Les Miserables: Themes: Seeing

‘Sire,’ replied M. Myriel, ‘you are looking at a plain man and I am looking at a great man. Each of us may benefit.’

p. 20

Les Miserables does not shy away from the human condition in all of its facets. In doing so we may benefit as we look into the faces of plainness and greatness, beauty and depravity, brokenness and hope. Napoleon took the above words and made a bishop of M. Myriel. Whether Napoleon benefited from his gaze upon the humble priest is unknown. We are charged, nevertheless, with observing carefully the characters that are presented before us in the following pages: Jean Valjean—in all his visages—Cosette, Fantine, Javert, Marius, the Thénardiers…. Will we learn from them; we will benefit?

What does one make of Fantine? Valjean pronounces, “But let me assure you of this, that if it has  all been as you say—and I do not doubt it—then you have never been anything but virtuous and chaste in the eyes of God. My poor girl” (190). Do we believe that? Can circumstances excuse sin? In asking the question, I am assuming any sex outside of marriage is sin. Valjean’s worldview is not quite so rigid. Mercy trumps justice—or is justice—in his cosmos. He knows what need drives someone to. He experienced hunger and the internal suffering that comes when loved ones experience the same. No work, no bread, a sister with seven children. And he stole bread. 

Desperate, ill treated, a sick daughter (so she thought) and the inability to pay due to circumstances that were stacked against her, and Fantine resorted to prostitution. Does her ignorance and the admittedly unfair circumstances justify and/or excuse her actions? Valjean believes they do, believing also that she would not have chosen that line of work otherwise. 

Regardless of where we fall on this issue, what can we learn from Fantine? How can we benefit by looking at her condition? Maybe we lean in the direction that she still is at fault for how she ended up: her poor choices with Tholomyès. As a morality tale, we see that our choices have consequences and can lead to far worse things than we ever could have imagined. Would the young girl who “was happiness itself” (129) ever suspect that she would sell her two eye teeth, have her hair shorn, and sell her body to help care for her child with no father? 

Or maybe we lean in the direction of seeing the possibility of redemption in a situation that is surely beyond redeeming. For Fantine has no hope of escaping her desperate situation. Financially and emotionally trapped in the her lifestyle, abused by the men who buy her and those who disdain her, and judged by Javert, what hope does she have—unless Madeleine happens to be in the same room when justice is handed down. And then things change—dramatically, and not just for Fantine. Mercy sets the small pebble rolling down the rocky hillside. 

Hope. Is that the morality tale from Fantine? Can we benefit—and benefit others by not prejudging a situation hopeless? Can we see a glimmer of light in the bleakest of places, or will we sit in the judge’s chair and render our near-sighted verdict upon the evidence given, quoting a Bible verse along the way? Do we wait for repentance or pursue redemption even when the first response is derision and spit (185)?

In what ways will we see Fantine and benefit?

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