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Les Miserables

by: Victor Hugo

When the time came for leaving prison, and the strange words “You are free” sounded in Jean Valjean’s ears, the moment seemed improbable and unreal; a ray of vivid light, a ray of true light of living men suddenly penetrated his soul. But it quickly faded. Jean Valjean had been dazzled by the idea of liberty, had believed in a new life. He soon saw what sort of liberty comes with a yellow passport.

And there were other bitter blows besides. He had calculated that his savings, during his prison stay, should amount to a hundred and seventy-one francs. Ture, he had forgotten to take into account the compulsory rest on Sundays and holidays, which, in nineteen years, meant a deduction of about twenty-four francs. However that might be, his savings had been reduced by various local charges to the sum of a hundred and nine francs and fifteen sous, counted out to him at his departure.

He understood nothing of this and wronged or, more to the point, robbed.

The day after his liberation, he saw, before the door of an orange flower distillery at Grasse, some men unloading bales. He offered his services. They accepted him. He set to work. He was intelligent, strong, and skilled; he did his best; the foreman seemed satisfied. While he was at work, a gendarme passed, noticed him, and asked for his papers. He had to show the yellow passport. Jean Valjean resumed his work. A while before he had asked one of the workmen how much they were paid per day for this work. and the reply was thirty sous. That evening, because he planned to leave town the next morning, he went to the foreman and asked for his pay. The foreman did not say a word but handed him fifteen sous. He protested. The man replied, “That’s good enough for you.” He persisted. The foreman glanced at him: “Watch out for the chain gang.”

Here again he felt he had been robbed.

Society, the state, in reducing his savings, had robbed him, wholesale. Now, at the retail level, the individual was robbing him, too.

Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave prison behind but not his sentence.

That was what happened to him at Grasse. And we have seen the welcome he received at Digne...

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Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was the son of an officer in Napoleon’s army. After the Napoleonic defeat, the Hugo family settled in straitened circumstances in Paris, where Hugo began his literary career. He won a seat in the National Assembly in 1848; but in 1851, he was forced to flee the country because of his opposition to Louis Napoleon. In exile on the Isle of Guernsey, he became a symbol of French resistance to tyranny. Hugo wrote Les Miserables during this period exile and created one of the most memorable characters in literary history – Jean Valjean, a noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Hugo was greeted as hero upon his return to France in 1870.

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