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.

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