I suppose I might be embarassed to admit that only as of yesterday have I "read" Les Misérables, the classic by Victor Hugo. Many of my friends from highschool and college lauded it as one of their most favorite and loved books, but I just never got around to reading it. Technically, I still haven't; I purchased the unabridged (more on that mistake later) version in audio form on the second day of our cross-country roadtrip way back in January when I realized that the playlist I'd made for myself, despite the four new albums I'd purchased on iTunes with my Christmas money, was not going to cut it after about the 10th continual play on the first day! My dad had urged me to listen to an audio book, that it helped to pass the time quickly, etc. So I did!
Unthinkingly, I purchased, as mentioned above, the unabridged version of this classic tale. Don't get me wrong--I love history and Hugo is amazingly adept at painting extremely detailed pictures of any number of people or moments. However, listening to a rendering of the battle at Waterloo for hours on end was not something I signed up for. But having no knowledge of the story hitherto, I buckled up and kept on! 57.5 hours later, I really am glad that I did.
The character of Jean Valjean, who is the main protagonist amidst a host of complex individuals, is one that could only be painted over this much time, I think. An accidental criminal in his youth who was only trying to feed his impoverished siblings, a single loaf of bread stolen would impact the entire trajectory of his life. After many years in the galleys he went on to become the main benefactor and mayor of an entire region and the father figure/caretaker to an orphaned girl who quite literally lit up his life with joy. (I have, obviously, oversimplified the story and his life in the interest of time and minimizing mix-up. Indulge me.) Cosette, who's mother he previously became quite dear friends with and whose death he witnessed firsthand (and who had literally given everything of herself in order to protect her daughter, whom she did not see for the better part of her life), becomes an angel to him, and in a sense his salvation. In her he is given a distraction from himself for those who seek after him to arrest him and give him his "due"--and who understand nothing of the true origins of his punishable actions, or at least of where they started.
I could easily go on and continue my brief summary of this team of characters who paint a wrenching picture of the various miseries of life, but I don't feel it necessary to say what I want to. In Hugo's France, hopelessness sometimes becomes depravity, yet poverty also may breed hope eternal. Love is often an underlying theme, save for in descriptions of certain characters whose sole desire is to acquire riches and who will stop at nothing to get them, however fleeting the wealth may be once attained.
Yesterday, I finished the story. For those of you familiar with it, you will surely recall the gut-wrenching final chapters wherein Cosette's new husband, having been told by Jean Valjean himself of the "father's" true past and identity, slowly marginalizes the old man from his wife's life. The former feels this is a fate deserved, and that he is finally serving his true penance for his past crimes. However, Marius (Cosette's husband) does not know that it is Jean Valjean who saved his life when the émeute exploded in Paris, and to whom he also owes the honor of marrying the girl he fell in love with in secret. It all comes to a head when a rascal we are quite familiar with by this time, Thenardier, comes to Marius and tells him what he thinks is true and will get him lots of money thanks to his frankness with the man now rich thanks to Cosette's inheritance. The final scene reunites Jean Valjean to his beloved "daughter", and sees Marius' pain in knowing the hurt he has caused this dear old man to whom he owed nearly everything. As I cooked dinner, I wept as I listened to the final scene; on his deathbed Jean Valjean finally sees his Cosette one last time, and sees Marius forgive him and take true ownership of the wealth bequeathed him, knowing it now to be legitimate. As they beg and plead for him to return home with them to live out his final days, he verily glows as an angel in his joy of being with the two beings he adores most in his dying breath. The book ends with the words written on Jean Valjean's gravestone, alluding to Cosette and her saving grace being the light of his life.
That final chapter, to me, painted a picture of true love in many ways: in Marius and Cosette's love, Marius' respect and love that explodes for the "father-in-law" whom he misunderstood, and the love and adoration shared between Jean Valjean and Cosette. Would that we all ended our earthly lives as he does, in the arms of love in the truest sense, and feeling his bishop calling him Home and seeing the Light. The sadness of this moment is one tinged with angelic joy of true redemption, and one that seems quite apropos this Holy Week. As Jean Valjean (though the comparison is a bit vulgar, perhaps), Jesus Christ separated Himself from the One who was his True Love in order to save us, those whom the Trinity seeks to save and love with such a love as we can never fathom in our earthly minds. May we remember, and may we feel an angelic sense of gratitude though the tears fall from our eyes as a river.