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.
- 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.
- Love 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Take a look at Harsh Prey on Amazon
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