Thursday, 27 September 2012

Les Miserables, Vol I: The Power of Kindness

This is my first time reading Les Miserables. I read this huge thick book after a series of adventurous novels, such as D'Artagnan Romances, Robin Hood and Ivanhoe. Those books talk about great people, grand kings, big adventures, honourable deeds, God and country, loyalty and friendship, things that lift people's hearts to heaven, to another world, to sublime idealism in it. And then, I read Les Miserables.

The book contrasts itself from all majestic aura. Instead, it brings us low, low, to the centre of gravity where small insignificant people live, people we never remember, people we hardly really care about. Their voyage is seeking for today's food, and their ambition is to gain enough to sustain their existence. In heroic stories, our eyes glisten when we read how our hero destroys an army or plays a trick upon his enemy. In Les Miserable, even the life of an unknown man is precious, not just a number in statistical report.

Don't let me bother you too much on that subject. There are three things that steal into my heart and have lodged there since I read the first volume: the power of kindness, justice vs. mercy, and the battle inside our hearts. Let me write of kindness first.

What Kindness Can Do

In the first sentence of the book, we meet Mr. Bienvenu Myriel – a good man. His kindness is so immense that one can hardly believe it's true. He'd rather live in want than seeing another being in want, and he lives a simple life to be able to help those he can help. His acts of kindness blesses him with good reputation, and more importantly, love, from those he helps and those who respect and support his decision.

Later on, his kindness towards Jean Valjean changes the ex-convict's life. After lots of meditation Jean decides to live an honest life, as the Bishop asked him to do, “Be an honest man.” More than honest, Jean shows identical kindness towards the needy. His hands are open to many sorts of good works. He provides a job for people and he helps people out whenever the situation allows him. The kindness offered him becomes to him an example which he imitates most willingly.

Such simple kindness, though may sound extreme if exercised as mentioned in this novel, brings to people new hopes and at times, new chance of life. Such kindness motivates the recipient of kindness to do the same for others. Kindness brings joy to the one who gives and the one who receives. It presents us satisfaction, because we know we have done our neighbour good.

What Kindness Cannot Do

Sad as it is, we have to admit that no matter how much money you pour out for the poor, it will never be enough. It's like pouring rain upon a desert or throwing lives into death. Neither would be satisfied. I have a feeling that Hugo also wants to underline this in his novel. There's something wrong about this world somehow, and it's not the amount of money or wealth it has, not about the government, or the people. There's something that controls the things and it's just wrong – the system.

However I look at it, one cannot cure the misery of life simply by giving more or giving less. You help persons, but you don't change society that way. There are laws that care more about words than about the principles upon which the words are based. Judges care more about justice by laws written on paper than the laws engraved upon their hearts. The problem is so complicated that kindness alone cannot remove it.

I am still waiting for the next part of the novel. The dark effect it gives to me makes me reluctant to continue my reading, because somehow I feel that the more I read, the more disappointment I will have to bear within me. As I said, tragedy is not really my preference, and such stories fill my mind weeks after I finish reading them. But I'm really curious. What will Hugo do with Jean and Cosette? Please wait for the next check point, and in two weeks I will post my thoughts about the second volume.


  1. I read Les Mis last February, but I picked the translation (abridged version). I just vaguely remember the whole story, but I think it's not as depressing as it looks on the beginning. Keep reading and hoping for the better, Victor Hugo won't disappoint you... :)

  2. Ha, this book IS sad in many many ways. But it breathes love and compassion in such a way that you simply shouldn't stop reading. Hope you'll enjoy it more on the volumes to come!

  3. Is there any Indonesian Translation of Les Mis? Well, I want to have the English version, but I guess it's pretty hard to acquire here.

  4. Thanks for the support. I won't stop because I've promised myself not to watch the movie or musical before I finish the novel, and I'm dying to enjoy those two adaptations.

  5. Agree that kindness will not fix society yet it still is a powerful tool in encouraging those who needed the "encouragement" to take that step onto the "right" path. Like Valjean, he wanted to do the right things but was scorned by society, was discouraged and fell back to the one thing he could or is used to do until he found the most generous encouragement to push him to perseverance.

    I have to admit that I don't particularly like reading miserable stories. That's one of the reason why I usually avoided any medieval setting novels and why this book had been collecting dust for nearly 15 years! But don't give up on me yet, please ;) I do believe the ending will be worth it!