“Nobody knows like a woman how to say things that are both sweet and profound. Sweetness and depth, this is all of woman; this is Heaven.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Here we have a love story, but not your typical love story, but one that acutely portrays love between life and liberty, a man and woman, a woman and child, a love/hate relationship between Valjean and Javert, and most importantly man and God. There are many facets to Les Misérables too many to name but know the one that speaks volumes is the need to love and be loved. The desire for belonging is a well-woven thread through this story. We as human beings despite everything else in our lives have a profound inclination to be loved, to be cared for, and to know our lives do not end with the last breath but continues to permeate through all the lives we have touched and wanted to vicariously live. Cosette was that for Valjean, she was his ‘”little thing” which became his big thing to live for—through her love, he was invincible to the ills of the world and through her, he knew what true love was.
Valjean as a young man did a deed to help his sister; an act of love by stealing a loaf of bread to feed his nephew and as a result was sentenced to hard labor, but his strength grew and his determination expanded to see freedom once again. A man of God, who offers him food and a place to rest, takes in Valjean after he receives his release from prison. Valjean not seeing the love in his heart takes many of his belongings, but is caught, instead of the man of God of pressing charges, he offers him the most valuable items in his home, a pair of silver candlesticks; a symbolic way of showing him there is light at the end of his dark tunnel of despair. From that Valjean’s love grows and he becomes mayor, although still haunted by his past, he strives to change the portrait of his life from robber to giver. Valjean makes a huge mistake along the way when he turns away, as one of his workers is being forced to leave—he provides no love to her and she becomes a loveless waif. Valjean must pay for this loveless endeavor and vows to take care of her daughter on her deathbed.
You must have an opposite to your cause. A nemesis to your existence. Javert was that conflicting parallel for Valjean. Javert continues to pursue Valjean to bring him in as a fugitive—vowing to hunt him down to the ends of the earth. This love/hate relationship between those two men is beyond the darkness many of us have seen in the hearts of men. Javert is a restless soul; a man who believes he is doing the work of God through punishing the guilty. He by all accounts is not a loveless man as he places his medal on the chest of the fallen child—here he shows compassion for another, a gesture of love in its own right, “The most ferocious animals are disarmed by caresses to their young. “(p. 150) But Javert is however angry Valjean has reformed. He doesn’t believe a man can turn the other cheek and start anew, “That a cat may change into a lion, prefects of police do not believe possible; this can happen, nonetheless.” (p. 131). Javert believes that Valjean will always remain a cat—one that squalors for life and bread and will always remain a misery of the world. “Everybody has noticed the way cats stop and loiter in a half-open door. Hasn’t everyone said to a cat: For heavens sake why don’t you come in? With opportunity half-open in front of them, there are men who have a similar tendency to remain undecided between two solutions, at the risk of being crushed by fate abruptly closing the opportunity. “The overprudent, cats as they are, and because they are cats, sometimes run more danger than the bold.” (p. 548) Javert and Valjean become Cain and Abel—they become the quintessential love/hate story.
Valjean continues to risk his life in spite of Javerts’ quest for his capture—saving Cosette’s love interest through the most despicable means of carrying him through the sewers of France to a hospital. Valjean views redemption as more than mere words spoken, but also, action taken. Through his own dogma and skepticism, he recognizes love is the elixir of life, the Soul of the World. It is through this constant battlefield of his heart, he is able to live. Valjean like the people of France never truly experience their freedom until death—however, they sing the battle cry of Looking Down in the hopes one doesn’t just mimics their song, but sings it through the streets of freedom and hope while still alive for others to hear, heed, and carry forth into the crusade.
Look down, look down, and see the beggars at your feet
Look down and show some mercy if you can
Look down and see
The sweepings of the streets
Look down, look down,
Upon your fellow man!
Finally, Valjean is the existence and exoticism enabling his self-contemplation. He sees the humanity of the heart rather than its megalomania for capturing the sympathy of his people through less scrupulous means instead bringing a communion of love and liberty. Valjean is the universal theme of love coming to save us through whatever means necessary. He is the multi-dimensional hierarchy of hidden meaning and the condemnatory of practicing faith without actions. Valjean is the epitome of the civilization of love and the displayable means of love in its highest form. Valjean is the Love of country, people, spirit, and the God of his nation.
SparkNotes Editors. (2002). SparkNote on Heart of Darkness. Retrieved December 13, 2012, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/heart/
SparkNotes Editors. (2010). SparkNote on The Alchemist. Retrieved December 13, 2012, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/the-alchemist/
SparkNotes Editors. (2002). SparkNote on Les Misérables. Retrieved December 13, 2012, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/lesmis/