So, this guy tries to steal a loaf of bread, one lousy loaf. Gets caught. No public defender. Convicted. Serves 19 years as a galley slave. Hates the world. But a hundred and some years later, this convict becomes the male lead (top billing) in full-length feature film dramas (1934, 1935, 1952, 1958, 1982, and 1998), a 1952 TV movie, a TV miniseries in 2000, and a pretty good 1995 cinematic knock-off. Then there’s the long-running Broadway musical. A musical! You gotta be kidding, right?
Translate the above skepticism into argot that is typical in most American prisons today, and you would have the flavor of the response I got from my inmate-students when I ventured the possibility of having those in my in-prison English Composition class take on “Les Miserables.” What was I thinking?
Well, with the blockbuster 2012 version mounting publicity barricades to fend off assaults (in the awards wars) from a Civil War epic, a secret military mission into Pakistan, and an Iran hostage rescue, my thoughts turned to the Victor Hugo classic (first published in 1862). I wish I had tried to get Jean Valjean into a pair of Connecticut and New York prisons.
Department of Corrections officials are the turnkeys as to curriculum entries. Would they have obliged? The novel is at core a story of redemption and purification, with a few bits of recidivism and full doses of deception-and-evasion to heighten the drama.
Assuming a DOC official looked into the text – actually started to read the novel – would that official have been put off by Victor Hugo’s 1862 preface, which speaks of the “social condemnation” which “artificially creates hells on earth”?
Inmate-students would surely identify with the wretched fellow (“an apparition of ill omen") released from prison galleys after 19 years, who bears the looks of fear and distrust from righteous townspeople; who seeks a meager meal and base lodging only to be turned away again and again; who is so desperate that he seeks lodging in a prison only to be turned away there, too; who, at the age of 25 and unemployed, had turned to stealing (small-time, to be sure) in a desperate effort to feed his widowed sister and her seven children, and who “entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering” and went out, 19 years later, “hardened.”
How ready are DOC officials, corrections officers, parole officers, and pardons commissioners to take cognizance of the “Ignominy that thirsts for respect”? Maybe they are quite right in being wary and suspicious, for how many Jean Valjeans are there among the two million incarcerated in U. S. prisons? Heck, how many Jean Valjeans are there in society at large?
In the galleys, Valjean “had constituted himself an inner tribunal” and “began by arraigning himself.” He blamed himself for not having the patience to wait for work or pity, and for imagining that he could “escape from misery by theft.” His (well, probably, Victor Hugo’s) verdict on life’s turns: “Theft is a bad door for getting out of misery,” for it’s the portal by which one “enters into infamy.” Inmates could identify. DOC would approve.
However, reading on, Hugo delivers a verdict against “savage and excessive punishment” which amounts to an “abuse” by penalty of law that was disproportionate to the crime of the guilty. I can hear a chorus of approval from inmates and imagine frowns of disapproval from the DOC. And yet, could the DOC argue with a convict’s conscience-directed rehabilitation? After all, Jean Valjean did not have the thief gene.
What makes Valjean so interesting is his transformation. Rightly, he felt oppressed, humiliated and despised: “If a millet seed under a millstone had thoughts, doubtless it would think what Valjean thought.” His hatred consumed him and encompassed everyone, not just the law that had condemned and punished him. My God, what if he had had a Glock?
He “condemned society and sentenced it to his hatred... He had no weapon but his hate... a desire to injure.” On his release, Valjean would have been rightly labeled dangerous and vengeful. Thank goodness he didn’t have a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle with several high-capacity magazines.
What Valjean did have was the good fortune, serendipity, or whatever, to steal silver plates from Monseigneur Bienvenu, “whose days were full to the brim with good thoughts, good words, and good actions.” This bishop “buys” Valjean’s soul by lying to law enforcement: claiming that he had given the parish silver house plates to Valjean.
The DOC would rightly, and readily, point out that very few inmates have the good fortune, serendipity or whatever, to have their hatred “checked in its growth by some providential event.”
Okay, right, but I wish I had championed the reading of “Les Miserables” because – 150 years ago – through the telling of Valjean’s life journey (yeah, cliché, I know), Victor Hugo provided a perpetual annuity of providential events and a call for clemency.
That would have been my reply brief to the DOC. But I never made the case to begin with.
There were pedagogic considerations, of a sort: Yes, for sure, I would have been on a mission of virtue worthy of Monseigneur Bienvenu and Father Madeleine if I had poked and picked through tables of paperbacks at public library book sales in search of gently-read copies of the novel. But even if the used-book-buyers’ providence had shined on me and I acquired three dozen copies (for a grand outlay south of sixty dollars), there was a hitch. The inmate students would be reading an assortment of translations and a variety of editions. While we might struggle to line up our own abridgements, to come together by meticulously correlating to book chapter headings, that would have taken some time, and added some difficulty to an undertaking that loomed at 500 pages or thereabouts.
Still, most of the inmate-students who qualified to take courses (for community college credit) would have been disposed to taking themselves out of their cinderblock for a few hours a day, to put themselves in France, in 1795, when Valjean bungled his bread burglary and was first packed off to the galleys.
Most of the inmates who qualified to take my Composition and Lit courses were motivated to get away from the prison tedium for a few hours a week and be transported for still more hours of reading that took them out of the cells mentally, and sometimes psychologically and even spiritually. They have more time than the typical college student – no clubs or frats (well, none that prison officials would countenance), no extracurriculars (that corrections officers were aware of), no highway traffic jams and jammed student parking lots, and no road trips (other than for a mandatory court appearance, a funeral of a close family member, or a medical matter so serious it could not be dealt with inside).
Many of those inmate-students made better use of their time than many of my community college students on the outside. Most read with relish the few books I managed to scrounge and get approved for entry. They would have related readily to Jean Valjean: Many would relate to his desperation, prodigious strength, failure to mount an effective defense, resentments of the shackle and chain, identity as a number (prisoner 24601and later 9430), discomfiture on re-entry, attempts to assume and preserve a new identity, apprehensions about his past (and a pursuer) catching up to him, nemeses and opportunistic informers, escape mindset, strategies for absorbing disdain and ostracism, overriding concern for the child he is determined to protect, and struggles with conscience.
One inmate, who was a mainstay of the group that stayed after class until “final count,” asked what it was like for “this Valjean dude” to be on the run.
If I had had my wits about me, I would have said (as Victor Hugo did), that Jean Valjean was “like all those joyless fugitives who endeavor to throw off the track, the spy of the law, and social fatality, by pursuing an obscure and undulating itinerary.”
Asked about his conflicts, I would have tried to recall this: “He might be said to carry two knapsacks: In one he had the thoughts of a saint. In the other, the formidable talents of a convict. And he helped himself from one or the other as the occasion required.”
Asked what Valjean would do if released from the prison where we were standing, my reply was something along these lines: He would start a manufacturing business and be the kind of factory owner who would employ ex-cons. He would buy books to stock the prison library. He’d fund vocational classes and re-entry counseling, and anger management. He’d provide seed money for entrepreneurial efforts that would stabilize a neighborhood. He’d fund after-school programs, youth leagues, and vocational training programs. He’d probably channel bail money to those who had been wrongly accused and pay for appellate counsel for those unfairly prosecuted.
With the advent of the new “Les Miserables” my thoughts again turned to the possibility of promoting the novel. I would be tempted to pass over chapters in which Jean Valjean does not figure prominently. A literary trangression? I would think about making references to several of those “imprisoned” by Dickens: Abel Magwitch (“Great Expectations”) and Arthur Clennam (“Little Dorrit”). Literary conceits?
Assuming DOC readers might actually work their way through “Les Miserables,” the politics and Valjean’s abandoning the “law and order” legions for the rebels’ barricade might do in any proposal.
My pitches to the DOC spoke of individual responsibility and rectitude. My reading lists include stories of reprehensible conduct duly punished and admirable conduct duly rewarded (in the end, anyway).
Once past the alarms set off by the title, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was usually a “go.” On the other hand, “Birdman of Alcatraz” would never fly. Robert Stroud, murderer turned ornithologist, had a mean and violent streak: imprisoned for taking one life, he took another while in prison.
Yeah, Valjean’s story was one to promote. A hero who does not act out of heroism, but out of a desire to do good and a sense of duty, has a lot of appeal. In the early chapters, we learn about his path to theft and chains, and then as the story unfolds, there are five high-risk rescues: the children from a house ablaze; the fellow being crushed under his heavily-load cart; the man wrongly mistaken for and prosecuted as the recidivist Valjean, who is spared “the living burial of the prison galleys” by Valjean’s in-court absolutions; the topman dangling high above a ship’s deck and the harbor’s cold waters, “oscillating like a stone in a sling”; and the wounded young insurrectionist carried from the barricades to safety via the sewers of Paris.
Few inmates speak of New Year’s resolutions. Their calendars count time served and days until their parole hearing. Their calendars mark a court date for a possible rehearing or an appeal – or a visit from the person they’ve been distanced from. They count the days until release, but “freedom does not liberate them from condemnation and shunning.”
They may not be hunted and haunted by a Javert (who Valjean could have shot but spares). Yet, they are – perhaps quite justifiably in some (many?) cases – condemned to the stigma of having been a convict.
Yeah, re-entry is no picnic, no walk in the park. Still, Victor Hugo’s observations might be worth lingering over: He likened remorse to a tide that returns to man’s shore (conscience) again and again: an upheaval of the soul. Valjean no longer has a taste for hate. He tastes “the bitter flavor of a wicked thought” and “spits it out with disgust.”
Maybe, just maybe, in some prison there’s “a white-hair” who, like Jean Valjean, will discover the alchemy of turning hate into service – with help (considerable help, to be sure) of Providence.
Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996. In additional to his work in prisons and at community colleges, he teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.