Les Misérables: A Little Affirmation Goes A Long Way
(Below is an excerpt from my paper for Leadership 2 class, focusing on the person’s hunger for affirmation, in any form, and how it was shown in Les Misérables. The idea that Bishop Myriel starts the story rolling by just vindicating Valjean is old, but easily overlooked. This time, however, I put the story in the perspective of hunger for affirmation.)
…Such is the power of affirmation. (It re-creates, transforms, and opens eyes.) Its transformative power further amplifies when the subject of affirmation needs confirmation, recognition, or a positive attestation.
My drama of the change in me due to affirmations pales compared with Jean Valjean’s. Freed under parole after being imprisoned for 19 years and four attempts of escaping and resisting arrest, he was given as stipulated by law a yellow passport, which during that time, effectively labeling him an ex-convict and outcasting him. He could not find a decent work because the reputation of such passport-carriers precedes him. In the novel, Valjean shows up at the door of Bienvenu/Myriel (who he did not know to be a bishop), asking for shelter. He takes most of the bishop’s silver but was captured soon enough. Instead of being accusatory, the kind and humble bishop asserts to the authorities that he gave the silver to Valjean and even tells him that he forgot to also take the silver candlesticks. Bishop Myriel looked past Valjean’s actions and appearance, as well as his physical hunger for food and money, and saw a poor man who hungers for affirmation—affirmation that stealing a loaf of bread for her sister’s children for which he was imprisoned was loving, affirmation that he is more than an ex-convict, affirmation that he is also a human being. It is an affirmation that Valjean sorely lacks, leading him to live a life of resignation, misery, anguish, and despair because no one would accept or hire or befriend or give shelter to an ex-convict, much less when he was a prisoner.
But such is the transformative power of affirmation! The bishop’s act of generosity and self-giving is one of the story’s greatest turning points. Affirming Valjean’s humanity set and started the gears of the story of Les Miserables. Valjean was transformed by the power of affirmation; he lets go of his emotional defenses and becomes more vulnerable than ever, allowing the bishop “to touch (his) soul and to teach (him) love,” effectively leading him to realize that he hungers for love, for being a new man, for being recognized as such. With such self-awareness that “(he) had come to hate this world, this world which had always hated (him)”and of his hatred and his hunger for love, he lets go of his beliefs that he has lived for: that is, to “take an eye for an eye, to turn your heart into stone”. He sheds and lets go of identity as an ex-convict, escaping the “whirlpool of his sin…from the world of Jean Valjean”, and then symbolically tearing up his yellow passport. He becomes Mayor Madeleine, meets Fantine, adopts and rears Cosette, and saves Javert and Marius.