a collage of a child reading in the window with an image of a library to the right and the cover of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables on the left.

The Corrosive Sublime

Towards the end of the barricade sequence in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo remarks,

Victory, when in accord with progress, deserves the approbation of the masses, but a heroic defeat deserves their compassion. The one is magnificent, the other sublime. For those of us who prefer martyrdom to success, John Brown is greater than Washington.

Twenty pages later, the last defenders of the barricade are dead. The short-lived Paris Uprising of 1832 is over. Hugo’s gentle reassurance that self-sacrifice is sublime cushions this blow, for those readers who didn’t already see it coming. The reassurance also confirms something we’ve already suspected about Hugo if we’ve made it this far into his 1300-page brick: he can’t resist a martyr.

I have loved Les Misérables since I first inhaled the novel at age sixteen. A big reason is that I was as enchanted by martyrdom as Hugo. I could make myself cry by flipping to the speech student-leader Enjolras makes before he dies on the barricade: “Citizens, the nineteenth century was great, but the twentieth century will be happy.” Poor naïve child, sacrificing himself for something Hugo knew couldn’t possibly be true. I read this passage over and over. Its tragedy felt visceral, as if I drew the muscles of my chest into a knot and twisted them until they stung. The pain was sharp, satisfying.

Certainly, I wasn’t alone. The 1985 Les Mis musical suggests that many readers see Hugo’s tome as a romance of self-sacrifice. Though Valjean’s poor daughter Cosette is on the posters, the show’s most memorable image is Enjolras waving a red flag atop the barricade over which he’s about to fall. “Our little lives don’t count at all,” he sings. At show’s end, he and the other barricade martyrs reappear as ghosts. This scene is a notorious tearjerker. When I spoke with a producer of the musical’s Milwaukee tour this fall, she explained that post-show events are scheduled to give people time to stop crying. Evidence from the book’s French reception suggests its first readers saw its moral compass similarly. David Bellos recounts how the book’s printer, Albert Lacroix, gathered the whole printshop to read the final installment of the novel aloud. He often had to stop reading to cry, “and my associates could not restrain their emotions which brought tears to their eyes too.” Late in the novel, Hugo writes, “Martyrdom is sublimation, corrosive sublimation. It is a torture that consecrates.” Like many fans since 1862, I loved Les Misérables because I loved the corrosive sublime.

Flash-forward two decades. In fall 2022 I taught a single-text course on Les Misérables. I hadn’t read it for about five years. The last time I had, I’d ripped through it per usual, eyes stinging, chest clenched. But teaching it made me slow down.

And in the novel’s final third, I noticed something disturbing.

See, the book’s best example of the corrosive sublime is not the revolutionary students but its hero Jean Valjean, a gentle, stoic man imprisoned for years for stealing a loaf of bread. After rescuing Cosette’s beloved, Marius, from the barricade, and shepherding the couple through a happy marriage, Valjean removes himself from their lives. As an ex-convict, he’s afraid of staining their happiness. Yet Cosette was his life’s last remaining joy. Without her, he slips into darkness, withering away beneath the weight of his broken heart. It’s the last and hardest in his string of martyrdoms, their consummation. “Who would blame Sisyphus or Jean Valjean for saying, ‘Enough!’” asks Hugo. “If perpetual motion is impossible, can perpetual self-sacrifice be demanded?”

I had thought the answer was yes. I’d remembered the novel as endorsing the final image of Valjean memorialized by the musical: being lifted away by “some immense angel with wings outspread,” his reward for a life of relentless sacrifice, proof that he’s the story’s moral exemplar.

Instead I found this, from a scene near the very end of the book. Valjean is explaining to Marius why he shouldn’t see Cosette anymore:

And my criminal contagion I’d have been passing on to you every day! … And my lie, and my fraudulence, and my baseness, and my cowardice, and my treachery, and my crime… When you have such a dreadful thing looming over you, you have no right to make others share it without their knowledge, you have no right to pass on to them your disease.

Yes, I have been tracked down! By whom? By myself. It is I who bar my own way, and I drag myself, and push myself, and arrest myself, and indict myself.

Valjean, who the novel shows us is honest and brave and compassionate, believes he is lying and cowardly and callous. His martyrdom is not altruistic; it’s simply self-hatred. What I’d considered the most angelic quality of Hugo’s unbelievably good hero turns out to be carceral trauma. Valjean sacrifices himself for others not because he’s the book’s moral paragon, but because he has been convinced by 19 years of imprisonment that he deserves no better. He escapes Javert, but he can’t escape the cop in his head. “I arrest myself, and indict myself.” How had I missed it for 20 years?

As I sat uncomfortably with that question in fall 2022, I saw that it concealed a harder one behind it. Why did I love the corrosive sublime so much in the first place?

The answer I arrived at isn’t unusual, though it is a little embarrassing. I grew up in an early-2000s American culture that saved Private Ryans and let go of Jack Dawsons. Self-sacrifice was glorious, at least when it was a particular sort of man doing the sacrificing. More personally, I grew up in an alcoholic family where I was the first child whose job it was to have no needs, in a gender I had no language for wanting to escape. To stay afloat in both, I sublimated myself. And though I couldn’t have explained it, I needed proof my sacrifices were worthwhile. Since those sacrifices weren’t all that difficult—family and gender aside, I was still an upper-middle-class white kid—I sought stories about ones that were: young men dying on barricades or at sea or on the Western Front (the trans bit is that they were generally young men). These melodramas of martyrdom, into which I projected myself, reassured me my smaller self-abnegations were virtuous. I came to love these stories. Twining my pain with their pleasure made it easier to bear.

Yet it’s a short step between endurance and dependence. There’s something magnetic about self-sacrifice. (Christianity, notoriously, built a religion around it.) This is true for people like me who never had to do that much of it, but also for people like Jean Valjean, who did. In loving a daughter whom he protects through repeated sacrifice—giving up prosperity, safety, and eventually Cosette herself—Valjean finally comes to love being sacrificed. I say “love,” but it’s really a compulsion, a reflex. Valjean can’t stop. His only measure of virtue is self-abnegation; he doesn’t know any other way to be. Hugo describes his internal debate about removing himself from Cosette’s life as wrestling with a “conscience” that sounds eerily like an addiction:

Conscience is fathomless. Into this well you throw your lifetime’s work, you throw your fortune, your riches, you throw your success, your liberty or your country, you throw your well-being, your rest, your joy! More! More! More! Empty the vessel! Tip up the urn! In the end you must throw in your heart.

Necessary to this conscience is prison thinking: you are not a person, you deserve nothing. “Happy! Have I any right to be happy? I’m one of life’s outcasts, monsieur,” Valjean tells Marius. I might have aggrandized my own little martyrdoms, but for decades I also genuinely believed that being a good person meant being ready to die for anyone, no matter who, at the drop of a hat. It’s a silly test, as artificial as the trolley problem. But I was afraid of failing it, because failing meant I was selfish, evil, unworthy.

Valjean’s tragedy is that he never failed. I think Hugo understood this. Where I once read Les Misérables as a romance of martyrdom, I now see it as Hugo’s interrogation of his own attraction to self-sacrifice. While he respects sacrifice for the futures it can purchase, he’s aware that it’s a psychological weapon ideally suited to the prison system he wrote against. (Hugo was a lifelong critic of the French penal system and the death penalty; Valjean’s story is based on the same real-life incident that inspired Hugo’s 1829 novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man.) Valjean’s unshakeable self-hatred—his “criminal contagion”—is what drives him, not some higher moral principle. Sacrifice too easily becomes abjection. Valjean rescues Marius and Cosette for a happiness he doesn’t think he deserves. Until the fall of 2022, I never noticed that Hugo titles the chapter in which he claims to prefer martyrdom to success, “The Dead Are Right, the Living Are Not Wrong.” In this chapter, before celebrating the corrosive sublime, Hugo concedes that someone has to live in the future martyrs die for, and living doesn’t make them selfish, evil, or unworthy.

In my own, much smaller melodrama, I had to learn the same thing about transitioning, and acknowledging I had needs. These things didn’t make me evil—just alive (the living are not wrong). Accepting that I didn’t always have to sublimate myself was, I suspect, the factor that enabled me to reassess my understanding of the novel’s attitude toward self-sacrifice. I can no longer even summon that sharp, satisfying pain when I read the barricade scene. The ache is gone. It feels a little corny to say that transition helped me hate myself less, rendering martyrdom less alluring. But it’s true.

I’m a mild case, though. For people like Valjean—beaten by carceral logic into forbidding themselves the smallest shred of human worth—reclaiming themselves is sometimes impossible. And their denial of their own lives can be as tragic as their death for someone else’s.

This is the final, troubling conclusion Hugo leaves us with at the end of Les Misérables. It’s very different from the musical, where the martyred dead return for a reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing.” Understandably, the musical wants to preserve the romance of martyrdom: to promise that the only casualties in the service of a better future are the noble dead, that if we abolish the prison in real life, it will not live on in our heads. Hugo knows better. In the novel’s final scene, as Valjean lies on his deathbed, he turns to Cosette. He whispers: “It’s nothing to die. It’s dreadful not to live.”

The attendant bishop lays a cross beside him, murmuring, “There’s the great martyr.”

Ben Pladek is associate professor of English at Marquette University. His academic monograph, The Poetics of Palliation: Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790-1850, appeared in 2019. His first novel, Dry Land, comes out with the University of Wisconsin Press in fall 2023.

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