Note: This is not intended to be an in-depth analysis, literature essay, or anything professional/academic/etc. These are just my overall impressions and random musings of the book. Enjoy!
Sometimes Cosette seems a bit … naive, overly-innocent. Too sheltered, I’ve heard people say, just as they’ve said about me. Doesn’t really know anything about the real world. But I wonder: Is that such a bad thing? Why does our culture mock innocence? Hugo’s clear emphasis and praise of Cosette’s purity and simplicity could teach us a much-needed lesson. Instead of criticizing her, we ought to honor her, for she portrays many values that our culture has lost, and not to our benefit.
Speaking of Cosette, Hugo did not fail with her, as I’ve heard some people criticize. They say she isn’t as complex as many of his other characters. Some attribute this to a need for a love interest for Marius or simply the pressure on Hugo to create a Lucie Darnay — a culturally acceptable female figure, demure and docile. But I disagree. Through Cosette’s so-called simplicity, Hugo wanted to 1) create the starkest contrast possible between Fantine and Cosette, and 2) flesh out and complete Valjean’s transformation.
Picture them, mother and daughter: Fantine — worldly, tarnished — and Cosette — sheltered, pure. Interestingly, both started out the same: sweet, virgin, naive. Yet Fantine became the tainted, broken factory worker who looked the messy world full on its face, while Cosette remained innocent, separate, and blessed. And why was there such a difference? What — or more accurately, who — caused it? The answer brings us to the second reason: Jean Valjean. Hugo creates a masterful paradox, for as rich, influential, adored mayor, Valjean could not save Fantine, but as lowly, unknown, hiding Fauchevelant, he rescued Cosette.
You see, Cosette’s innocence is all the more beautiful as we witness the beauty of Valjean’s care for her and transformed selflessness. Her purity is all the sweeter as we view the bitterness of Fantine’s seduced, demolished life. Taken by herself, Cosette may be a bit flat, less complex as other Hugonian — if that isn’t a word, it should be — characters. But when we view her in context, flanked on one side by the redeemed felon, Valjean, and on the other by the broken beauty, Fantine, Cosette becomes a lovely, intriguing, three-dimensional person.
And the bishop. More specifically, his backstory. One of the most common complaints I’ve read about Les Mis is that his prelude is much too long. They say it’s tedious and unnecessary, for he has one short part to play, and then he is gone. His story is not really needed, right?
Wrong. His “one short part” influences the entire novel. His face is seen only in the first book, but his heart permeates all one-thousand-plus pages. Cosette would have lived in drudgery, Marius would have existed purposeless and poor, Javert would never have witnessed real mercy, and Valjean would have continued down his hopeless road were it not for the bishop. It is completely appropriate to spend time on the man who affects the novel unlike any other character.
Moreover, it is important to know why he acted as he did, a reason which we discover in his backstory of piety, kindness, and selflessness. Read the bishop’s history and ponder: Do I live such a life that all will note God’s righteousness through me? And above all: Am I living in such a way that I too could so greatly influence so many lives, my one faithful act starting the avalanche of redemption for so many others?
Lastly: mercy. The fundamental difference between the two great opposing characters, Valjean and Javert, is no more clearly seen than in this area. You see, their true hearts and attitudes can be seen in how they reacted to mercy. Valjean let it transform him. He humbly accepted it and let its healing rays pierce his dark heart to shine out through him into the lives of many others. Javert, on the other hand, could not accept it, could not bend his pride of being the “law”, could not admit that he needed it. He closed himself to mercy, and in the end, it killed him. As you close Hugo’s book, weighing heavy on your lap, let this question weigh heavy on your heart: How do I respond to mercy? And how does it live out in me?