Two Responses to Love

Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables was published in 1862. The title is French for “The Miserable Ones.” It stands, alongside his earlier work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as the crowning achievement of his literary career. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for stealing some bread. The prison system breaks his spirit to desperation; eventually his determination breaks through and he, for a time, escapes the clutches of the law. But at the same time, he does not change from his thieving ways. That is, until, a bishop saves him from a predicament.

The law believes they have captured a potential thief. They find Valjean with some silver that he stole from a bishop’s house. When the bishop discovers Jean at the hands of the law, he tells the police that he lent Jean the silver. Though this is a lie in strictly moral terms, it saves Jean from being sent back to prison. The bishop solemnly admonishes the peasant: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I’m buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts, and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” By giving Valjean another chance at life, he charges him to live a holier life, one dedicated to love. And from that moment on, that is exactly how Valjean lives his life.

After becoming a mayor in a French town, Jean lives a morally upright and self-sacrificing life. He puts himself in the way of the gun when another is accused of being Valjean the escaped convict. Though he goes back to prison for a while, he eventually becomes the tracked hound once more. He promises a prostitute, Fantine, that he will take care of her only daughter, Cosette. A decent portion of the 1,463 page work is about his loving and painful relationship with his adopted daughter. Valjean goes through great lengths to care for her. The bishop’s pardon has paved the way for the rest of his life; his dying words at the end of the story are that we should all love one another, for there is hardly anything in the world greater than that.

However, another character in the book reacts to charity in a much different way: the police chief, Javert. Javert spends most of the book tracking down Valjean, wanting to send the convict back to prison. Javert believes in his position as an officer with all zeal. Justice, that criminals be punished for their crimes, is the most important aspect of his life. He gets into a desperate situation though, when a rebellion happens in the streets of Paris and he is held hostage by a group of political rebels. Jean Valjean rescues Javert from sudden death, as well as Cosette’s lover, Marius. When he brings Marius to safety, Javert ends up facing his rival once more.

Then, something unexpected, stunning, and anticlimactic happens: Javert lets Valjean go free and never chases him again. Valjean’s kindness to him has deeply affected his personal psyche and values. Maybe, just maybe, punishment by the law is not the only force for good in the world. His mind reeling, Javert goes through a desperate moral dilemna, one that drives him to a negative insanity. He views Valjean’s love as an evil that derails his mind from what he appreciates in the world: “How could it be? The chink in society’s armor could be found by a magnanimous wretch! An honest servant of the law could find himself suddenly caught between two crimes, the crime of letting a man escape, and the crime of arresting him! Everything was not certain in the order given by the state to the official! There might be blind alleys in duty!” (Hugo 1327). The officer’s sense of justice is shaken by the convict’s compassion to where he is no longer sure of what he believes in anymore. So unlike Valjean, Javert is affected for the worst, for his soul cannot agree with his newfounded, sympathetic impulse of letting a prisoner go. He cannot go live a new life founded on love and not law. for the law has been too great a part of his life.

The question that Hugo’s book brings, as other books brought up in the nineteenth century, is the role of mercy and law. Is law sufficient enough to bring peace to a society, or are there laws that simply do not address the deeper needs of humanity? As slavery and poverty are addressed at the time, people cry out for moral reforms based on a more charitable sense of duty, one not obsessively affected my laws, like Javert. But Javert’s viewpoint has its points, making it a strong debate against quick impulses of kindness that might not go as far as we think. Is love ultimately enough? Or, rather, equaling intriguing, are love and law more compatible than we think? It is a question that still informs society’s mandates to this day.

Works Cited

Hugo, Victor. Les Misèrables. New York: New American Library, 1987. Print



How the Harry Potter Series Reflects Itself (Spoiler Alert!)

Some authors, such as Stephen King, are against the mentality that a story should be outlined before written. “Outlines,” he says, in his afterword to the first Dark Tower novel,”are for people who wish to God they were writing master theses.” King favors a more spontaneous approach to fiction, where the story, upon writing, “writes itself;” as a writer unfolds their tale, new ideas reach their mind, telling them where the story should proceed next, thoughts that would’ve most likely been missed upon a predraft outline. Just write and don’t try to plan where the story goes, otherwise you will somehow stifle the creative flow or impulse.

Yet in reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books several times each, I see evidences that patterns can occur in fiction, designs that seem to indicate an architectural approach to storytelling, long before the story is unraveled. I will attempt to argue in this blog post that Rowling’s books repeat various themes and concepts. Beware though; I am going to spoil the series, so if you have not read these seven classic works, please exit my blog and do yourself a huge favor. Read them.

Let us first start with the seventh and final books: Sorcerer’s Stone and Deathly Hallows.

In the first book, Harry learns a little about the life of Albus Dumbledore, how he defeated the wizard Gellert Grindewald, as Ron is showing him a chocolate frog card. In the last book, Harry learns even more about Dumbledore’s past, how his friendship with Gellert failed and how he won the Elder Wand from him.

Next, Harry is able to retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone from Quirrel’s grasp because of his noble heart, not using the stone for himself. He knows that death is quite possible. He survives the encounter because of his mother’s sacrifice. Afterwards, Dumbledore tells him, while Harry lies in the hospital wing: “Afterall, to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” In Hallows, something very similar occurs: Harry allows Lord Voldemort to kill him in the forest, though he actually survives once more due to Lily’s sacrifice. Dumbledore tells him, in Harry’s mind, “You are the true master of Death, Harry, because the true master does not seek to run away from death. He accepts that he must die, and that there are far more worse things in the living world than dying.”

In SS, Harry learns from Ollivander that “the wand chooses the wizard.” In Hallows, this is the truth Harry reminds Voldemort of before he defeats him, “Didn’t you listen to Ollivander: ‘the wand chooses the wizard?'”

Hagrid mentions to Harry in Stone that two safe places to hide something are in Gringotts and Hogwarts. In the final book, those two exact places hold two of Voldemort’s Horcruxes.

Second, we have the Chamber of Secrets and the Half-Blood Prince.

Ron vomits slugs in the second book. The last name of the sixth book’s potions professor is Slughorn.

Harry learns about Voldemort’s past in the second book through Tom Riddle’s diary. In the sixth book, he learns more about Riddle’s past and exactly what the diary was.

When, in Prince, Harry and his friends are trying to figure out how Ron got poisoned, Hagrid mentions, “Chamber of Secrets all over again, isn’t it?” In both books, students are being randomly attacked.

Dumbledore’s absence disturbs characters in both books. In Chamber, Ron is scared what will happen after Dumbledore is sacked by Lucius and Fudge. In Prince, McGonagall says, “I must admit that Dumbledore’s death is more disturbing to me than the idea of Slytherin’s monster running free in the bounds of the castle.”

As Harry learns about Voldemort through a book in Chamber, so in the sixth book another book teaches him more about Snape.

In Chamber, Harry accidentally ends up in Borgin and Burkes. In Prince, Harry follows Malfoy to Borgin and Burkes to see what he’s up to.

Third, we have Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix:

Harry repels dementors in the third book. He does the exact same thing in the fifth.

Hermione uses a Time-Turner in the third book. Harry and his friends stumble across a group of time turners in the fifth book, when they are all inside the Department of Mysteries.

Fudge tells Harry in Prisoner that he can’t be punished for trifles like blowing up his aunt. But in Order, he does everything he can to get Harry expelled from Hogwarts.

There is a chapter in the third book called “Grim Defeat.” In Order, there is a chapter called “Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place.”

Sirius is introduced in Prisoner. He dies in Order of the Phoenix.

Professor Trelawney goes into trances in each book, speaking about Voldemort.

One might argue that the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, has no reflection, but it shares some things in common with 2 ad 6; we learn more about Voldemort’s past in the opening chapter ” The Riddle House,” and when Harry hears Voldemort explain how he got his father’s name. But then, 1,3,5, and 7 may share similarities, but suffice it to say that I have made my case.

Was Rowling conscious of these patterns? Maybe, maybe not. Though I do suspect that holding to patterns is a big help in writing fantasy, for fantasy authors usually try to tackle huge projects as in the cases of Lewis, King, Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, Donaldson, Paolini, and Martin. But the point is that mental patterns can inform literature, that it is not all inspired by some “flow” that ignores design. Fiction is a river that flows with occasional beaver dams.