As you may know, I started this two-part post a couple of days ago with the first four lessons I learned from Victor Hugo’s powerful Les Miserables. Well, today, I’m finishing up with lessons 5-8.
5. Ask more questions and listen to the answers. In a wrenching scene, a woman named Fantine, who has had a child out of wedlock with a heartless aristocrat who left her to raise the baby alone, has a job in Jean Valjean’s factory. Some of Fantine’s fellow workers find out that she has a baby and is paying people to take care of it. Being a single woman with a child is an offense worthy of firing. Rather than find out all the information and protect Fantine, Valjean leaves the matter to his heartless foreman (or, in the book, forewoman), who fires Fantine on the spot. She ends up being a prostitute, selling her hair, and, in a scene they leave out of the musical, even her front teeth in order to pay the despicable people who are taking care of her child. Eventually, just before she dies, Valjean finds out what he’s done, or, to be more accurate, not done. Had he stopped and listened to Fantine, Cosette would not have lost her mother. Valjean adopts the child, but only after it’s too late to save her mother.
6. Rules need to be balanced by mercy. The main antagonist in the story (aside from the Thenardiers) is Inspector Javert. He is symbolic of the law while Valjean is symbolic of mercy. Javert sees nothing but the law. He knows nothing of good or bad, only legal or illegal, so that when he catches up to Valjean, he doesn’t see all the good he’s done, instead viewing him as nothing but an outlaw. At one point, Valjean has the chance to kill Javert but shows mercy. It so rocks Javert’s view of the world that he can’t continue in his job as a policeman. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but Javert’s final encounter with Valjean is a truly life-altering event. Rules and laws are important, but the enforcement of those rules without any room for mercy makes for a dark, cold world.
7. Don’t assume people won’t understand; give them a chance to listen and decide for themselves. At the end of the story, Valjean doesn’t tell Cosette who he is, but instead hides away to shield her from the truth of her father being an outlaw. As a result, he misses her wedding and essentially wastes away due to a broken heart. When she finds out the truth, Cosette rushes to find her beloved father before he dies. Had he simply told her the truth, she would have understood and all would have been forgiven. People, at their best, are able to handle almost anything. You just need to give them all the facts.
8. To love another person is to see the face of God. This exact phrasing comes from the musical, though the concept is in the book as well. This lesson could be the ultimate lesson ever taught. It’s positively Biblical. It rings of inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me. Everytime I treat someone badly, I’m treating God badly. Everytime I show love and compassion, I’m doing the same to God. So I need to strive with everything I have to love everyone I encounter. Ever since I saw the musical for the first time, I have tried to make this concept my guiding life principle.
So these are the lessons I have taken from this immortal story. I hope you find them edifying.