Monday, December 31, 2012

Overcoming Misery in Life

The novel Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in 1862, has been very popular here in Korea over the years in movie, musical and TV drama versions. A young woman in the French department of Seoul University has written an article in the Catholic Times on her impressions of the novel.  She believes the reason for the story's power resides in Hugo's sympathetic treatment of  persons who are faced with wretched circumstances and yet are able to overcome their problems with determination, skill and and unbending belief.

The expression Les Miserables means the pitiful people. The novel recounts the lives of people who lack virtue, the lives of the poor, and the unfortunate. The portrayal, she says, is realistic and severe. But the misery and  wretchedness is not only described negatively but allows us to see how such circumstances can be  surmounted.

This is especially seen in the fate of the  main character, Jean Valjean, a convicted criminal who was released from prison. He was welcomed into the house of a bishop when all the others refused him shelter, and while in the house he stole the silverware. When he was arrested by the police, the bishop told them that it was his gift to Jean Valjean, which got him released. This was not enough to get him to change his life, however, but he did so after an incident that  happened  shortly after.

He stole a  coin from a child.This was the first time that his conscience gave him trouble and brought a  change in his life. He was able, said the writer, to achieve goodness through the evil that he experienced. Misery, pain, poverty, sin--all present in and maintained by society are what we have to continually strive to overcome. This is the driving force behind progress and in the process of overcoming these difficulties we become strong.

Although Victor Hugo was not  Catholic, says the writer, he rejected Catholic teachings and rituals but he served a God of love and mercy.To Hugo, God was justice and truth, mercy and law, and the God of love. The God of Les Miserables is not the all-knowing and almighty God who, in the minds of some, determines our fate and instils fear but he who  makes one surpass their will and actions by working toward an ideal. It is for this reason that Jean Vajean is seen as a Jesus  figure. Like Jesus--God  becoming  man--Jean Valjean in overcoming hardships, was man becoming God. He surpassed the bishop in his passive mercy for he went into the marketplace expressing mercy to those he met.

In 1789, with the beginning of the French Revolution, the curtain came down on an era in which  people entrusted everything to God. Now humanity accepts responsibility for making history and for deciding the future direction of society. In the second part of the book, after the June Revolt of 1832, this is made very clear as the the search for freedom and justice becomes the central focus of the story.

However, misery does not easily disappear. There is the cunning and evil innkeeper, the women who in order to live have to sell their bodies, the police office using force and unfair  laws to get his way, and the continual existence of poverty, misery and pain. And yet by facing these difficult circumstances with  positive values, humanity will end up the victor and  be directed to God.

Jean Valjean is Victor Hugo's ideal human. He lived justly, but to the very last moment of life he suffered and died lonely, embracing  and forgiving all. In Valjean, we can see the image of Jesus, of Prometheus who stole fire for humankind, and of Sisyphus who continues to roll the stone uphill, only to have it fall back to the bottom again,requiring still more effort to push it once more uphill, in a seemingly hopeless task. 

A question does arise for many after reading the book or seeing one of its many adaptations and wondering why was it on the list of forbidden books of the Catholic Church. To answer correctly such a question we have to locate ourselves in the times and the Europe in which the book was published. See what was happening in society and how the book would be received by the Catholics. Victor Hugo was brought up Catholic, kept his faith in God  but gradually lost all  sympathy for the Catholic Church. His view of life  in any event would have been in some way formed by what he grew up with even though in later years he was  turned off by what he saw and experienced in the Catholicism of his times.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            


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