Maybe the best thing I can say about Les Miserables is that it made me look at Christianity differently. I was raised Christian but stopped believing and practising when I was a teenager. If I was forced to categorise myself, I’d say I was an atheist. As an adult, I have to admit to having more of an ear for the negatives of religion – the wars, hatefulness and discrimination justified by doctrine; the parasitic opulence; the criminal concealment of child sex abuse. This novel has not made these sins any more excusable.
It has, however, reminded me of the positive side of Christianity. A good writer makes you sympathise with a character, and once you are hooked, the unfolding of their story allows you to experience a shade of a life you have never lived.
Despite all the melodrama and romanticism in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean’s redemption is believable. We are shown a man who has spent his life in utter ignorance and poverty. When he is caught stealing bread for his starving nieces and nephews, he is imprisoned and subjected to such harsh and inhumane punishment that he has nothing but animosity for the world. His repeated escape attempts only serve to increase his sentence, and with it his hopelessness.
It is in this state that he encounters the Bishop Bienvue, Hugo’s embodiment of Christian kindness and charity. When Valjean steals the only luxury the austere Bishop allows himself, his silver dinner settings, he is caught by the police, and again faces his imminent return to prison.
But rather than let the law take its course, as Valjean arguably deserves, the Bishop takes pity on him, and tells the authorities that the stolen goods were a gift. A man who is supposed to be a moral exemplar of society compromises himself to save a criminal who has wronged him from a cruel justice system.
This is perhaps the first time in Valjean’s life that anyone has shown him kindness, charity and forgiveness, and it sets in motion his own redemption, driven by his gratitude to the Bishop, and, as the novel would have it, other, more divine influences.
This episode demonstrates the role Christianity played in Hugo’s society. It reminds us that for most of human history, people were uneducated and illiterate, the authorities were oppressors or exploiters, and there was no social security or government assistance. In this world, the church was the most common source of positive morals, not to mention a centre of community and possible source of aid.
Whether it still serves this role in our present day society is debatable, and not something I want to go into here. I’m not a sudden convert to Christianity, but I am more willing to give religion its dues for both its historical contribution, and the role it can play in individual lives.
This is why I read. In conversation, people are never as eloquent nor as brave as they are in writing, and so cannot open the same worlds to you. A great novel can break down prejudices because it uses the same emotional, experiential matter from which they were formed, and this is what Les Miserables has done for me.