I’ve shifted some of my reading to my so-called “miracle morning”, and this morning I ran headlong into this doozy in “Les Misérables”:
Let us have compassion on the chastised. Alas! Who are we ourselves? Who am I who now address you? Who are you who are listening to me? And are you very sure that we have done nothing before we were born? The earth is not devoid of resemblance to a jail. Who knows whether man is not a recaptured offender against divine justice? Look closely at life. It is so made, that everywhere we feel the sense of punishment.
Are you what is called a happy man? Well! you are sad every day. Each day has its own great grief or its little care. Yesterday you were trembling for a health that is dear to you, to-day you fear for your own; to-morrow it will be anxiety about money, the day after to-morrow the diatribe of a slanderer, the day after that, the misfortune of some friend; then the prevailing weather, then something that has been broken or lost, then a pleasure with which your conscience and your vertebral column reproach you; again, the course of public affairs. This without reckoning in the pains of the heart. And so it goes on. One cloud is dispelled, another forms. There is hardly one day out of a hundred which is wholly joyous and sunny. And you belong to that small class who are happy! As for the rest of mankind, stagnating night rests upon them.
Thoughtful minds make but little use of the phrase: the fortunate and the unfortunate. In this world, evidently the vestibule of another, there are no fortunate.
-Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 651–652). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
One of my great surprises reading this book is that Hugo’s personal religion and morality are so hard to pin down. Every time I think I have a sense of it, it turns in a new direction.
But one thing is clear: compassion. The book is filled with compassionate moments leading to great changes in character’s lives. Any number of them, if erased, would fundamentally alter a character and shift the story. It’s so counter to what most modern stories praise, that to see it – especially embodied in the character of Jean Valjean – is occasionally breath-taking. A passage I recently read that is not mentioned in the musical or in the Liam Neeson movie actually took my breath away due to the incredible power of Valjean’s self-control and desire for self-determination and salvation through compassion.
In fact, I think my wife is right that this could serve as the or one of the thesis statements for the book. She said that after I read her the passage this morning.
We’re all in this together, whatever it is, so let’s be decent.