Why Les Miserables Will Always Mean More to Me than the Average Fan
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was a monumental work of literature upon publication in 1862. As one of the longest ever written (at 1,900 pages in the original French version) the novel has been esteemed as one of the greatest novels of the 19thcentury, if not all time. The novel has been popularized through adaptations for film, television, and Broadway. There are currently 66 adaptations, and the 2012 movie alone earned $441,809,770 in box office sales. The numbers speak for themselves. But Les Misérables is not just a success because of the numbers. The novel speaks volumes on moral ambiguity, love, and redemption, and does so eloquently. Hugo writes so his readers truly feel a connection to the words they are reading, drinking in his words page by page. A publication does not get as popular as this one did simply by engaging in interesting stories. Hugo took the stories he wanted to tell and made them into a world that readers could escape to. He gave each and every one of the characters backgrounds that make them feel like friends rather than fictional. He wrote in a way that submersed the public to the point that it can be hard to draw the line where the fictional insertions begin. This book is loved by readers across the globe. That is grossly apparent in the success it has seen in the 150 plus years since its publishing. But I’ll tell you why Les Misérables means more to me than your average, run-of-the-mill fan: there is a little bit of the novel living inside of my soul, and I can’t do anything to change that.
Here is why.
My dad first read Les Misérables when he was a young father. What struck him most about the novel wasn’t the reclamation of the protagonist Jean Valjean or the tenderness between Marius and Cosette or even the pure selfless sacrificial love Fantine had as a single mother caring for her daughter — the only person she had left to care for. My father’s fascination with the novel came as a result of a character many forget about: Monsieur Myriel. Myriel is a priest who exemplifies Christ and Christlike love. He is a driving force of good in the novel, though his presence often goes undetected under the radar. Hugo wrote of Myriel, “He made virtue accessible.” He is known in the book for living so strongly in the presence of Christ and for loving Christ so profoundly that he naturally brings others unto Him, just by living righteously. My father loved this character, and upon reading about him and his life wanted to become like him. It just so happened that I was on my way to the family, not yet born but coming, and my sweet father who looked up to this priest with such intense fervor knew I was to be named Myriel. That’s how I got my name. I am Madison Myriel Graham. I am named after a fictional priest I feel I carry his spirit — fictional or no — around with me everywhere I go.
Let’s discuss this idea.
An unabridged English version of the book sat on my bookshelf in my childhood bedroom and remained on some shelf in whatever room I happened to find myself in as I grew, up to today where the same copy rests on the shelves in my college dorm room. The story of Jean Valjean’s redemption, Javert’s demise and Éponine’s heartbreak has never been unfamiliar to me. But my favorite part of the story is always the description of Monsieur Myriel, who “smilingly described himself a recovering sinner” and who had “the laugh of a school boy.” I have always known who the priest was and what his role was in the choosing of my name. As a result, I have always felt that in some way I needed to live in a way that kept his name clean. I have looked up to this fictional character almost like a grandfather for as long as I can remember, and the thought of disappointing him really does scare me. The fact of the matter is, when I read passages of Monsieur Myriel’s life and works it does not feel like I am reading a character profile or a fictional description. There are two things that I feel. The first being that I love this man, I look up to him, and I am grateful to be named after him. The second being that as long as I cannot see myself in the place of le monsieur in the novel, I am doing something wrong.
This is where rhetoric comes in for me. Les Misérablesitself is an incredible rhetorical work, but my analysis is more suited towards the action my father took in naming me Myriel, not the actual novel itself. See, in choosing a name that had meaning, my father gave memeaning as well. I have found that as I compare myself to the man I was named after (again, fictional or not does not matter to me quite frankly) I have a bar to live up to. I have a name to bring honor to because there is written evidence of the goodness I could embody. My father helped to encourage this by reading Les Misérables to me starting at a young age and reminding me where I got my name from when he could. Through the example of the priest my father taught me that being a person filled with love would change the lives around me. He taught me that when we strive to become like Christ, we will become better, stronger, more courageous people than we could ever imagine. He taught that because there are stories like that of Monsieur Myriel, maybe someday someone would write my story too, and if I lived my life righteously and boldly, with an unwavering commitment to Christ, it would be a story I could be proud of. It would be a story to make my fictional namesake proud.