I’m teaching Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables this fall. First published to international acclaim in 1862, the novel’s inception actually took place in 1845 under the working title Jean Tréjean, which translator Julie Rose characterizes as “the story of a convict, a poor man persecuted by a system in which justice has been overshadowed by the law.”
Rose’s striking summary of the world of Hugo’s Les Mis could easily fit the struggle of 21st century America as we try to figure out why the dark shadow of injustice continues to grow long over the poor, minorities, and the oppressed.
This scene from the beginning of the novel is meant to characterize Monsieur Myriel, the affable bishop of Digne, and the way justice operated in society:
Monsieur Myriel would also say, “The sins of women and children, domestic servants and the weak, the poor and the ignorant, are the sins of the husbands and fathers, the masters, the strong and the rich and the educated.”
As you can see, he had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things. I suspect he got it from the Gospel.
In someone’s drawing room one day he heard a tale about a criminal case that was about to go to court. Some miserable wretch, for love of a woman and the child he’d had with her, found himself at the end of his rope and had gone in for a bit of counterfeiting. Counterfeiting was still punishable by death in those days.
The woman had been arrested trying to pass the first false coin the man had made. She was held in custody, but they had no proof against the man. She was the only one who could point the finger at her lover and sink him by telling all. She denied his guilt. They put the pressure on, but still she denied his guilt.
At that point, the public prosecutor had a bright idea. He told her that her lover had been unfaithful and he managed to cobble together fragments of letters and so persuade the poor woman that she had a rival and that the man was betraying her behind her back. She was immediately overcome by a fit of jealousy and swiftly denounced her lover, admitted everything, offered proof.
When the tale was told, everyone there was in raptures over the cunning of the prosecuting magistrate. By bringing jealousy into play, he had provoked the woman’s rage and the truth had shot out of her; he had brought about justice by sparking revenge.
The bishop listened to all this in silence. When they were finished marveling, he had a question.
“Where are the man and woman to be tried?”
“In the circuit court.”
“And where is the public prosecutor to be tried?”pp. 13-14