Monday, May 16, 2011

Rescue and Redemption

The novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is one of the most stunning works of literature known to man. Hugo traces the journey of an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, and his life's journey. Many themes are traced throughout the story, however, the theme of "rescue and redemption" is one of the most prominent and credited for shaping the protagonist's character.

Valjean is sent to prison after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her starving family. His original sentence seems bearable, but after many failed escape attempts, he spends nineteen years behind bars. Finally, when his sentence is up, he is let out under certain conditions and under the watchful eye of the police detective, Javert. Valjean stumbles across the loving and Christ-like Bishop Myriel who takes him in and feeds him.

This is where the theme begins to take place. Valjean, a criminal at heart, attempts to steal the bishop's silver plates. The bishop, upon catching Valjean in the act, responds in a curious way. Rather than calling the police and sending Valjean back to prison, he stops the criminal and tells him to take the silver candlesticks as well. Valjean has never been shown this kind of loving kindness before and Bishop Myriel's one act begins a chain reaction of events that causes Valjean to change.

The convict turns his life around. He saves several characters' lives, takes a young girl under his wing, and confesses to being the real Jean Valjean when another man is accused of his crimes. The man, Champmathieu, is caught bringing a branch of apples home to his family and is accused of stealing them. Javert, after putting several clues together, declares Champmathieu to be Jean Valjean in disguise. He believes that Champmathieu changed his name to avoid going back to prison.

Valjean is told of this mistake and must make a decision. He debates with himself whether to give himself up and do the right thing or simply let Champmathieu take the fall for crimes he never committed. Finally though, he decides to do the right thing. He arrives at the courtroom during the trial and confesses to being Jean Valjean and having violated his parole (he had stolen a coin from a young boy, which sentenced him to return to prison). He explains that Champmathieu is an honest man and that he is innocent. Valjean then leaves the courtroom and waits outside, accepting of his fate.

He has returned the favor that the bishop showed to him. He had been rescued and redeemed in the past and now he passes that on to another. We do not here what happens to Champmathieu after the incident in the court but it is safe to assume that the actions of Valjean have made a very positive influence on his life. Perhaps he even turned around and showed rescue and redemption to another.

Because the bishop rescues Valjean from his past and redeems him for his future, the thief begins to change. He turns his life completely around and even managed to discover God in the process. Though it took many years and many trials, he is a very different person at the end of the book than he is at the beginning. And though no one held much hope for Valjean, he is finally changed for the better.

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