We must suffer through Lent. This expression, “to suffer through Lent,” does not begrudge the season, but describes how it is fruitful in its ardor. Joy comes after the pains of childbirth; the trial of the desert precedes the happiness of the wedding feast. As Christ truly did suffer, so Lent truly is suffered. The yearly season of Lent is mandated by God’s Providence upon the faithful so that they may, through mortifications and meditation, consider the sufferings and penance of Christ’s life. As with every year, Catholics will read and hear many novel thoughts and pithy phrases concerning suffering, penance, and Providence. However, within the works of literary history, some lessons remain overlooked.
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is one such work: one which reveals the Providential hand of God in suffering and the right attitude toward that suffering. For Hugo’s characters, penance is more than a forty-day gesture of bland food; penance is rather a foundational experience leading to life and wisdom—a necessary step for the formation of character and the purification of soul. In Jean Valjean and Marius, we encounter suffering not only as salutary and penitential, but also as assigned by Providence and therefore purposeful. A discerning reader may suffer through Lent with Jean and Marius’ stories in mind, finding deeper purpose for the season.
To begin, penance has two identifiable manifestations, or two acts expressing the same interior movement: mortification, the willful renunciation of some activity for the sake of a spiritual good; and acquiescence, the willing endurance of the sufferings imposed by Providence. The first is wholly voluntary and is guided by Charity and Prudence; the second is only voluntary for suffering willingly what one suffers and is guided by the hand of God. The first is commonly understood of penance, the second is commonly overlooked. Of this second kind, St. Francis de Sales writes, “Among all the efforts of perfect love, that effort made by acquiescence of spirit in spiritual tribulations is undoubtedly the purest and noblest.” What is more pure and noble than mortification is that one acquiesces to sufferings not of one’s own will, but of God’s. The author here treats of Hugo’s writings as it illustrates this acquiescence.
Nearly every major character in Les Misérables has ample opportunity for the penance of acquiescence. A cursory review of Fantine, for instance, shows Hugo’s primary interest in suffering as an instrument of Providence. The reader sees in Fantine a Job-like archetype. As the Old Testament figure, Fantine is portrayed as a guiltless person. Aside from fornication, a grievous sin in its own right, she has done nothing to rightly deserve her sufferings, (especially when compared with other, more obviously vicious characters in the novel) and Hugo describes her as relatively pure and guileless. She falls into destitution, prostitution, and untimely death by no commensurate fault of her own. Similar sufferings, echoing the moral predicament of Job, are written of Jean, Marius, Cosette, and others. Hugo, through this recurring archetype, forcefully raises this question—how ought one respond to senseless and undeserved suffering? In Jean Valjean and Marius Pontmercy, Hugo most lucidly distinguishes between the right and wrong response: the first response is malice, the second is penance.
We have first the prisoner, the hated and deplored convict, or the pariah. Jean Valjean suffers pre-twentieth-century imprisonment. That is to say, by today’s standard, Jean Valjean suffers a terrible, unconscionable kind of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. He responds to this injustice by turning to hatred: “[He] had entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering: he went out hardened; he entered in despair: he went out sullen.” These contrasting states—from sorrow to hardness; from despair to a fixed, grave disposition—represents humanity’s frequent decision to reject what is good when faced with tribulation. Jean Valjean chooses something less than human—something cold, insensitive, unfeeling, and abrasive. The trial of imprisonment produces the despicable personage expected of a prisoner. Valjean, along with Milton’s Satan and Frankenstein’s monster, chooses to make evil his good.
Hugo then provides, as an instrument of Providence, redemption for Jean Valjean through the Bishop Bienvenu. Bienvenu coaxes the ex-convict into spiritual conversion through his mercy: “[Jean] felt dimly that the pardon of this priest was the hardest assault […] that, this time, he must conquer or be conquered, and that the struggle, a gigantic and decisive struggle, had begun between his own wickedness, and the goodness of [Bienvenu].” The hardness and sullenness of Jean’s chosen disposition are faced with the generosity and kindness of a counterexample, one who forces an ultimatum into view: either succumb to charity or remain obstinate; be turned again to goodness or be lost to evil. Jean Valjean relents. As St. Peter after denying Christ, Valjean “wept long. He shed hot tears, he wept bitterly.” Les Misérables offers no conflicting story-arch, no counter-thesis, suggesting that Hugo believed such spiritual conversion the only means of repairing malice: though Valjean responded wrongly to his imprisonment, his rejection of goodness becomes the basis for conversion.
Hugo’s understanding of this nexus between Providence and suffering completes itself at this point: without imprisonment, Jean Valjean would never have become villainous; without becoming a villain, he never would have met Bienvenu; without Bienvenu, Jean Valjean would never have become a hero. “We cannot doubt,” writes Bl. Claude de la Colombiere on the topic of Providence, “that all the misfortunes God sends us have a very useful purpose.” The Providential of design of the convict’s internment and conversion continually emerge: his solitary strength brings him prosperity, and his prosperity is a debt to the charity of a Bishop. This charity becomes the model for Valjean, who lives as a fugitive and adopts an orphan for selfless reasons. The suffering Jean Valjean endures finds its purpose in the beauty of conversion, the beauty of self-sacrifice, and, through Cosette, the beauty of a happy marriage. It is evident that the reader is meant to see his blessings as rooted in his trials.
Marius, by contrast, responds to his sufferings with the act of penitential acquiescence. Rejected by his Grandfather for sympathizing with his Bonapartist father, the young Marius refuses financial support on principle. He eventually, through glorious nineteenth-century effort applied to sufficient nineteenth-century opportunity, procures a living wage translating books and passes the bar. This subsequent rise to maturity and its corresponding fruits were achieved only though suffering. Marius, isolated and without means, “faced this wonderful and terrible trial, from which the feeble come out infamous, from which the strong come out sublime. Crucible into which destiny casts a man whenever she desires a scoundrel or a demi-god.” Unlike the hardened response of Valjean, Marius faces suffering as a crucible, as an ultimate test of character, and as a willing subject. Marius responds to his suffering as a good man should: “as with all good hearts, suffering had taken away his bitterness […] an eye which could have looked into Marius’ soul would have been dazzled by its purity[.]” Unlike Jean Valjean in prison, Marius embraces his Cross which bears the fruit of purity.
In accord with Hugo’s depiction, St. Francis de Sales explains that, “love of the Cross makes us undertake voluntary afflictions.” As such, Marius spurns money sent from his relatives, embracing the opportunity to suffer rather than fleeing. The Doctor of the Universal Church continues, “the love found in such exercises [of mortification] is completely agreeable to [God]. It is still more so when we patiently, gently, and contentedly accept pains, torments, and tribulations in consideration of God’s will, which sends them to us.” The good heart of Marius is a heart which contentedly accepts its tribulation with God’s Providential will in mind. Had Marius accepted assistance from his relatives, his conscience would have accused him of a moral fault. His heart acquiesces to the delicate circumstances of propriety and conscience in a politically divided France. His heart suffers willingly unto purity. Marius reveals both how to suffer nobly and, for those who are overburdened this Lent, how to suffer with purpose.
The unconvinced may reply that Marius and Jean Valjean suffer and suffer well, but they do not suffer in a notably Catholic manner. After all, neither characters are regular church-goers and neither profess the Nicene Creed. Although it is reasonable to conclude that Hugo had ample education in the Catholic faith, being raised a Catholic, there is no small amount of controversy surrounding his religious ideas. Hugo himself died as a lapsed-Catholic, and Les Misérables was banned by the Catholic Church from 1864 to 1959. To what extent, then, can we derive this Catholic vision of penance from a work that is, on its surface, only culturally Catholic?
It is evident that Hugo was not opposed to all of the spiritual teachings of the Church. For him, the corrupted Church hierarchy eclipsed the good of dogma, as the Cardinal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yet the sanctity of Bishop Bienvenu suggests that there was not, in Hugo’s mind, a definitive connection between Catholic hierarchy and corruption. It seems, rather, that the ideas behind his novels principally opposed any assumed spiritual or social superiority on the part of clerics. Hence, in the beginning of Les Misérables, Bienvenu asks a blessing of a Revolutionary hero. Whether Hugo intended to show that sanctity was not reserved for clerics or that the French Revolution was of divine origin, the reversal of the hierarchical relation between priest and laity is intentional—it is also capable of scandalizing. The Church, however, repealed the ban on the book for its rich, moral content. Today, those who read Les Misérables with a discerning mind can find many orthodox Catholic ideas embedded in the narrative.
The leitmotifs of Grace and Providence, for instance, two perennial theological concepts of the Catholic tradition, recur throughout Les Misérables; but, ever one to complicate the issue, the individual response of Hugo’s characters is equally emphasized. This may be a glimpse into Hugo’s perspective on where God and freedom intersect, or perhaps Hugo was deterministic. Perhaps he believed that Marius was simply superior, that his virtue was an inborn nobility of soul. Does Marius prevail over his sufferings because of an innate, good heart? Or is Jean Valjean’s heart equally good, and only corrupted by internment? It is difficult to determine whether for Hugo grace builds on nature or nature merits grace; the first is wholly Thomistic, the second is heretical. Is Les Misérables, then, an example of Pelagianism, a sort of works-based theology permanently removed from any possible Catholic interpretation?
Emphatically not. As a standalone work of literature, the dichotomy portrayed in Les Misérables’ protagonists exemplifies a succinct principle found in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas: “bonum morale praecipue consistit in conversione ad Deum, malum autem morale in aversione a Deo,” (Moral good consists principally in conversion to God, moral evil, in aversion to God). The suffering Jean Valjean turns from goodness, and therefore from God, when confronted with his chains; the suffering Marius turns toward righteous living, and therefore toward God, when confronted with his poverty. It is also clear that Jean Valjean is laudable only for adhering to the model of Charity embodied in Bienvenu. These attitudes in themselves pose no contradiction to orthodox Catholic theology. Whether Hugo believed these characters were naturally better or supernaturally predestined is a secondary distinction when addressing the Catholic principle clearly evident in the work itself. Like every great work of literature, the beliefs of the author are secondary to the representation of life; not because these beliefs are irrelevant to the author’s creative process, but because because the author, seeking to portray something beautiful and true, is often caught in the precarious situation of his or her creation conveying what he or she never explicitly intends. For comparison, once only need to read Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc or view the Divine Mercy image, each made by a non-Catholic, to observe that the truthfulness of the representation does not depend on the beliefs of the artist.
Additionally, Hugo’s imagination is rife with the moral ideals of the Church: the voluntarily poor Bishop who does not withhold his tunic from the prisoner; the persecuted prisoner who shows mercy to the prostitute; the daughter of fornication who is raised in a convent; the young Marius who discovers that his hated father, a former colonel in Bonaparte’s army, would sit in the back of Saint Sulpice, much like the publican beating his chest, to watch Marius and pray for him—these images and figures, conscious or otherwise, are indicative that the precepts of Christendom and the potential goodness of a hierarchical Church were more than acknowledged by Hugo, but were directly informative of his plots and characters. Thus, if we maintain Hugo was a heretic, we might at least suppose he was a bad one, a heretic who still held to many of the moral teachings of the Church he had abandoned—or perhaps the imagination is slower to apostatize than the intellect.
A more accurate account of Victor Hugo’s theology requires additional investigation; for this author’s purpose, it is sufficient to demonstrate that a careful reading of Les Misérables can deepen the call to penance in 2021. Penance is, as ratified by the Catholic writers above, perfected in the act of acquiescence. Far from the dismissive counsel that the poor and suffering on earth “offer it up,” Hugo plunges into the mystery and agony of suffering. His characters reveal that acquiescing to Providence is the choice of the one suffering and that God renders more than recompense for our pains. Rather than pontificating that Jean Valjean ought to have suffered like Marius in thoughtless sentimentality, Hugo reiterates that the good of Valjean depends upon the good of Bishop Bienvenu, and that the good of Marius depends on the good of his deceased father. Understood in this light, a light that turns neither from compassion nor from moral responsibility, Les Misérables offers a coherent and comprehensive supplement to the writings of the Church on penance, one recounted in its brutal and merciless elements lest Catholics forget that suffering is often brutal and merciless. We must suffer through Lent as Marius. We must suffer through Lent with the hope of ending up like Jean Valjean. We must suffer through Lent as many suffer through the whole of life. Then, armed with the wisdom contained in Hugo and the Saints, this suffering may bear its fruit, if only we accept it as from God and acquiesce to its purpose.
C. W. Claypool is an amateur writer from Maryland. He has an M.A. in Philosophical Studies from Mount Saint Mary’s University and a B.Sc. in English Literature from Towson University. He is currently living, working, and writing in rural Maryland while studying and pursuing a professional career.