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I wrestle with my goodness just like Jean Valjean
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Greetings, my fellow book-lovers!
Today, I am incredibly excited to bring you a wonderfully honest and thoughtful essay from.
Elle almost needs no introduction on Substack, but if you are somehow unaware of her great work, she writes. Here, Elle explores ideas that could lead to a better form of capitalism, democracy, and humanity, and serialises her utopian fiction novels.
As well as writing excellent, thought-provoking fiction and non-fiction, Elle has also managed to build an incredible community on her Substack. It’s more enlightened French salon than angry internet forum (quite some feat when discussing politics online!), and exactly the kind of thing I’d loveto become. If you like it here, you’ll love it there too!
Her piece today reflects on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the flawed nature of human beings, and what it should mean to be a good person. It’s an doozy. Enjoy!
There’s nothing I relate to more than Les Misérables (and 24601).
The antagonist in my favorite book, Les Misérables, is Catholicism. Jean Valjean spends the entirety of the novel in pursuit of redemption, the redeeming of his soul.
A former convict, he is saved from prison by a priest on the condition that commends his soul to God. He does. Jean Valjean starts a factory to employ the destitute. When one of them dies, he adopts and cares for her child. He becomes the mayor of the town and becomes a benefactor for those in need. When his daughter grows up, he saves her love’s life. He spends his whole life in pursuit of goodness and never realizes that he is good, that he is fully redeemed, until he is on his deathbed.
Without Catholicism, without that existential threat to his soul, Jean Valjean loses his purpose. There is no dark night of the soul, no internal struggle he must overcome, no redemption arc he needs to achieve—he is just good from the very beginning. And I wonder if he wouldn’t have started that factory, become the mayor of the town, adopted that child, or saved her love’s life if he didn’t have the weight of his own salvation on the line?
Indeed, that seems to be the case when it comes to modern philanthropy. According to Philanthropy Roundtable, the religious volunteer more, give more money to philanthropy, adopt more children, build more hospitals, and provide more beds for the homeless—substantially more (look at those stats!).
But if religion motivates humans to be good, it also defines goodness and this is where it can be a double-edged sword. In Victor Hugo’s Catholicism, Jean Valjean is saved by religion only to be condemned by it. Religion acts as both the moral imposer and moral convictor and Valjean can never quite live up to the goodness defined by Catholicism.
My husband’s version of Les Miserables is Star Wars, and we can see a similar arc played out in The Mandalorian. Our protagonist is a follower of “the way” and he believes that the fall of his people happened because they strayed from their creed. But if he is motivated by the existential weight of his beliefs, he is also condemned by them. He never thinks he is good and is always trying to live up to an impossible standard.
Would Jean Valjean do good without religion? Would the Mandalorian do good without The Way?
That is something I have thought a lot about. What motivates us to do good? To live for those around us instead of ourselves? Can we do that without a moral imperative to do so?
I very much wrestle with my own goodness the way Jean Valjean did. I wrestle with just how much I should do, and what my responsibility should be to make the world a better place.
I once asked myself whether I actually had any power to affect anything—I wondered whether I should join the peace corps, study international law, or try to become a politician. I knew all along I didn’t have any of those things in me. I’ve always wanted to be an artist and the only thing I can do is use my art for good. It feels like it’s not enough.
I can feel myself being selfish. I could adopt a child, but I’d rather travel. I should buy my clothes from thrift stores, but I just loved that suit. I could donate more money to charity, but I am renovating my bathroom instead. I have always donated 10% of my income to charity (to GiveDirectly) but I recently decided to write my newsletter for a living so I’m now making, and thus donating, far less than I used to.
As Aziz Ansari points out in his recent comedy special, “we’re kind of a shitty group of people. You see 30 people, 20 people are doing ok, and 10 people are like: ‘we don’t have clean drinking water or really much else, we’re having a hard time,’” he says. “And the other 20 people are like: ‘I don’t know bro, you live pretty far away… I mean, I hear you, but I ordered groceries on my phone six minutes ago and they’re still not here so I’m hungry too.”
When the courts condemn a man who looks like Jean Valjean and schedules him for hanging, Valjean ponders whether he should reveal himself and save the man or whether he should let the man hang in order to save the hundreds of others who depend on him for their jobs and incomes. “If I speak I am condemned,” he sings in the musical version, “if I stay silent, I am damned.”
That feels like every decision I make today. I want to be selfless, but then I’m selfish. Even if I purchase a tomato it might have traveled thousands of miles and spewed tons of carbon into the air. If it wasn’t organic then I also put hazardous chemicals into the ground. If I go out to eat, I know they are purchasing vegetables that traveled even farther and used even more chemicals. I am so aware that nothing I do will be enough.
I think that’s why I’m drawn to utopian novels now. Because most utopian novels don’t imagine that poverty is solved by people being good. They imagine that everyone is good and are thus deserving of all the same resources as everyone else. There is a basic quality of life that everyone is worthy of without condition. There is no need to prove your goodness in this world. No redemption arc necessary.
I long for that future. Because Jean Valjean shouldn’t have to be good for people to get fed. I shouldn’t have to be good for people to have homes. I don’t want it to be up to people like me—I can’t be trusted, I don’t think any of us can be. And I don’t think it should be up to our own benevolence to ensure the poor are fed, the homeless are sheltered, the orphaned are cared for, and the sick have a hospital bed. Must we rely on our own guilt, and the existential weight it imparts, to ensure the basic needs of humans are met?
That is why I’d much prefer the problems of humanity to be solved by governments. I’d rather my tithe come in the form of a tax. I’d rather our systems legislate how a tomato should be grown so I don’t have to make a moral call at the checkout counter. I don’t think people in need should have to wait around for people like me to be generous—that is an idle hope. Even when we aren’t selfish, we are unaware, or not paying attention, and I don’t think the of humanity should fall on our shoulders. I just want to be good, to be worthy of a good life—I want all of us to be.
I want people to be helped even if I’m not being good enough at helping them.
When I recently saw the musical Les Miserables at the theater with a friend, she had never seen it. She turned to me during intermission and said “all of this for a loaf of bread?” In her mind, the whole thing was silly, and it kind of is by today’s standards—that someone would be so condemned for their poverty is absurd. And yet we are still condemned by every action we make that is the wrong one and it’s nearly impossible to make the right one. It’s even more impossible for every one of us to make the right one every day, all of the time.
But it was Jean Valjean who got me thinking about how to do good in the world, and I’ve never stopped. I was forever changed by 24601.
The Elysian has been featured by BBC, Business Insider, Fast Company, Publisher’s Weekly, Means of Creation, and Morning Brew; and in 2022, was awarded one of 10 places in Substack’s coveted fellowship program. Elle is also a freelance journalist with bylines at Esquire, Forbes, Every, and The Muse—a portfolio of her work can be found here.
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