Today we have another post from Neal Gibson:
Hello again, readers. Last week I wrote a post dealing with Philosophy and the many roles it plays in reading and writing. I am here to announce that starting next week I will begin a series regarding philosophy of writing that will build off of that post.
However, in the meantime I wanted to compare briefly one of my favorite literary classics, The Count of Monte Cristo, with Les Misérables. What struck me as the most interesting, upon seeing the recent Les Misérables film, was the many similarities between Jean Valjean and Edmund Dantès. Both are wrongly imprisoned (or at least given an unjust sentence in the case of Jean Valjean) during their youth and have the best things in their life taken away from them as they serve out their time in prison. This is not what interests me so much as their respective reactions to it. Early on in Les Mis we see Jean Valjean trying desperately to find his way in a world that was cruel to him and in his desperation he turns to the very crime he first committed; thievery. His thievery is met with kindness by the man he was stealing from, and this drastic dissonance with Valjean’s expectations shocks him into the realization that he is more than his past and he must overcome it. This is not unlike Edmund Dantès prison in the Chateau d’If, wherein he faces despair until fate brings him into contact with the Abbe Faria: another prisoner who has created a tunnel to escape but accidentally runs into Edmund Dantès’ cell. Both characters escape this part of their lives; Dantès physically escapes from the Chateau d”If and comes into a large fortune which he uses to secure a place for himself within the high societies of France and Italy. Jean Valjean break his parole to escape his unjust label as a dangerous man and uses this freedom to gain considerable wealth and a respectable position in the town he ives in. It is here, though, that the initial contrast must begin, for while Jean Valjean sees his second chance as a chance to do right and help people who are in the situation he once was in, Edmund Dantès becomes solely focused on revenge.
As both characters embark on their journey we can see a profoundly interesting fact; both of them become generous with their wealth and seek to do good for society despite how distinctly opposite their motivations. Jean Valjean helps Fantine and Cosette because he wants to show Fantine that there is still good in the world and that God is still kind. The Count spends some portions of his wealth to help save his former employer from bankruptcy and humiliation. Yet despite his obvious generosity the Count never hesitates to take his revenge upon the guilty parties in his misfortune at every chance he gets and even goes so far as to plot them out diligently in his spare time. On the other hand we have Jean Valjean who continuously forgives the man who wronged him to the point where Javert kills himself because his duty demands that he recapture Jean Valjean but his conscience will not let him. Because he is an honorable man and he could not bear to either fail in his duty or wrong Jean Valjean again, Javert felt forced to take his own life instead. Both characters believe they are doing right by their actions; they both feel like they are on a mission from God which makes the differences in their choices all the more fascinating to observe. I think that their different reactions ultimately stem from differing views of God in their lives. The Count sees that all the people who have wronged him have prospered for it, and one of them married the Count’s former fiancé. Where was God in all this? The Count believes that he was given his second chance to act as God’s right hand in exacting justice and vengeance on those who sinned against him. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, thanks to the kindness of the priest, understood that his second chance was given so that he might not make the same mistake and that he might act as God’s mercy and kindness on people who otherwise would never see it.
It is remarkable to see how both the Count and Jean Valjean came to the same conclusion in the end, despite how very different the paths were that they took; revenge is not ours to take. Even though the Count takes his revenge he admits that he took upon himself a task which belongs to the Lord and he was wrong in doing so. It was not until the end of the story that the Count realizes that God is merciful and so we ought to be as well; Jean Valjean learned this lesson much earlier and it is this that stayed his hand when Javert was in his hands. This is perhaps the major lesson of both the Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables, and it is one which should never be overlooked or downplayed.