While I started the month honoring contemporary novelists – and fully intended to continue doing so throughout the month – I find that I cannot separate the novel from its history. Similarly, I cannot honor contemporary novelists and the impact their words have had on me without acknowledging the tremendous impact that historical fictions have also had. So I come to one of my favorite novelists and one of my favorite novels, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. To say this novel profoundly impacted my perspective on life would be a drastic understatement.
What Hugo was able to accomplish in Les Miserables is significant in its own right: the ability to cajole empathy for a convict, to encourage the reader to cheer for his successes, and to teach someone to see how such a person might be a better person than even the upstanding citizens around him is in itself a feat. That Hugo accomplished this in an historical time in which social classes were divided into perceived standards of morality makes the success of this novel even more laudable.
There is a sadness that takes me when I read Les Miserables, though, or when I watch the movie (my favorite version stars Liam Nieson), because we so often make the mistake of assuming that our class system looks different now than it did when the novel was published in 1862. The next time you watch it – or better yet, if you read it – consider carefully our prison system. Consider mandatory minimum sentences and sex offender registries and felony charges in relation to the severity of the crime, and then consider those things in context with a 12, 13, or 14-year old child. Consider the lifelong treatment of someone convicted of a felony that occurs no matter how long its been or how much they’ve changed or what the circumstances were when the event happened. Then think about whether you honestly believe that every middle class (or wealthy) non-criminal that you know is morally sound.