What (If Anything) Does Les Miserables Have to Say to Us Today?

For the past few Les Miserables posts we have been looking at it from a 30,000 foot level.  (It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on Les Miserables; you can go to the sidebar and look for “Les Miserables” under Categories and that will bring up a listing of all the previous Les Miserables posts so that you can refresh your memory.)  Before we dive into a more detailed look at the story, I wish to consider one more issue from this macro level:  Les Miserables was written by Victor Hugo and addressed primarily to his fellow countrymen in 19th century France.  But what, if anything, does it have to say to us here today, in 21st century America?

One of the marks of great literature is that it is timeless–though it is primarily addressed to a specific people living in a specific place at a specific time, there is something in it that is applicable in some form or fashion to all people in all times and all places.  So what does Les Miserables have to say to us in our present place and situation?

One consideration which I would like to address is this:  We who live here in present-day America have little to no experience of the idea of kingdom.  Absolute monarchy and its attendant institutions–things such as the divine right of kings or the special privilege accorded to favored classes such as clergy or nobility–are not even on our radar screen here in present day America.  That is not a bad thing.  However, I think it causes us to miss out on one of the fundamental realities of the kingdom of God:  namely that it is just that–a kingdom.  Because of this we bring our own American cultural conception of things, which is largely informed by our democratic system, into our relations with God.  I venture to say that the view of God which makes the faith movement, Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meyer possible would not exist if we saw the kingdom of God for what it really is–a kingdom.

The other consideration is this:  An awful lot of the issues which Victor Hugo intended to address in Les Miserables are still present today, in our nation and in the world at large.

Victor Hugo was an ardent advocate of free, universal public education; it did not exist back in his day and he believed that it would solve a lot of society’s ills.  We have had free, universal (or almost universal) public education here in America for at least the last century, and we can debate whether or not it is all that Victor Hugo believed it would be.  Nevertheless, there are still many social ills which the story addresses and which still need to be addressed today.

Class division is one.  Now the class structure of 19th century France was very rigid; upward mobility and self-made fortunes were almost completely unheard of in our society.  But while there is significantly more class mobility in our American society, there are still very rigid divisions in our society as well.  These fall mainly along racial lines.

A couple of days back, I drove through the area around Ponce de Leon and Boulevard.  (For those of you readers who live in Baton Rouge, replace “Ponce de Leon” with “Florida”, and “Boulevard” with “Acadian”, and you will get the idea.)  As I drove through this part of town, I felt quite uncomfortable.  Why?  Because there is a huge disconnect between white culture and black culture.  I am sure that a lot of the people I saw on the street in this neighborhood were honest people going about their business and trying to make a living.  Yet I could not shake the uncomfortable feeling that if I did not watch myself then I might wind up in trouble.  Why did I have this feeling?  Because there is a disconnect between white culture and black culture, and because I was way out of my element passing through that neighborhood.

I long for the day when white people can pass through black neighborhoods and black people can pass through white neighborhoods without feeling the full force of the disconnect which presently exists between white and black culture.  Without feeling the fear and distrust that exist on our side, or whatever feelings exist for black people when faced with the prospect of negotiating a neighborhood or a world that is dominated by white people.  And I believe I would be right in saying that Victor Hugo would long for that day as well.

Another issue is the ongoing problem of human slavery.  Oh, you thought this issue was settled back in the 1860s with the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation?  Think again, my friend.  All you have to do is read David Batstone’s Not For Sale, and you will be summarily and violently disabused of this notion.  Slavery is alive and well in our day, all around the world.  Sweatshop laborers in southern Asia, child soldiers in Uganda, sex industry victims in Europe–it is even happening right here in the good ol’ U. S. of A.

The title page of Les Miserables contains the following dedication:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century–the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labor, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night–are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.     –Hauteville House, 1862

We see this artificially-created hell on earth in the poor, thugged-out neighborhoods of our cities where certain people of certain race and class standing are consigned to live because of the social and cultural disconnect which exists between them and us.  We see it in all the other places around the world where men and women are forced to work in sweatshop conditions, where women are forced to serve as sex slaves, where children are kidnapped and forced to fight.  We also see in all these places the degradation of man, the ruin of woman, and the atrophy of childhood which is spoken of in this dedication.

In light of this, I believe that Les Miserables has an awful lot to say to us in this day and age.  So let us get started digging into it; that is what we shall do in the next several posts.