If history has shown us one thing it is that in times of terrible injustice and horrid tragedy how people react tends to be radically divided. When looking back at unjust acts done against others there always seem to be a large amount of people who seem to agree with said action, or are indifferent to it. It is difficult to look back at times when people were being mistreated and completely understand why more people didn’t fight against the injustice. And though there are people who we now consider hero’s for taking a stand against oppression, they only make it harder to grasp how people could have ever opposed them in the first place.
History is stained with the folly of man; many times society has promoted true injustice against groups of people for reasons that now seem minuscule. So what is the catalysis that causes people to either do such unjust acts to others or to stand up and fight against injustice? In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece “Les Miserables” through his characters, he brings forth such questions. Hugo cleverly uses his novel to bring forth the issues he had with society in the nineteenth century. He writes about the class system within France and how it corrupted people and turned even good people into criminals.
In the preface to “Les Miserables” Hugo says this, “SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the agethe degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night-are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet ore extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless. ” (Hugo)
In this statement Hugo directly states the problems he sees within his society, and challenges the “law and customs” that have lead to such problems. In many ways, Hugo attributes the class system in 19th century France for creating most of the “misery” lower class citizens face. This sentiment is embodied in the character Valjean, how because of his poverty has no choice but to turn to thievery in order to survive, and who sadly is caught in the act and arrested.
In contrast Hugo’s character Javert how is in many ways the foil of Valjean, is an officer unable to think outside of the restrictions of the law. During times when people or governments in power have oppressed their citizens, it is not uncommon that citizens not directly subject to said oppression to accept the oppression as a way of life. Javert’s character truly is a representation of this mentality. He is obsessed with following the law to the letter and is unable to think outside of the social constructs of his society.
As he states in the 2012 film adaptation Les Miserables after hearing the mother, Faintne pleads for him not to arrest her for the sake of her daughter ” have heard such protestations, every day for twenty years. Let’s have no more explanations. Save your breath, and save your tears. ” This line not only shows his unwillingness to yield from the law, even when someone pleads for mercy. The rigidness of Javert’s resolve blinds him to the suffering of those around him. This is why Javert is so at odds with Valjean, who is a formal criminal who seeks to reform his life.
Valjean became a criminal because of his circumstances, and after his release he escapes parole and changes his name in an attempt to start over. Valjean being able to rise above his circumstances and change his life for the better goes against everything that Javert believes. In the scene where Javert and Valjean confront one another and Valjean pleads with Javert to give him three days to help a needy child still unyielding he states, “You must think me mad! I’ve hunted you across the years.
Men like you can never change, a man such as you. Javert, much like the society at this time views criminals as criminals no matter what the crime or how long ago it was committed. This class system would never allow for poor and formally criminalized men to improve their quality of life. Furthermore, Valjean being able to grow into a strong individual that puts the betterment of others before himself proves reformation is possible. The character Valjean in this way represents the opinion of Hugo who despite the societal boundaries he was confined in took to a more enlightened way of thinking.
Through the story there is no doubt that Valjean despite his past is not the horrible man Javert makes him out to be. In fact time and time again Valjean proves to be morally superior to his law abiding nemeses. Hugo’s story “Les Miserables” is indeed useful for this very reason. As it challenges the unjust boundaries that society constructs. Though the problems in 19th century Europe are what Hugo is directly challenging, his preface to “Les Miserables” can be applied to other forms of injustice throughout our history.
In particular Hugo’s statement that law and custom can create an artificial Hell on earth can be readily applied to the horrifying acts committed within the Holocaust and through the many years of human slavery. There have been far too many times that society has constructed systems of suffering, two of the most arguably horrid were the persecution of the Jewish people during the holocaust, and the brutal exploitation of the slaves. When looking back on our history it is now difficult to understand how any society could allow for such clear disregard and lack of respect for the lives of fellow human citizens.
And yet there was a time when people were so blinded by the social and government constructs that they, much like the character Javert, were unable to the true injustice that lay right before them. The belief that some people were lesser than others was so strong during that their mistreatment was not viewed as wrong doing. “The truth that stares us coldly in the face, the truth we all wish desperately to ignore, is that the worst horrors of Nazism were not only rationalized, but licensed and fueled by that land’s devotion to an ethics of reason. (Freeman)
And though there were people, as well as whole countries that stood up against the wrong doings of the Nazi Regime, that fact that most people in Germany especially were so warped by the regime cannot be ignored. For a large population of people to somehow believe that the mistreatment of others is somehow acceptable is a disturbing thing. Such disregard for human rights has appeared throughout history, for over two hundred years there was slavery in America.
The mistreatment of African slaves not only existed in our country, but for a long time was socially accepted amongst the majority of people. African slaves were viewed as property, and were not only forced to work but were subject to beatings and other forms of brutality. And though there were those against Slavery, the mass majority remained pro-slavery for far too long. So what is it that causes people to support or ignore the mistreatment of such a large group of people?
Is the simple fact that governments have set up these systems of hate enough to make people believe in it. Hugo’s “Les Miserables” seems to attribute “law and custom” as the catalyst for human wrong doing. And that seems rather apparent in his character of Javert, who hunts down a man for years simply because that is the law. It is impossible to ignore the influence those in power have over the opinions of the masses. However Hugo’s story also shows that despite such influences enlightened minds can and should rise up and try to create change.
Though in “Les Miserables” the destruction of the class system does not come about, one thing does change, and that is Javert’s view of Valjean. Javert’s change of perspective causes him to question everything he has believed in his whole life. In the 2012 rendition of “Les Miserables” right before Javert plummets to his death, he says, “I am reaching but I fall. And the stars are black and cold, as I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold. I’ll escape now from that world; from the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on! ” These final words speak not only to a single characters demise, but to the demise of the class system in 19tyh century France. The system of oppression that Hugo states is “A world that cannot hold” ultimately speaks true. Though these systems of injustice appear again and again throughout history, in the end they all fail. They fail because even though there are those who fall into these systems and become blinded, there will always be others who stand up and fight against them.