“Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo’s gargantuan 19th century novel, has been adapted in many ways: excerpted into short stories, retooled as a “straight play” and a musical, and filmed for the cinema and television.
The classic tale of redemption in the decades following the French Revolution was adapted yet again at Brookfield’s St. John Vianney Parish, Feb. 21.
“Les Miserables” was the centerpiece of a Morning of Prayer and Reflection for some 60 members of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) Society. Ralph Middlecamp, executive director of the Madison Diocese’s Vincentians, conducted a program that connected Hugo and his masterwork to Blessed Frederic Ozanam and the charitable society he founded.
Gerald Felsecker, retired Milwaukee SVDP executive director who remains an active Vincentian, introduced Middlecamp as “probably the most informed person in the United States on the life of Frederic Ozanam.” Middlecamp serves on an international commission dedicated to the Vincentian founder’s canonization.
In an audio-visual presentation, including songs and scenes from various productions and punctuated by periods of small-group discussion, Middlecamp proved to be well-informed about “Les Miserables” as well. He pointed out that Ozanam and Hugo, contemporary countrymen born about a decade apart, were monarchists early on and “shared a passion for justice.”
The world of the poet-novelist who also wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was in some sense, then, the same world as that of the lawyer-to-be and journalist who, with fellow young scholars, founded the SVDP to aid the poor in Paris. Hugo lived in that world much longer, though (1802-1885), than did Ozanam (1813-1853).
Onscreen, Middlecamp displayed similar quotes from the two writers. Hugo’s, attributed to the saintly bishop of Digne, frequently the novelist’s mouthpiece in “Les Miserables,” read, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
Ozanam’s read, “God forbid that we should falsely accuse the poor, whom the Gospel blesses, or render the suffering classes responsible for their misery.”
Hugo and Ozanam commented considerably about poverty and misery, Middlecamp noted. Hugo’s “timeless” book’s title reflects the author’s concern. Misery is likewise a Vincentian concern, Middlecamp said, a condition “unacceptable in the Gospel.”
Middlecamp said the principal characters of “Les Miserables” can be regarded as “archetypes in the struggle for charity and justice.”
Protagonist Jean Valjean, described by the speaker as “a Type A personality … tall … big … handsome probably,” receives an inordinate prison sentence after stealing bread to feed his starving family and “the penal system erodes his values.”
Following a jailbreak, Valjean “is redeemed by an act of forgiveness and love” — the act of the bishop, who “represents Christianity at its best.” This is a character who also insists his palatial home be converted to a hospital and travels through his diocese by donkey after selling his carriage to benefit the poor.
Respectively standing for “systemic charity and justice,” the bishop and police inspector Javert are “opposites in extreme,” according to Middlecamp, and “neither one of them could exist (in real life), as extreme as they are.” Faithfully “committed to duty and justice,” as shown in his relentless pursuit of escaped convict Valjean, the inspector justifies his modus operandi by declaring, “‘It is easier to be kind than to be just.’”
Middlecamp likened Javert to a biblical bit player, the brother of the Prodigal Son: “He’s the good son, he’s following the rules, the man struggling to be just and right. We need some order, certitude” – but not such rigidity that we, like the policeman, can “see (only) black and white.” The speaker noted that Javert ultimately sees gray as well, and it leads him to suicide.
“Javert,” mused Middlecamp, “would be really easy to dislike.” However, “he’s got a job to do” and, rather unfortunately, “he pursues it with a vengeance.” His stubbornness is not unlike our own at times, the speaker said.
The character Fantine’s story is a familiar one, Middlecamp noted, a story that is repeated again and again in our society.Impregnated and then abandoned by the cad she thought was the love of her life, naïve Fantine becomes a single mom.
This country girl, having absolutely no support from her daughter’s father, willingly sacrifices for the child’s sake. Hounded out of one workplace, she turns to prostitution and loses her health. Fantine dies and Javert adopts her child, Cosette.
An innkeeper couple, the Thenardiers, “represent the lawless subculture of society,” in Middlecamp’s words – “the poor at their worst,” for “not all the poor are noble.” The Thenardiers are grave robbers who exploit their own children. “They have no respect for the humanity around them.”
Following the presentation, members of Middlecamp’s audience were separated into small groups and asked to discuss: “What challenges do people face today after incarceration?” “How do you interact with people who doubt their own worth because of their past?” “Do we make harsh judgments about people we serve?” “Do you struggle with balancing order, duty and justice with compassion, charity and mercy?” The Vincentians were also asked if they’d met people remindful of Fantine and Valjean.
Pope Francis played a part in Middlecamp’s presentation, too. The speaker pointed out the bishop of Digne (the anticlerical “Hugo’s notion of what the church should be, living out the Gospel” as he does) has the Christian name of Charles-Francois (Francis) and the nickname of Bienvenu (Welcome). “Let the church always be a place,” the pope has said, “where everyone is welcomed.”