I spent the last four months teaching Victor Hugo's 1862 novel "Les Mise'rables" 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 Mise'rables" 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 Mise'rables" 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 Honore' 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 mise'rables -- 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."
Jean Valjean, after 19 years in prison -- five for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's hungry children and 14 more as punishment for attempts at escape -- is released with no home, no occupation and little money. He tramps through the French countryside, ending up in the town of Digne. He is required to present to local authorities his yellow identity card, a document that brands him for life as an ex-convict. He is refused a room at several inns, despite having the money to pay for lodgings. Finally, after Valjean is found sleeping outside, Monseigneur Bienvenu, the local bishop, gives him a place to rest in his modest house.
Valjean arises early and, leaving before the bishop wakes, steals the household silver -- platters, forks, knives and spoons -- the cleric's last and only extravagance after having given away most of his possessions to the poor. The gendarmes spy Valjean on the road with his plunder. They haul him before Monseigneur Bienvenu. The bishop lies to the gendarmes, saying he gave the silver to Valjean. After the police leave, he turns to Valjean: "Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man. ... Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."
Valjean, shaken, nevertheless commits one final crime. He robs a boy of a coin, almost instinctively, but it was "an act of which he was no longer capable." The theft plunges him into despair. He desperately searches for the boy to return the coin. He cannot find him. The boy has run away in terror. Valjean vows to become a different man.
The decision by the bishop to lie on behalf of Valjean triggered an intense debate in my classroom.
"Who would do this?" a student asked.
"No one," another student answered.
Several students dismissed the scene as improbable.
And then from the back of the room a student, speaking in emotional undertones, told this story.
"I came back to my bunk one day," he said. "There was a new Bible on it. Inside was a letter. It was from my victim's sister. She wrote, 'I forgive you. Now you must forgive yourself.' I broke down. I could be more than a criminal. I could change. She made that possible."
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.