WASHINGTON — Following the “Les Miserables” incident on Christmas Day, I suspect I will never convince my teenage sons to attend a movie with me again. At various moments of high emotion — and there are few other kinds in a movie — their father was a sobbing, embarrassing mess. And I agree with them that weeping for the imaginary suffering of fictional characters played by highly paid actors requires explanation.
I could blame biology. There is a neurochemical basis for empathy. People who view a hand being touched respond with the same sensory portion of their brain as if they had been touched themselves. Humans have an extraordinary talent for feeling the distress expressed in other faces — particularly when Anne Hathaway's gaunt, anguished face is two stories high, crying tears that could fill a baby pool. Hormones spike, unable to distinguish between real and imagined images. The lacrimal system produces and drains tears. Charles Darwin, that old sentimentalist, said, weeping is “an incidental result, as purposeless as the secretion of tears from a blow outside the eye.”
But this is not quite true. Emotional tears, it turns out, have a different chemical composition from the tears that moisten our eyes. And empathetic tears, so far as we know, are not expressed by any other species. Showing vulnerability appears to serve the evolutionary purpose of building communities of cooperation and mutual support. We would help poor Fantine if we possibly could.
People have been attracted to Victor Hugo's “Les Miserables” for more than 150 years. At 1,400 pages of suffering, vulgarity, pity, fury, revolution, worship and self-sacrifice, comprehensive is the right adjective. Other great romantics reveled in nihilism. Hugo gave the brief for life.
Part of Hugo's message of empathy was political, calling attention to people — especially poor women and orphans — who seemed “as though they were on a planet much further from the sun than we.” When Hugo took in refugees from the Paris Commune of 1871, a conservative mob besieged his house chanting, “Death to Jean Valjean!” That is the reality a fictional character can assume.
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