But the main purpose of “Les Miserables,” says the writer Mario Vargas Llosa, is “to demonstrate the existence of a transcendent life, of which life on earth is a mere transient part.” Hugo himself was not an orthodox anything, much less an Orthodox Christian. But his great book is a vivid description of the workings of grace.
Valjean begins a hardened prisoner. He is shown mercy and learns to show it. He is hunted through a series of resurrections — emerging from a live burial, from the sewers of Paris. His nemesis is broken by his moral certitude. Valjean is saved by his sacrifices. He learns to love by raising a daughter, and then the far reaches of love by giving her away. The ending is not particularly happy. Handing over his child to the future also leaves the protagonist broken. In the end, he has surrendered everything he possessed except God. But that is enough.
There is a reason the great stories persist in provoking our lacrimal system: the hope that life is a story, that all the suffering, vulgarity, pity and sacrifice add up to something and lead somewhere.
So perhaps my sons will someday understand there is much to learn from imagined lives about being human. From Hugo and others, they may gain some skepticism about skepticism. They may even eventually discover why it is difficult for a father to contemplate giving up his children to the future, in the long, natural sacrifice of the best things about us. And I hope they will find, as Valjean does in the end, that “there is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.” Which is worth a few tears.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP