The Perkins Perspective | Review | Autumn 2013

 

The Beauty of Dependence

By Elissa Cook

 

Les Misérables

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo

Modern Library (2009), 1,376 pages

 

“Dependent” is a word that has somewhat negative connotations in America. We talk of drug and alcohol dependency; “dependents” on tax returns are those who are unable to earn enough money to care for themselves. We much prefer the idea of “independence” — from colonial power, from parents, from modern conveniences.

 

Yet taken to its literal meaning — “not dependent” — independence is truly a dark place. As Carol Deppe states in her book The Resilient Gardener, “It seems to me that, to be truly independent, I would have to love and care about no one, and be loved and cared about by no one. ... It’s a depressing image.”

 

The fundamental reality of God as Trinity — that is, as a relationship of mutual love — has a profound impact on humans. Because we are made in the image of this God, we, “like God, realize [our] true nature through mutual life. ... Just as the three divine persons live in and for each other, so man . . . becomes a real person by seeing the world through others’ eyes, by making others’ joys and sorrows his own,” says Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way. We need each other to become really human — in other words, we are fundamentally dependent on each other.

 

The despair of independence and the beauty of dependence are brilliantly displayed in Victor Hugo’s timeless tale Les Misérables. The story’s main protagonist, Jean Valjean, demonstrates the fulfilling power of love for others. Police inspector Javert, on the other hand, takes independence to a chilling extreme.

 

We meet Jean Valjean just after he has been released on parole. Nineteen long, brutal years in prison have caused his soul to dry up and transformed him “into a wild animal” (78). Without a soul in the world to care for, or to care for him, he steals a sack of silverware from a bishop who gives him food and shelter. Caught in the middle of his escape, he is dragged back to the bishop, fully expecting to be denounced and returned to the galleys.

 

Yet rather than obeying the demands of justice and condemning the man who has stolen from him, the bishop takes a completely different path, choosing instead to forge a relationship with the thief. He claims that the stolen silver was a gift to Jean Valjean, and adds to it his silver candlesticks.

 

Completely shattered by this act, Jean Valjean sees two choices before him: to reject completely the bishop’s mercy and become more evil than before, or to accept the hand of relation that the bishop has stretched out to him and forsake his independence from humanity. Choosing the latter path, he leaves behind the animal he became in prison and strives to live a life of compassion and virtue. Yet he still has no deep ties to another human being, until circumstances bring him to adopt Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a prostitute. Before her, he had “never loved anything.

 

For 25 years he had been alone in the world. He had never been a father, lover, husband, friend” (363). Yet his relationship with Cosette becomes one of total dependence and love. “One in fact completed the other. . . . When these two souls saw each other, they knew that each was what the other needed and they hugged each other tight” (364). Through loving Cosette, Jean Valjean’s transformation from a stunted prison beast to a true human being — dependent on relationship with another — is complete.

 

Throughout Valjean’s transformation, he is pursued by a man who embodies the full meaning of independence: Inspector Javert. Depending on no one, with no one to depend on him, he is not a true person. As Bishop Ware states, “Isolated, self-dependent, none of us is an authentic person but merely an individual, a bare unit as recorded in the census.” Noting this distinction, Hugo takes care to describe Javert in animal terms; he is a savage wolf pup, a mastiff, a tiger, a spider with a fly trapped in its web, a cat toying with a mouse.

 

After hunting Valjean for breaking parole, Javert ends up in a situation where his life is literally in Valjean’s hands. Javert fully expects to be killed, if not for Jean Valjean’s revenge, then for his protection from continual persecution. But since his love for Cosette has transformed his life, Jean Valjean has moved from the realm of the law into a place Javert doesn’t even know exists: the realm of grace. In a parallel act to the bishop, Valjean chooses to subvert the system of justice by doing what makes no sense from the eyes of the world: sparing Javert’s life and setting him free.

 

Like Valjean with the bishop, Javert is completely derailed by this act of mercy. When he recaptures Valjean hours later, he cannot bring himself to turn him over to the law, knowing that he owes Valjean his life. Instead, he repays his debt to Valjean by setting him free, thereby acknowledging the relationship that has been created between them. Indeed, Hugo states that when Javert encountered Valjean for the last time, “he had felt something like a wolf catching its prey again — but also like a dog that once more finds his master” (1080).

 

Yet having lived so long in darkness, Javert is devastated by the light. That he, the slave of the law, should “sacrifice duty, that all-encompassing obligation, to personal motives, and to feel in those personal motives something that was also all-encompassing, and perhaps, superior” completely astounds him (1080).

 

He owes Jean Valjean his life; yet after having repaid this debt, he is left in utter doubt. “All the axioms that had propped up his whole life collapsed before that man” (1081). Forced to acknowledge that a criminal can possibly be in the right, that conscience can be higher than duty, he cannot return to his state of utter independence and blind faith in the law. At the same time, though, he finds himself incapable of accepting this overturning of all he holds dear — and he has no one to guide him or believe in him, as the bishop did for Jean Valjean. He finds himself caught in an inescapable trap; he cannot return to being an animal, and he cannot become a man through loving dependence on others. Seeing no way out of this terrible conundrum, his final act is to escape the choice by throwing himself off of a bridge.

 

As Javert himself acknowledges, he and Valjean are “two sides of the same coin” (1081). The one through utter independence, lives his life as a beast and dies alone in despair; the other through love and dependence, becomes fully human and dies in peace, surrounded by his loved ones.

 

There is no way for us to love without others. There is no way for us to know God without love. “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20) As St. Macarius says, “There is no other way to be saved, except through our neighbor.”

 

Independence, when taken in small doses, may be a healthy push for us. But it is through mutual dependence that we are made whole.

 

All quotes from Les Misérables are taken from the Julie Rose translation.

 

Elissa CookElissa Cook graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2011 with a degree in Latin American Studies-Spanish. She returned to her hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she uses her Spanish skills in a public elementary school.

 

 

 

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