Friday, October 21, 2011

Reflections: Les Miserables

After serving his time in prison for stealing bread, Jean Valjean steps out in anticipation of freedom and a new life, but what he is met with is repugnance, hatred and prejudice in 19th century France. Thanks to Providence, with a touch of kindness and a determined steely will he rises up in life, but only to be hounded by the beast of justice that steadfastly remains blinded to the purity of his conscience. Amid haranguing circumstances, Jean Valjean continues to orient the purpose of his life to serving those in need, and in remaining immaculately clean in spirit. He leads his entire life being morally and spiritually pure. Les Miserables is a moving, immortal classic that explores deep social and philosophical questions on our existence.

Although I’ve read only two books of Victor Hugo’s so far, he is one author whose prose is so emotionally intense and powerful, it affects me deeply. There is so much wisdom, insight, truth, beauty, and simplicity to his writing. His use of metaphors is astounding. Every sentence is loaded with them in unimaginably articulate ways. As if to prove the point, I randomly opened a page from this 600-paged book, glanced at a paragraph and reread this:
“It is society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. From hunger, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a bit of bread. Misery makes the offer, society accepts.”

In a nutshell, it describes one of the themes of the book. Society drives misery to breed and mutate with man-made rules that are often divorced from humanity or compassion. How does one escape the vicious cycle of poverty and misery if there is no way to break out of it? How is morality serving its purpose if it only results in the oppression of the already downtrodden and abused section?

The themes intersect with my most favorite and insistent thoughts on morality. Hugo brilliantly addresses the philosophy of morality (and justice) through the moral dilemmas that Jean Valjean struggles to resolve. Almost always, the question of what is good is murky. There are no clear, straight answers. The deed alone doesn’t explain the answer. The intention and consequences complete the picture. One needs a higher faculty of thought and emotion to truly comprehend good from wrong. And sometimes, one requires a deeper realization to understand when and whom to forgive. Hugo convincingly stresses on the immense power of mercy, empathy, and compassion.

Similar to books of those times (such as Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov), the human conscience is treated as the voice of God, or higher awakening. When words, thoughts, and rationality fail to provide us with answers, the conscience does.

I relished every bit of the book. I could read Victor Hugo’s words a million times and emerge with a new insight every single time. The only part of the book that detracted my interest was the description of the internal rebellion in Paris. But through the civil war, Hugo indicates both internal and external awakening of a change, of a reformation, of a struggle for equality, and of a perception of higher truths.

It’s a beautiful and powerful book that both satisfies the idealistic and pragmatic viewpoints on morality.


Anne John said...

I haven't read this book but saw it as a musical drama years back-was very moving indeed.

Srishti said...

Just finished the abridged version.Will have to start the original version:)

Neeraja said...

Anne - I'm eagerly awaiting the musical tour that's coming to town.

Srishti - the original reads fast, despite the size. You must surely read it!