I believe in teaching Les Miserables by Victor Hugo to 15-year-olds. Granted, the book is long and the names are difficult for my students to pronounce, but I think that it’s the universal lessons that attract me to the novel. I always get two good cries from the book: once when Fantine gives up her daughter and again when Jean Valjean dies at the end, but the story between those two tragic points in the novel is what teaches me, and I hope my students, what to believe.
I believe that spirituality can keep us good. Several times throughout the novel, Victor Hugo refers to Jean Valjean’s conscience as God, which keeps him honest and good. I don’t think we necessarily have to follow any one certain religion, but having a higher moral standard motivates us to look outside ourselves and see how miniscule we really are in the grand scheme of things. Measured humility does one wonders.
I believe community service is paramount. Jean Valjean enters a city, saves a child out of a fire, revolutionizes the industry of the region, becomes mayor by request of the inhabitants, and opens free schools and infirmaries, all while assuming a false name. None of this benefits himself, not even the money he makes from his creative ideas. The teenagers I teach come to respect this character who is unjustly imprisoned and judged throughout the entire novel, yet continues to help and serve others unselfishly.
I believe that following any one idea too closely without consideration can blind us from humanity. The students love to hate Javert, the police inspector. Javert literally hunts Jean Valjean throughout the entire book and ends up extinguishing his own life after realizing that his strict adherence to the law does not reflect justice. We learn that justice must be humane as well as just. Javert teaches them to, as Whitman stated in “Song of Myself”, hold “creeds and schools in abeyance,” to look at all ideas before blindly adhering to one.
And I believe most of all that pure evil is sometimes necessary so that we may choose to reject it. Monsieur and Madame Thenardier represent the epitome of evil and frustrate my students to no end. They mistreat Cosette, try to murder Jean Valjean, and take advantage of Marius. These characters act as foils to Jean Valjean, showing the students the consequences of one’s choices. More difficulty lies in goodness, my students say, and I’d like to think that the Thenardiers and Jean Valjean teach them that the difficult choice of goodness is well worth it.
I believe that my students benefit from learning these lessons now, at 15, rather than later, for hopefully then they may start doing good for themselves and others. This is what I believe.
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