On Les Misérables: Jean Valjean


I watched the musical and sang his lines in an NYUAD open-mic performance, but Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo’s imaginary character in his magnum opus Les Miserables, did not strike me as an exceptional fictional character until a few weeks ago. I was in a night train trip to Harbin from Beijing. I could not sleep, so I decided to sneak out of the compartment I was in with Hugo’s book in my hand. I sat on the train’s floor, accompanied by the dim lights radiated by the small towns our train occasionally passed through in a frosty winter night. I started reading. While Hugo curated all of his characters with an undoubtedly high degree of literary finesse, it was Valjean’s actions and musings that forced me not to sleep throughout the 12-hour journey.

Valjean is altruistic—‘blindly’ altruistic. (Note that I put the adverb blindly between two apostrophes to clarify that I’m not using the word ‘blind’ to deride Valjean’s character). He aids those in need without preliminarily assessing the ‘worthiness’ of giving money to them and tracing the factors that contributed to their penury. Valjean does not care whether his potential beneficiary is poor as a result of his/her unlucky, or possibly, morally unacceptable personal choices. Nor does he care about what Valjean’s potential beneficiary will use his donation for. Contrast his actions with most donators in the 21st century: a wealthy donator would seek assurance that s/he gives capital to the right people and that the capital s/he donates will be utilized accordingly. In the study of economics, such an action is called screening, performed to suppress the emergence of adverse selection in the ‘market’ of donations.

It does not follow, however, that being blindly altruistic is bad or irrational. After all, not everybody perceives that economic concepts can be extrapolated to the notion of altruism. Valjean is among one of these people. Hugo does not explicitly delineate the motives behind Valjean being altruistic, but I am convinced that his altruism is partially bolstered by his conviction that one can become a better person as s/he realizes his value or moral worth in front of his/her benefactor, God, or society. How could Valjean reach this conviction? The answer to this question might be that Valjean was once also poor, and he was aided despite his malevolent intentions to do things that are morally impermissible. There is a scene in which Valjean was caught stealing silverwares from a chapel by the national guards. When the guards dragged Valjean to the church, and reported the robbery to the bishop, the bishop lied to the guards and said that the silverwares were not stolen; they were gifts from the church to Valjean. Valjean was startled by this occasion. Unable to comprehend the bishop’s action, he resorted to praying and inquiring about the illogicalities he encountered. His contemplations rendered him resolute that he should escape from his world of crime. He started a brand new world the day after and became an altruistic, wealthy mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer revered by his people. Here, readers of Les Miserables would learn that although an economic approach to altruism is rationally appealing, it is not a perfect basis for aiding those in need. In Jean Valjean’s case, the philosophy behind helping other can also be pivoted upon faith—be it faith in the beneficiary, in God, or in other relevant media. Learning from Valjean’s fictitious journey, I believe that the acquisition of such faith should not be imposed upon; rather, it should be attained through self-revelation.

Valjean’s disposition not to segregate his beneficiaries is not fully correct, however. He does treat people with whom he is closely affiliated differently; his profound affection for Cosette makes Cosette the apple of his eyes. Musicals or movies adapted from books often unintentionally misrepresent the true character of the actors, but this is not true for Valjean in Les Miserablés. As depicted in Tom Hooper’s motion picture, Valjean caressed Cosette, fell in love with her the first night he met her in the woods where she was carrying a pail of the Thénardiers. (A Golden Globe-nominated soundtrack, ‘Suddenly,’ perfectly illustrates this particular scene). At first I was pessimistic. I initially thought that his love is superficial and unnatural, as he does it simply to repay his indebtedness and promise to Fantine, Cosette’s mother. But throughout the book, his love for Cosette never withers. In fact, it develops as Cosette grows into a prepossessing young lady.  He would do anything for Cosette, be it carrying a ‘dead’ corpse of her lover, Marius, whom Valjean himself initially detested, within the gloomy sewers of Paris or not spending hundred thousands of francs for Cosette and Marius to inherit after her marriage. His royal treatment of Cosette displays that Cosette’s happiness is transferable to his happiness; that whatever pleases Cosette pleases him. His actions to maximize Cosette’s utility might entail sacrificing himself and exposing himself to extreme risk, which means that Valjean values Cosette more than himself. He values Cosette more than anybody else living in Hugo’s Parisian realm. If we juxtapose this with the previous discussion, where Valjean helps the poor but in the same time provides Cosette with more resources, we found that Valjean acknowledges the equal moral worth of human beings but in the same time, believes that he should not have an equal moral concern for every individual. While he respects every human being, he chooses to be more concerned of Cosette than of himself and of other people. Not all fathers in our world have this characteristic that I think is morally permissible and commendable.

One last admirable characteristic of Valjean: he respects the traditional just cause for murdering, which is self-defense. He refuses to kill under the name of redemption; he refrains from pulling the trigger of his gun under an indirect threat. Those are not his just causes for killing human beings. He adheres to this philosophy even when he is faced with the perfect opportunity to kill—when Javert, his adversary demands to be killed. This, I believe, is an extraordinary display of chivalry.