“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Our national motto at this time of extreme social, economic and public health stress has been a universal call to practice acts of kindness. Yet, keeping our spirits high is a challenge at this time. Therefore, I am among thousands of readers who are rediscovering classics like Hugo’s Les Misérables, as a result of having time to reflect and meditate, during the public health response required to self shelter and prevent community spread of the coronavirus. There is a lesson about heroic kindness in Hugo’s timeless story.
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was first published in 1862. Although I read one abridged version of Les Misérables in French, when I was a student, I was delighted to find a summary about the novel published in an old anthology I purchased at a yard sale, many years ago.
Much Loved Books, published in 1959, by James O’Donnell Bennett, further reminded me to locate the photographs taken when my husband and I traveled to Paris and visited Sacre-Coeur, in the Montmartre section of the city, where the revolution described in Les Misérables took place.
Organizing our travel memories while self-sheltering allowed me the time to locate photographs taken at La Basilique du Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre, in Paris.
Many would probably be familiar with Les Misérables as a popular opera. Yet, the story was first published in 1862, in a classic novel, by French author Victor Hugo. My husband and I have enjoyed the superb musical version, based on the book, on several occasions. Colloquially known in English-speaking countries as “Les Mis”, the story is a musical adaptation about the French poet and novelist Victor Hugo‘s 1862 novel.
A return to Paris seems unlikely, given the unpredictable duration of the coronavirus pandemic. We are blessed to have been able to visit France on multiple occasions. Our memories are now stored in photograph albums and, hopefully, will be enjoyed in the future.
Meanwhile, I’m engaged in the meditative exercise involved in putting our visit to Sacre-Coeur together with the plot in Hugo’s novel.
In fact, in spite of the tragic circumstances involved in the story, the book is really about hope in a time of social distress. It’s a story for our times.
The plot thickens around an extraordinary act of forgiveness by the bishop of Digne, France, a fictional character, towards the principle character, named Jean Valjean.
Valjean was running away from prison authorities who were tracking him for having violated his bail. The bishop provided temporary refuge for Valjean. Nevertheless, Valjean steals two silver candlesticks from the bishop’s residence. Instead of turning Valjean over to authorities, the bishop says that he had actually given the candlestick’s to Valjean and they were not stolen. Bennett wrote that what keeps this plot relevant is how this act of forgiveness reaffirmed the “potency of love…and compassion”. Although Valjean vowed to live a life worthy of the forgiveness he experienced, along the way he became swept up with a slew of characters who were a group of revolutionary young idealists that attempted to overthrow the government at a street barricade in Montmartre, outside of Sacre-Coeur. Bennett’s summary included a quote from Hugo, who explained, in a letter to a friend, the reason he was going to write Les Misérables was to create a character who portrayed the social misery of the time, in late 18th century France, when institutions were under revolutionary siege and became sources of fear.
Even so, throughout the turmoil, Jean Valjean continued to believe in man’s ability to extinguish misery by showing love and kindness. Some have called the novel a “gospel of the people”. Two of the memorable quotes from the novel are “to love another person is to see the face of God” and the last words Valjean speaks, “….but, because things are unpleasant is no reason for being unjust to God.”
I’ve scanned my pictures and postcards from Sacre-Coeur to post on blogs and social media. Perhaps, the memories of visiting the scenes described by Hugo will remind us about the moral of his epic Les Misérables. Acts of kindness will eventually lead us through, to the other side of “la peste”, the pandemic and the social misery it has caused in the 21st century.