Eight Lessons I Learned from LES MISERABLES (Lessons 1-4)

by Joe Stephens

Because of some schedule issues with folks in our group, I volunteered to take an extra shift, so to speak, and therefore have two entries in three days. So I decided to do a two-parter. As the title says, I’m going to write about eight lessons I learned from Victor Hugo’s immortal classic, Les Miserables. Today, I’ll write about the first four and finish the job in a couple of days when it’s my turn again.

In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the musical before I read the book. But I did read the book, and it was just as powerful in a different way. If you haven’t seen or read it, you need to. When I talk about the experience of seeing the musical for the first time, I always say the same thing: it completely changed my life because it made me want to be a better person than I was. It has way more than eight lessons we can take from it, but I’ll concentrate on the ones that I wrote down first.

  1. People who are hard to love often need it the most. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, a recently released prisoner named Jean Valjean can’t find a place to stay or decent work because he’s required to show his yellow ticket of leave, which shows everyone he meets that he’s a convict. It’s appropriate that it’s yellow like the yellow Star of David that Jews had to wear under the Nazis because both marked the individual as less. Less than human, less worthy, less important. Finally, he’s taken in by a humble bishop who feeds him well, allowing him to have the biggest portion of the meal, and gives him a comfortable place to sleep. Valjean repays the man of God by stealing the one thing of any monetary value in the house–a silver tea set. When the police catch Valjean and drag him before the bishop, he could do what most of us would in that situation–toss him away. He could scold him for repaying his kindness by stealing from him and send him back to rot in prison for the rest of his life. But he doesn’t. He shows mercy, backing up Valjean’s story to the authorities, even going the extra step of giving him the candlesticks he’d missed initially. He literally saves his life and makes him rich at the same time. Valjean spends his entire life trying to live up to this almost inexplicable act of selflessness and mercy. By choosing to love an unlovable man who did a despicable thing, the bishop indirectly changes the lives of countless others.
  2. heart, love, oil pastels, art, creative, paper, drawing, romanceLove is contagious, but so are hate and apathy. Later in the story Valjean has opened a factory in a town. The factory is highly successful and makes the economy of the previously poor village boom. He pays high wages and creates an atmosphere in which all are treated with love and respect. His example ripples through all levels of the town. Unfortunately, because Valjean is technically an outlaw who has broken his parole, he is eventually forced to run away from the police. Though the factory remains, eventually it falls into ruin along with the economy and positive outlook of the village. Because no one is there to serve as the beacon for love and selflessness, the baser instincts of the villagers take over, ruining everything that Valjean has built. All evil needs to get a foothold is for good people not to do the right thing.
  3. The most fulfilling thing you can do for yourself is to do service for others. Valjean adopts the child of a former employee who has died and raises the little girl as his own daughter. He had no legal responsibility to do this, but he puts his own needs aside and gives the child a home that is filled with love. She becomes a beautiful young woman of great substance and is the great joy of Valjean’s life. He could easily have slipped away and left that girl to fend for herself. In fact, by taking her in, he has exposed himself to the possibility of being captured by the police again. But he counts it worth the risk to save this girl from a life of abuse and abject poverty. And he finds by saving her that he has saved himself.
  4. The strong have a responsibility to defend the weak. A large part of this story, and not just that which deals specifically with Jean Valjean, is about social justice. The Bishop is a man of great religious and social standing. He sees it as his mission to protect the downtrodden. His example leads Valjean to do the same when he becomes a man of means. A group of well-to-do students participate in an uprising to fight the totalitarian French government that treat the poor and disenfranchised of Paris like cattle, or sometimes worse. They die in their attempt, but their example leads to other uprisings, which eventually change France. All of the decent people in this amazing story realize that, to quote another great literary character–Uncle Ben from Spiderman–“[w]ith great power comes great responsibility.”

Stay tuned for part two of our saga in a couple of days, in which I discuss four more lessons that Hugo’s masterpiece has taught me. I’ll end with a line from the musical that has become my life’s motto.

Joe Stephens is a teacher at Parkersburg High School. He is also the author of Harsh Prey and Kisses and Lies, both of which are available in paperback and Kindle formats. The paperback may be purchased from
Amazon, from J & M Used Book Store in Parkersburg, and from the author’s trunk.

kindle cover

Take a look at Harsh Prey on Amazon 

Kisses and Lies Cover Michele croppedTake a look at Kisses and Lies on Amazon

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Check out joe’s website.


26 thoughts on “Eight Lessons I Learned from LES MISERABLES (Lessons 1-4)

      1. Sorry–meant that for the comment above!

        Yes, I agree, that everyone can be turned back to the right path. For some, it’s probably more challenging than others.


  1. Yes, certainly applicable today. Past present and future. Very good post. Look forward to the next one. I’ve made it my goal lately to greet people with a compliment, such as bank tellers, grocery clerks. No matter who or what comes into my day, a compliment has to be offered. My small attempt at being a better person.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to reply before part two came out–hope you found them edifying as well. If you get a chance to see the show live, you really should! I liked the movie, but it was a pale ghost of the stage musical in my opinion.


  2. Joe, thanks so much. I enjoyed your insight into this dispicable man, and how he turned himself around. I’ve always lived by idea that the strong should defend the weak. That has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years and it still does. Lol I see myself as the strong. Looking forward to the next half. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Regardless of what is or is not happening in the world, we each live our lives as best we can. It is through the giving of ourselves that we can make the greatest difference. Some say working with troubled teens was challenging, but it was just the opposite, it was what I was meant to do.

    Yes, we must care for ourselves in order to care for others, but many stop at the care of self. I’m looking forward to the four other lessons. Great post Joe.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I feel the same about teaching. It’s where my passion meets the world’s need. And it’s made such a difference for me. I hope for them as well.


  4. I’ve never seen the musical nor have I read the book. Your post makes me want to do both. Thanks for the uplifting post, Joe, and the reminder that we’re all in this world together so why not make it a better place?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is an awesome post, Joe. I’ve seen the musical, but haven’t read the book. I have a copy somewhere, but have been intimidated by the size. (I tried reading Dickens this year and he drove me crazy with his unnecessary wordiness.) Your post makes me want to read it and I love what you’ve extrapolated from the text. I’ve had an idea of doing a modern adaptation of the story, but I should read the book first to make sure it is done right. The triumph of the human spirit is something we need to be reminded of every so often.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s an abridged version that gets rid of all the extraneous stuff–and there’s a lot! You might want to try that.


  6. Wow, love the way you are sharing the book. And the lessons are so noteworthy. Now I too want to see the movie and read the book. You must be a great analytical reader. Thanks for sharing. Neva Bodin

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful post, Joe! I love the musical (have seen it five time since), but I have never read the book. You’ve done a wonderful job telling bits of the story and pulling out the lessons in them. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve never seen the musical- though i’m familiar with some of the songs and I did read the book as part of my college studies many years ago. There are lessons to be learned from a lot of books and you’ve summarised this part so well, Joe. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I greatly enjoy the musical and the music itself; never read the book. It’s amazing the lessons we can glean from various experiences, such as literature and movies, as well as learn from one another and from nature/pets. One’s heart must be open and willing to learn, however, and sadly, some people are not. Thank you for sharing these lessons, Joe — they are great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the thing that amazes me–that so many people have seen this musical and read this book and said yes, it’s good, but it had no real effect on their lives. You hit it: the key is to have a receptive heart.


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