accounts for his emphasis on his unworthiness, and his tendency toward excess humility.  Presumably it is not the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children, nor even for his repeated escapes.  What is the real sin (as opposed to crime) that he is never quite able to atone for?

The answer, I think is given in Chapter VII of Book Two of the first section.  After getting five years for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean considers how wronged he has been, and "[H]e judged society and condemned it.  He condemned it to his hatred.  He made it responsible for the fate which he was suffering, and he said to himself that it might be that one day he should not hesitate to call it to account."  And furthermore:
Jean Valjean was not, as we have seen, born evil.  He was still good when he arrived at the prison.  There, he condemned society and felt himself becoming wicked; he condemned Providence and felt himself becoming impious.
And in nineteen years of imprisonment, he never once cried.

In short, he was brutalized by the system.  That is the sin he never forgives in himself, the sin he spends the rest of the novel trying to atone for.   He makes the point clear when he addresses the court after giving himself up:
[T]hey were right in telling you that Jean Valjean was wicked. But all the blame may not belong to him. Please listen, your honors; a man as unworthy as I has no protest to make to Providence, nor any advice to give to society; but, you see, the infamy from which I have sought to rise is pernicious. The prison makes the convict.  Make of this what you like.  Before prison, I was a poor peasant, unintelligent, a sort of idiot; prison changed me. I was stupid; I became wicked: I was a log; I became a firebrand. Later, I was saved by indulgence and kindness, as I had been lost by severity.
As his comments here make clear, he unequivocally blames the system for brutalizing him.  He condemns it in no uncertain terms for what it did to him and what it does to so many others like him.

But he does not stop at that.  While he blames the system for brutalizing him, he does not excuse himself either.  Though it was the system that brutalized him, nonetheless he was brutalized and cannot forgive himself for what he became.  To say that only the system and not he is to blame is to take a crudely mechanical view of human nature and deny his moral agency.  Or, as Stowe's hero says with simple eloquence, "If I get to be as hard-hearted as that . . . and as wicked, it won't make much odds to me how I come so; it's the bein' so, -- that ar's what I'm a dreadin'."* Valjean, it seems safe to assume, would agree.

The point is easy to miss because we don't really see Valjean in his brutalized condition. When we first meet him, Valjean seems very much a victim of society. He arrives in town after traveling a dozen leagues on foot without food, understandably exhausted and famished, only to find every door closed against him. No inn will give him food or lodging although he offers to pay; the prison will not let him stay unless he is arrested; peasants will not let him stay in their shed; dogs will not let him sleep in their kennel. He is resigned to sleep in the street on October with no food when someone directs him to the bishop's house. We get the description of him brutalized by society, quoted above. But all we see of him brutalized is Jean Valjean repaying his host's kindness by stealing his silver spoons, and Jean Valjean stealing two francs from a chimney sweep. Maybe if Hugo had let us see more of the brutalized Valjean, we would better understand why he so constantly felt the need to redeem himself from what he had become.

And perhaps now it becomes clear why I keep making the comparison to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Both books seek to condemn an unjust order by showing us a saintly victim of it. But what of the victims who are not so saintly? What of people brutalized and degraded by a system that is, after all, designed to brutalize and degrade? Both authors grapple with the issue, but fail to offer a very satisfactory answer. Stowe's hero had his religious conversion before the novel begins. Faced with relentless pressure to be brutalized and the out that the system, not he, will be to blame, he will not surrender his moral agency. Given the choice between letting the system morally and spiritually destroy him and letting it physically destroy him, he chooses the latter course -- martyrdom. Hugo's hero, by contrast, is brutalized before the novel begins and then has his religious conversion and spends the rest of the novel vainly trying to undo what he once became. Neither answer looks very satisfactory!

And it is in the ultimate failure of Valjean to escape his past that I see Hugo's ultimate failure. (Those final 100 pages, again). Hugo walks a fine tight rope, seeking to blame the system for his hero's brutalization, while never absolving him of moral responsibility for it. It is a difficulty balancing act to maintain, but Hugo ultimately maintains it, never letter his hero off the hook. But he fails to recognize the danger of falling in the opposite direction -- that by refusing to let the hero off the hook for what he became, he runs the risk of endorsing society's judgment. And, indeed, in those final, damnable 100 pages, Valjean does seem to endorse society's judgment, after denouncing it for the rest of the book, and to treat the social stigma of being a convict as equivalent to the moral stigma of being brutalized by the system. But, once again, that is a subject I will give a more extended treatment in a later post.

*Tom speaks dialect, but light dialect, so that his delivery will not detract from the content of what he is saying.  Stowe's lower class and less sympathetic characters -- black and white -- use considerably heavier dialect.

Les Miserables: Saints and Sexuality

I want to make a brief digression here to address another question:  Can one write a saintly character who is also a sexual being?  The best example I can think of is Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, a play about Sir Thomas More, emphasizing his larger-than-life, unyielding integrity.  More's wife and (oldest) daughter appear in the play, emphasizing that he is a family man as well as a saint.  So I should acknowledge the possibility.  But A Man for All Seasons is decidedly the exception and not the rule.  Saintliness and sexuality appear a problematic mixture.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, again, is notorious in this regard.  Tom is often criticized as being asexual, and this is attributed to racial anxiety.  Interestingly enough, we first meet him surrounded by his wife and children, but the scene is unconvincing and leaves us with a queasy feeling.  His aura really is overwhelmingly an asexual one, and the attempt to provide him with a wife and children to meet the 19th Century cult of domesticity goes most disturbingly against the grain.  No doubt racial anxiety played a part here, but given the asexual nature of literary saints in general, probably only a part.  We may dismiss the asexual lama in Kim as an old and feeble monk, as well as reflecting Kipling's general hostility toward women.  Riverworld is a different matter.  In Riverworld, everyone is resurrected 25 years old, in perfect health, and sterile.  There is no disease, and no one ages.  All of which positively cries out for a frenzy of sexual indulgence, which is exactly what we get.  People do end up pairing off and taking long-term mates, including the Chancers.  The Sufis, however, remain unmated, and strangely asexual in a world where sex is flaunted everywhere.

Likewise, our hero, Jean Valjean, is an (almost) entirely asexual character, with no wife or lover.  Still, the book comments, as "nature is a creditor that accepts no protest," he does harbor carnal feelings for his adopted daughter at an unconscious level.  Also, when he takes her away from the abusive innkeeper, he gives a a black dress to wear in mourning for her mother.  After she stops these garments, he keeps them in sweet preservatives to cherish, and after she marries, lays them out and weeps.  It seems a bit creepy. However, this is the only hint we see of this celibate ever having a sexual nature.  So it would appear that a saint can be a sexual being, but the portrayal is so difficult that most literary saints remain asexual.*

None of this serves as a barrier to saintly characters being physical.  The Sufis in Riverworld, after all, are as young and healthy as everyone else, one tall and strong, the other small and lithe.  Tom's asexuality is often explained by making him a feeble old man, but this is not what Stowe had in mind.  He is described as "a large, broadchested, powerfully-made man." Jumping into the river to save a drowning girl, he is "broad-chested and strong-armed." The slave trader advertises him as "broad-chested, strong as a horse." Even the aged Lama is a Tibetan who proves a vigorous mountain climber and loves to leave the trails to test his strength against a steep slope (a thing he later confesses as sinful worldliness).
But Valjean is the most physical of all these asexual heroes. He has superhuman strength. A movie I previously saw attributed his strength simply to the life of a convict at hard labor -- work in the rock quarries makes them very strong, if they survive it. But the novel makes clear that his strength far exceeds that of the normal convict as hard labor. He was much stronger than his fellow inmates, who call him Jean the Jack. He is so strong that when a balcony collapses, he holds it up on his shoulder until workmen arrive. He can crawl under a cart sinking in the mud and lift it on his back. When a sailor (and sailors are strong) is dangling from a rope, unable to climb back up, Valjean bursts his chains with a single hammer blow, lowers himself on another rope, fastens the sailor to himself, and then climbs back up, hand-on-hand, lifting both their weight. When the wicked innkeeper corners Valjean in the woods, intending extortion, he gets a glimpse of the man's strength and thinks the better of it. When the villains capture him, it takes eight people (seven men and a muscular woman holding his hair) to subdue him. And, of course, he carries his son-in-law unconscious for miles through the sewer. He is also as agile as he is strong and can scale any wall. (Hence his numerous escapes). He is also a remarkable marksman. When the men at the barricades need a mattress, Valjean brings down a mattress hanging from a window by shooting out the supporting ropes.** And he has extraordinary tolerance for pain. When the bad guys try to make him give up his daughter's location by menacing him with a red-hot iron, he shows his contempt for the threat by taking it and voluntarily burning himself.*** But physical prowess does not necessarily translate into sex appeal.**** For all his physical prowess, Jean Valjean has none.
So, why can a saint-hero be intensely physical, but not sexual?  I can think of two reasons, one being that sex is part of our animal nature that the saint-hero rises above, and the other that the obligations of family stand in the way of true saintliness -- that have special obligations to a small group of people weakens the saint's universal benevolence.

The second explanation is both strengthened and weakened when saint-heroes do undertake family obligations.  Tom's family makes only a brief appearance at the beginning and plays no further role in the story.  The Lama, by contrast, regards Kim as his son and ends up foregoing nirvana in order to return and bring salvation to Kim as well.  Valjean, of course, acquires an adopted daughter, Cosette.  Cosette is described as the only person he ever loved, and this love is clearly seen as part of his spiritual growth.  Yet at the same time, it is part of his shrinking and becoming more narrow.  Before Valjean finds love, he is a factory owner.  He brings prosperity to a town, funds schools, establishes retirement funds, endows a new wing of the hospital, establishes a pharmacy, and becomes mayor.  He also comforts mourners, pulls carts out of the mud, distributes alms to the poor, gives peasants tips on farming, teaches children to make new toys, and breaks into houses to leave gold pieces.  As mayor, he prevents lawsuits and reconciles enemies.  In short, he makes the world a better place, or at least his little corner of it.  As father of an adoptive daughter, his vision is never so grand.  He is a loving father and gives alms to the poor, but no longer strives to make the world better. (Being a convict on the run and afraid of being found out may play a role too, of course).  As factory owner, he grapples with the terrible dilemma of keeping going all the improvements he has made, or keeping an innocent man from going to prison in his place.  As father, he deals with the much simpler dilemma of protecting his son-in-law or keeping his daughter for himself.  The narrowing of vision is immistakable, but it does not diminish Valjean in his author's eyes.

Then there is the matter of Valjean's relationship with Cosette's mother, Fantine.  Fantine is a poor girl who becomes the lover of an unscrupulous man and has a child out of wedlock by him.  When her lover deserts her, the disgrace of her daughter's illegitimacy causes her to leave the child in the care of the innkeeper Thernadier and seek her fortune on her own.  At first, she works in Valjean's factory.  Valjean has women work in a separate shop from men to prevent little incidents of the type Fantine has, and delegates management of the women's shop to a woman to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.  Unfortunately, he chooses a woman manager whose notions of propriety go too far, and who throws Fantine out in the street when she finds out about her past.  Shunned by all respectable society, Fantine is forced into prostitution and is dying of consumption (no doubt brought on by poverty and cold) when Valjean finds her.  He does appear to take a special interest in protecting her.  It is certainly not a carnal interest -- Fantine is dying, after all. But what is the nature of their relationship.  An earlier movie I saw treats it as a tender but chaste love, making Cosette their spiritual daughter.  Other interpretations assume that he is simply protective of Fantine, and later her daughter, because he has inadvertently wronged them.  As for Fantine, there can be little doubt that she is at some level in love with Valjean.  Hers is the love of a woman who has known nothing from men but betrayal and abuse finally meeting a man who can be trusted -- a mixture of hero worship and gratitude at finding a man with no carnal interest in her.  Could their relationship have developed in a more carnal interest if she had been well?  We will never know.  But, once again, if Valjean had taken a wife, he would have experienced the same narrowing of vision that he did upon adopting a daughter.

In the end, however, I can only conclude that particularized love for a small subset of people is important enough to most people that authors (including Hugo) are not altogether willing to deny it to their saint characters.  So I am inclined to rely more on the former explanation -- that a saint occupies a higher spiritual plane than the rest of us, and that sexuality is part of the baser nature that saints must leave behind.  Or at least so it must seem to an author constructing a saint.

This digression out of the way, I want to return to the question of my last post, as raised by the New Yorker reviewer: what is this innocent and saintly man forever seeking to atone for.

PS:  Maybe I should also add Julius Caesar from George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra.  Shaw's Caesar, though noble, is too frivolous and light-hearted to be a classic saint.  Nonetheless, Shaw describes him as a character intended to have virtue and therefore not need goodness.  He is not forgiving because he is too great to resent.  He is not frank because he feels no need for discretion.  And he is not generous in giving away wealth because it means nothing to him.  And, although Shaw does not add it, he is immune to Cleopatra's charms because he has no sex drive.  (The real Caesar, by contrast, was said to be "Every woman's husband and every man's wife.")
*Should I throw in a note about Melanie here?  Melanie is a married woman and nearly dies in the birth of a child conceived while her husband is on leave.  Afterward, they abstain for years, fearing that she will not survive a second birth.  But motherhood is so important to her that ultimately she risks it again and dies of complications of her second pregnancy.  So we must concede that Melanie is at least sometimes sexually active.  But to say that she lacks sex appeal would be putting it mildly.
**Javert mentions Valjean's marksmanship as well as his strength as one of the ways he recognized him as an escaped convict?  But how would he know about a convict's marksmanship, which he presumably has never seen?
***Infection later sets it, and it takes a month for him to be well enough to go out again, but the bad guys don't have to know.
****Nor is sex appeal necessarily the same as sexuality.  Mr. Roark on Fantasy Island has so much sex appeal that the air crackles everywhere he goes, yet the character is strictly asexual and never takes any interest in a woman.  In Mr. Roark's case, it appears to be not so much because he is a saint, but because he is an angelic power above the weaknesses of the flesh.