Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Society buying a slave"

I am slowly making my way through Les Miserables, and today I have been reading the tragic story of Fantine. I like that Victor Hugo is very straightforward with his writing. At the beginning of a chapter, he writes:

"What is the story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave."

Maybe it's because I've tasted a little poverty these past few months, but I found myself totally compelled by Fantine's story. She is a victim of society. One cannot say she doesn't work hard. She works 17 hour days, and still doesn't make enough to satisfy her creditors. Eventually, after she gives all she has (including her hair and teeth), she gives her body. She becomes a prostitute. It is her only means of survival.

As I've been reading this book, I have been noticing certain parallels between the France of Hugo's day and modern America. The prevailing social virtue in both worlds is selfishness, aka capitalism. This creates a great divide between those who, though luck or intelligence, figure out how to make a lot of money...and those who do not. To quote a cliche, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." If selfishness is the prevailing virtue, some people will inevitably suffer. The rich turn their selfishness into gospel: "The free market will solve society's problems." I wonder if they would still say that if their home got foreclosed on, if they lost their job, if they were constantly harassed by creditors, if the factory they worked in closed down so their company could re-locate to some developing country where they don't have labor laws and they can pay people as little as they want. There's your free market.

So what is Hugo's answer to this problem? It is the same answer today as it was then: charity. In the town of Montreuil-sur-mer, a former convict discovers an efficient way to make beads, and he becomes a millionaire. He becomes the richest man in town and mayor of the town--Monsieur Madeleine (aka Jean Valjean). And what does he do with his wealth and power? Does he go on pleasure cruises to exotic places? Does he buy lots of stuff, lots of fancy status symbols?

No. He builds a hospital, a school. He builds free lodging for elderly and disabled workers. He establishes a free pharmacy--free health care. He gives to those in need. He lives very simply, as an ordinary man. He realizes the absurdity of thinking that he deserved any of his wealth simply because he thought of a clever way to make a bead. He uses his fortune to help the unfortunate. That is Hugo's answer, I think.

I still have a long way to go in the book, so I'm sure I'll be blogging more about this stuff. Stay tuned!

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