I got stuck in the sewer. I finally gave up trying to plow through the muck and so I set my book aside. For months. Which meant I was stuck in the sewer for months.
If you've read the unabridged version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, you'll remember the frequent tangential historical backgrounds. Although the story line gets put on hold while Hugo expounds upon Waterloo, convents, revolutionaries and the like, you appreciate a better understanding of the role they played in the history of France in general and the book's characters in specific. But the value of the sewers eluded me.
So I avoided facing the ugly reality.
Jean Valjean and Marius, frozen in time, patiently awaited my return. It's not like their situation became more dire, but I definitely lost all my momentum and so we all were stuck . . . until I finally resolved to get through it.
It is ironic but all the threads of the story of Les Mis came together in the sewer. And the sewer was the source from whence sprang the beautiful seeds of resolution, which made for such a sweet ending to the novel. Maybe it's not so ironic when you think about the source of fertilizer.
I love the story of Les Mis and recently barely succeeded in holding back sobs at the theater. My streaming tears were healing when I saw myself in Jean Valjean. It was so easy to see in him the tragedy of failing to forgive yourself. The law, personified by Javert, had no power over Valjean because no one held him to a more stringent judgment than he himself. In his judgment, despite the Bishop's healing gift, he believed he had never earned his way back from his role of convict. But in the end, when none were left to accuse him but himself, Jean Valjean's relationships healed him. The angels in his life were sent to him by the only One who could rightly judge him, and He found him worthy of the tenderest loving care.
We can be okay with making mistakes by knowing we're here to learn from our experience--even if our experiences take us through the sewer.
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables
Portrait of "Cosette" by Emile Bayard, 1862
History is written by the victors, but Victor Hugo offers a view of life as experienced by "les miserables." He puts before us the cause of the sufferers. Through the words of the good Bishop of Digne, Hugo counsels, "My brethren, be compassionate; see how much suffering there is around you." In Les Mis, we see the humanity of society's outcasts. We find nobility of character, often where it is least expected.
Jean Valjean epitomizes all that is hardest and best in humanity. The sewer scene exemplifies both of these aspects of his nature in their extreme. He descended below all to save another. At the risk of losing his own life, he trudged through the mire of human waste, weighed down by the burden of the man he knew would give him his greatest grief.
Marius would take his Cosette away. With his duty to her completed, Jean Valjean would slip back into his private horror, refusing to be the cause of his loved one needlessly associating with a convict who broke his parole.
There was Another who descended below all to save not one soul, but all souls who would believe on Him. That One answered Jean Valjean's plea, and sent Cosette to his deathbed. In that moment, his life was reconciled. He recognized God's hand and understood that it meant he was forgiven. He groaned,
"God said . . . Come, here is a poor man who has need of an angel. And the angel comes; and I see my Cosette again! . . . Oh! It is good to die like this! . . . Such are the distributions of God . . . He knows what He does in the midst of His great stars."
From the lower realms of earth, we can gaze heavenward. Above are the stars which appear to be swallowed by the storm clouds rolling in. Is there no escape from life's storms? Hugo puts it into perspective:
"Should we continue to look upwards? Is the light we can see in the sky one of those which will presently be extinguished? . . . brilliant but threatened on all sides by the dark forces that surround it; nevertheless, no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds."
While keeping our eyes towards heaven under God's watchful care, our souls are as distant from the realm of our troubles as "a star in the jaws of the clouds."