[jean valjean – the broken and restored]
It has been almost a week since I have started the Les Miserables series. I have saved the best for last – Jean Valjean, my hero.
Yesterday, in the post about Father Myriel, I mentioned what Jean looked like before his transformation. A convict, dirty, stinky, and bitter. Yet simple compassion and wisdom of the Bishop made Jean Valjean realize that life is not as bad as it appeared to be.
I am not sure about the musical, but in the movie filmed in ’98, Jean Valjean mentions that he was sentenced for 5 years on the galleys because he was hungry and he stole bread. It was indeed so, but there was a detail that would cast a kinder light on Jean before prison. He had an older sister who had seven kids and no one to support her. It was winter, neither he nor his sister could find any work, and the little ones were crying. It was for them that he stole the bread, not for himself.
However, whether he was innocently desperate or guilty, the verdict was proclaimed, and the next 19 years of being just a 24601 have changed Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean had entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering; he emerged impassive. He had entered in despair; he emerged gloomy.
It is necessary that society should look at these things, because it is itself, which creates them… From year to year, this soul had dried away slowly, but with fatal sureness. When the heart is dry, the eye is dry. On his departure from the galleys, it had been nineteen years since he had shed a tear.
The prison corrupts rather than corrects but when the spirit is strong, nothing can snuff that candle out. Meeting the Bishop was a breath of fresh air and finding out what forgiveness feels like, it was like the fuel for that fire.
[Jean Valjean] contemplated himself, so to speak, face to face, and at the same time, athwart this hallucination, he perceived in a mysterious depth a sort of light which he at first took for a torch. On scrutinizing this light which appeared to his conscience with more attention, he recognized the fact that it possessed a human form and that this torch was the Bishop.
His conscience weighed in turn these two men thus placed before it, – the Bishop and Jean Valjean. Nothing less than the first was required to soften the second. By one of those singular effects, which are peculiar to this sort of ecstasies, in proportion as his revery continued, as the Bishop grew great and resplendent in his eyes, so did Jean Valjean grow less and vanish. After a certain time he was no longer anything more than a shade. All at once he disappeared. The Bishop alone remained; he filled the whole soul of this wretched man with a magnificent radiance.
The Bishop for Jean Valjean was like God in flesh. He embodied everything that was necessary to restore Jean Valjean’s soul that was on the anvil of experience and under the hammer of evidence.
[This was time when] it was necessary to conquer or to be conquered; and that a struggle, a colossal and final struggle, had been begun between his viciousness and the goodness of that man.
Good thing about fairy tales – they always end with a happy ending. Cinderella gets her sweet freedom from the evil step-mother. Shrek and Fiona fall in love and get married. Frodo destroys the Ring. Little red riding hood and her grandma are rescued from the big bad wolf.
Like any good story, fairy tales are based on real life and in Les Miserables, there are a lot of happy endings to what seemed to be sad stories – and it began with Jean Valjean making the choice. A choice to give up the bitterness, resentment, anger, and instead learn forgiveness and compassion.
And who knows, maybe we will be the light for those we meet on our life paths, just like the Bishop was for Jean Valjean. After all, we are called to be the light of the world.