I spent the last four months teaching Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Misérables” at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey. My students—like Hugo’s main character, Jean Valjean, who served 19 years in prison—struggle with shame, guilt, injustice, poverty and discrimination, and yearn for redemption and transformation. The novel gave them a lens to view their lives and a ruling system every bit as cruel as Hugo’s 19th-century France.
“Les Misérables” was wildly successful when it was published, including among Civil War soldiers in the United States, although Hugo’s condemnation of slavery was censored from Confederate copies. It was American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs’ favorite book—he read it in French. The socialist British Prime Minister Lloyd George said “Les Misérables” taught him more about poverty and the human condition than anything else he had ever read and instilled in him a lifelong ambition “to alleviate the distress and the suffering of the poor.” Hugo’s novel, however, enraged the ruling elites. It was panned by French critics. Copies were burned in Spain. Pope Pius IX put it on the church’s list of banned books, along with “Madame Bovary” and all the novels of Stendhal and Honoré de Balzac.
“While through the working laws of customs there continues to exist a condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilization, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; while the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjugation of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child in darkness, continue unresolved; while in some regions social asphyxia remains, while ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value,” Hugo wrote in the preface.
My students interpreted the novel through the peculiar reality of prison, something that would have pleased Hugo, who relentlessly chronicled the injustices meted out to the poor by ruling institutions and agents of the law. The heroes in his book are the outcasts, the demonized and the impoverished—les misérables—as well as the rebels, usually doomed, who rise up in their defense.
The theme that runs through the novel can be summed up in Leo Tolstoy’s dictum: “The only certain happiness in life is to live for others.”
My students will spend their lives condemned as felons. They, like Valjean, will never completely wash away the mark of Cain. Transformation, even when it occurs, will not free them from the criminal caste system. Transformation must be carried out not for what it will achieve, for often it will achieve nothing, or how it will be perceived, for most of the wider society will not perceive it. Transformation is about making peace with yourself. It is about obeying your conscience, which Hugo equates with the divine. It is about never living at the expense of another. Transformation is about rising above the hatred many feel, with justification, for a society that has betrayed them.
“Obscurely he perceived that the priest’s forgiveness was the most formidable assault he had ever sustained,” Hugo wrote of Valjean, “that if he resisted it his heart would be hardened once and for all, and that if he yielded he must renounce the hatred which the acts of man had implanted in him during so many years, and to which he clung. He saw dimly that this time he must either conquer or be conquered, and that the battle was not joined, a momentous and decisive battle between the evil in himself and the goodness in the other man.”
Hugo was aware that there are some who cannot be redeemed. They are incapable of empathy or remorse. They are driven by greed and ambition. They take a perverse joy in inflicting suffering on others. They are capable only of deceit. These people must be kept at bay.
Several students argued passionately that everyone, no matter how depraved, could ultimately be redeemed, and yet the reality of prison, my students conceded, amply illustrates that there are human predators to whom one can never show vulnerability or expect mercy.
To save Champmathieu, Valjean gives up his freedom. In this singular act of justice and heroic self-sacrifice he exposes the bankruptcy and corruption of the courts, including the lie of authority. He elevates a convict, Jean Valjean, to a higher morality. He redeems his name and the names of all convicts. The price is catastrophic. But the price for moral acts is usually catastrophic. No one is rewarded for virtue. In my class this chapter triggered a discussion of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative,” the idea that there are things we must do no matter what the consequences. The moral life, as Hugo pointed out, is not pragmatic or rational. It does not guarantee that we as distinct individuals survive. And yet, it permits us, by living for others, to become our best selves. It allows us a bittersweet happiness.
One of my students, serving a life sentence without parole and unable to be with his small daughter, structured his day as if she was in the cell with him. He woke her up in the morning. He cooked for her. He spoke to her. He read books to her. He wrote long letters. Every night he said goodnight to her as if she were in the next bunk. This ritual was not only about loss. It preserved his identity as something other than a prisoner. It allowed him to retain the title of father. It kept alive the virtues of nurturing, tenderness and love that prison can often crush. Hugo’s understanding of the titanic internal struggle to be human in an inhuman environment was intimately familiar to my 26 students.