“Another Story Must Begin”
This is one of my favorite plays. I’ve memorized all the songs, and know the story quite well. But one thing was missing: I hadn’t read the famous book yet.
A year ago now, I embarked on what was to be an epic journey: reading the translated English version of Les Miserables. Despite my obsession with the play, I’d never read the book until now.
The story is simple: a desperate young man tries to steal bread to help save his sister’s dying child. Jean Valjean gets caught, sent to prison, and endures hard labor. 20 years later, he’s on parol, and scrabbling to find a place in the world. In despair, he begins stealing. One day, a kindly bishop offers him food and lodging. Jean Valjean is shocked by his generosity, but steals from him in the end. The police catch him, and return him to the bishop’s house. Here is where the bishop offers Jean Valjean his expensive silver candlesticks, as yet another sign of his generosity. “You must use this precious silver to become an honest man,” the bishop tells Jean Valjean. (This is a line in the play.) Jean Valjean literally has a come to Jesus moment afterwards, perplexed by the bishop’s kindnesses and his religious advice.
Jean Valjean then vows to use the candlesticks to become a better person.
What astounds me is how closely the play hits all the important parts of the novel. The most important scenes from the novel are in the play.
What I don’t mind leaving out are all of the long tangents and commentary that Victor Hugo presents throughout Les Misérables. A couple of them were kind of interesting–like the bit about wanting to start a second revolution–but most of them seemed to drag on forever. I ended up skipping the tangent about the sewers of Paris–that got gross pretty fast.
Overall, the important bits from the novel are in the Broadway play. Which is impressive, considering how much Hugo goes into depth about things.
The beauty of Jean Valjean’s story is that he tries to do the best he can to become a better person. This is mirrored in the play, and expounded upon in the novel.
Jean Valjean learns how to love an orphaned little girl named Cosette, after promising her mother on her deathbed that he would care for (and raise) her little girl. He also becomes the Mayor in a town, and does his best to help remain honest about his past identity as a convent.
In a moment of despair, Jean Valjean questions the kindly bishop’s words and generosity. But, after bargaining with God, he comes to realize that he must change in order to adhere to the bishop’s words: “You must use this precious silver/to become an honest man.” Meaning that he must use the candlesticks to better himself.
Les Misérables is a story of a life lived by performing good deeds. Les Misérables is a sad story at times, but also full of hope and love.
And of course, the music is amazing.
I’m so glad I finally read this classic novel!