Gold Medallion Award-winner Bob Welch crafts 52 nuggets of Bible-based wisdom from one of the most popular novels, musicals, and films of all time: Les Misérables.
In 52 Little Lessons from Les Misérables, Bob Welch walks readers through Hugo’s masterpiece, extracting dozens of uniquely spiritual reflections from this enduring portrait of poverty, social injustice, mercy, and redemption. Welch reminds us that Jean Valjean’s life provides the truest example of why real love is found in the grittiest places, and that hearts are made whole beneath the crush of mercy. Most important, though, Welch keeps returning to the intersections of faith and reality throughout Hugo’s writingthose places where mercy becomes an inroad to the heart, and where love is only truly received when it is given without condition.
Discover again why life’s purpose is found not in attending to personal needs and desires, but in responding to the hearts of others.
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About the Author
Bob Welch is the author of 12 books, an award-winning columnist, a speaker, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene. His articles have been published in inspirational books, including the popular “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.
Read an Excerpt
52 Little Lessons From Les Misérables
By Bob Welch
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Bob Welch
All rights reserved.
Context mat ters
The loftiest things are often the least understood. —Les Misérables
Our family was vacationing in the shadows of Oregon's Cascade Mountains when I noticed my college-age niece buried in a book. Not any book. Les Misérables. Not any version. A French edition.
Some of you, like her, know Les Misérables inside and out. You know Marius's full name is Baron Marius Pontmercy. You could offer a play-by-play on the Battle of Waterloo; Hugo spends no fewer than forty-nine pages on it. You could enliven the dullest dinner party with an array of Les Miz trivia, say, that Colm Wilkinson, who plays the bishop of Digne in the 2012 movie, origi nated the role of Jean Valjean in the London and New York stage productions.
For others, the story is new. So, to begin, let us beg the pardon of the French-reading nieces of the world and offer a fast-forward version of the story. Why do so? Because context matters. Building the scaffolding of a story helps us understand the nooks and crannies within. Knowing a little prepares us to know more. And knowing more helps us discover deeper truths.
So we begin: It is October 1812 in the south of France. Jean Valjean, a former tree pruner with uncommon physical strength, is released from prison after serving nineteen years—five for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's family, and another fourteen for frequent attempts to escape. Turned away, scorned, and beaten by others—his "yellow card" passport marks him as trouble—Valjean is taken in by a kindhearted bishop.
Valjean is amazed at the bishop's kindness. And yet he later slips into the night having stolen the man's silverware. But when Valjean is caught by police and returned, the bishop insists that the silverware was a gift to Valjean—and claims he had forgotten the candlesticks, which were meant for him too. The doubting police agree to release Valjean.
The bishop bids him farewell. "Do not forget, ever," he tells the forgiven man, "that you have promised to use this silver to become an honest man."
After a misstep, Valjean does so, even though it means changing his identity. In Montreuil-sur-Mer, as "Monseiur Madeleine," he revolutionizes a bead factory that brings fabulous wealth to him and economic sustenance to the village. He is appointed mayor.
In Paris, a young woman, Fantine, is abandoned by the wealthy student she loved and who fathered her child. Knowing she won't be able to find work in her hometown of Montreuil-sur-Mer if her indiscretion is found out, she arranges for innkeepers, the Thénardiers, to look after little Cosette in the neighboring town of Montfermeil. She then goes to work in Madeleine's factory, sending the Thénardiers money for the care of her child. But she loses her job when it is learned she has a child out of wedlock.
When Madeleine lifts a cart to save the life of a man pinned beneath it, his strength awakens suspicion in a witness to the incident. Chief of police Javert remembers seeing such strength in only one man: the prisoner Jean Valjean when Javert was serving as a guard in Toulon.
The Thénardiers demand more money to care for Cosette. To support her daughter, Fantine grudgingly sells her hair, her teeth, and, ultimately, her body as a prostitute. When Javert arrests her and insists she be sent to jail, Madeleine intervenes and releases her.
Fantine falls ill and longs to see Cosette. Madeleine vows to make these arrangements. Meanwhile, though, Javert learns of another criminal who has confessed to being Jean Valjean. When Javert tells Madeleine this information, the real Valjean is presented with a convenient "out." Instead, after considerable inner turmoil, he confesses his true identity to spare the man. When Javert arrives at Fantine's bedside to arrest Madeleine, the young woman dies—but not before Valjean promises her he will take care of Cosette.
Valjean is sent to prison by Javert for breaking parole. Later, he escapes and buys Cosette from the Thénardiers, swindlers who have neglected and physically abused the girl. Realizing Javert is on his trail, Valjean finds refuge for himself and Cosette in a Paris convent, where he works as a gardener.
Years pass. As Valjean and his adopted daughter walk through the streets of Paris, a young law student, Marius Pontmercy, takes notice of Cosette—and she of him. Valjean grows fearful of losing her. Marius and Cosette meet when Valjean visits the apparently needy neighbors of Marius, who turn out to be the Thénardiers. In an extortion scam, they plan to have Valjean robbed by cohorts. Marius alerts Javert, the local police inspector, to foil the plot, and Valjean escapes before Javert can identify him.
Meanwhile, Marius joins a band of student radicals who fuel a political uprising against the French royalist government. When the Thénardiers' daughter, Éponine, helps Marius meet Cosette, Valjean feels further threatened. He plans to take Cosette to England to keep her away from Marius. Heartbroken at the news, Marius reconciles that he will die in the inevitable student clash with government troops.
When a barricade is built and violence breaks out, the students capture Javert as a spy. Éponine, who secretly loves Marius, saves his life by throwing herself in front of a bullet. While dying, she hands him a letter from Cosette. The grieving Marius sends a reply to her through Gavroche, a street urchin.
Valjean intercepts the note, realizes the depth of Cosette's love for Marius, and heads for the barricade to join the student revolutionaries' cause. When Javert is apprehended as a spy, Valjean offers to execute him. But once alone with Javert, he sets his pursuer free. Marius is wounded. As the French army storms the barricade, Valjean escapes into the sewer system with the unconscious Marius, bumping into Thénardier along the way.
Javert outwits Valjean and arrests him as he emerges from the sewer with Marius. Valjean pleads to allow the wounded young man to be taken to his grandfather. Javert allows it, but he feels so conflicted about Valjean's mercy and his failure to bring the man to justice that he commits suicide.
Marius recovers. He reconciles with his grandfather with whom he's had a falling-out and, with the man's blessing, marries Cosette. Instead of informing Cosette and Marius that he was responsible for saving the young man's life, Valjean reveals his criminal past. Marius wants nothing more to do with the man. The shattered Valjean prepares to die. But Marius accidentally learns from Thénardier that it is Valjean who saved his life. Marius tells Cosette. The two come to Valjean's side, and, reconciled with Cosette, Valjean dies in peace.
If that seems rushed, it should. It's the distillation of 1,463 pages of Hugo's novel into fewer than one thousand words, the literary equivalent of trying to scoop the Pacific Ocean into a thimble. So what follows is a broader—and more leisurely—voyage across this sea of significance.CHAPTER 2
Fame brags; love whispers
Love one another. He declared that to be complete. He desired nothing more.
—Hugo, on the bishop's priorities
Although the movie version of Les Misérables begins with the cultural chasm between Jean Valjean and Javert, Hugo opens his book with a fifty-eight-page exploration of Monseigneur Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel, the bishop of Digne. The man whose grace toward Jean Valjean leaves the former convict inalterably changed, which, in turn, changes so many whom Valjean touches.
Who is this man whom the author finds so important? Myriel, we learn, had been born into a regal family. His father was a superior court judge, and Myriel is expected to follow in his father's footsteps. Myriel is "elegant, graceful and witty," writes Hugo, "passionate" and "violent."
"His early years had been devoted to worldly pleasures." As was the custom among privileged families, he marries a young woman handpicked by his father. He appears to be headed for the spotlight. In the pre-TV and YouTube days of late-1700s Paris, that might not have meant a particularly bright spotlight, but Myriel's trajectory clearly points him toward fame and fortune. "Charles Myriel," writes Hugo, "had attracted a great deal of attention."
Then, in 1789, comes the French Revolution—the real deal, not the 1832 street riots portrayed in Les Misérables—and everything changes. Political and social upheaval topple the country's absolute monarchy—a form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government. Myriel flees to Italy. His wife dies after an extended illness. When he returns to France, he is a changed man.
Why the turnaround? Hugo is agonizingly silent on the subject, one of the quirks of an author who thinks nothing of chattering on for dozens of pages about battles and sewers and convents but ignores a question that begs to be answered. All we know is that Myriel emerges from Italy as a priest, is later appointed a bishop, and settles into a life of obscurity in a small village in the Alps.
If it is a life thin on notoriety, it is thick with meaning. The bishop, Myriel, is "an upright man." He insists that the twenty-six indigent patients in the cramped hospital in Digne take over his palace while he moves to their narrow, two-story building. His personal budget is one-sixth what he gives to the poor. His kindness earns him the nickname "Bienvenu," which means "Welcome." His lone luxuries are his silverware and candlesticks.
Myriel visits neighboring villages not aboard a gold-trimmed carriage with an entourage but alone on a donkey. Rich or poor, Myriel relates to people well, exuding "the very eloquence of Christ," writes Hugo. "He could say the loftiest things in the simplest languages; and as he could speak all dialects, his words penetrated every soul." He defends those who cannot defend themselves, especially women and the poor. "The faults of women, children, and servants," we read, "... are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise."
When the local curé—or parish priest—refuses to spend time with a man condemned to die for the murder of another, Myriel walks beside the convict. Talks to him. Prays with him. "The sufferer, so desolate and overwhelmed the day before, was now radiant with hope," we are told. "He felt that his soul was reconciled, and he trusted in God."
Among other priests, Myriel is a loner. "Monseigneur Bienvenu, a humble, poor, private person, was not counted among the rich miters," writes Hugo. "This was plain from the complete absence of young priests around him. We have seen that in Paris he did not fit in. No glorious future dreamed of alighting upon this solitary old man." Myriel, meanwhile, likes serving other people.
So, would Myriel's life "cut it" in modern-day America? Would it conform to what we hold near and dear? Not so much. We like advancement. We like fame and fortune. We ascribe greatness to those who can get onstage and sing or dance for millions—or win some reality TV show. Or those who make a tackle on a football field and flex their muscles to milk the crowd for praise—as if what they've really done, instead of flattening a ball carrier, is find a cure for cancer. We like "Likes" on our Facebook pages and thousands to follow us on Twitter.
But Myriel—who in earlier years "had attracted a great deal of attention"—is the living embodiment of 1 Thessalonians 4:11: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life." Not in frittering away opportunity so he won't be bothered. But in involving himself in the lives of others.
In so doing, he reminds us that dignity—the stuff that really matters—is not loud and proud and onstage. Instead, it whispers in the obscure places and touches the obscure people. And, in quiet ways, it changes the world.CHAPTER 3
Knock and the door will be opened
Have you knocked at that one there?
—A woman in Digne who takes pity on Valjean
In Digne as a recently released convict, Jean Valjean is turned away for this job and turned away from that inn. He is even turned away when he asks a jailer if he can stay for a night; the irony is that Valjean, though technically a free man, is a slave to his past—so much so that he is willing to go to jail as a means of survival. In Hugo's no-room-in-the-jail scene, Valjean resembles the prodigal son, who became so desperate to survive that "he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating." Alas, "no one gave him anything" (Luke 15:16).
"Everybody has driven me away," Valjean tells a woman who takes enough pity on him to help.
"Have you knocked at every door?" she asks.
"Yes," he says.
"Have you knocked at that one there?"
Because of that door—the bishop's door—what he finds isn't just a hot meal, a glass of wine, and a warm bed.
What he finds is life. Grace. God.
Better yet, God finds him. And not with the suspicion of Inspector Javert. Not with the unreachable you-must-be-this-tall-to-enjoy-the-ride standards, but with the open arms of a father of grace welcoming home the prodigal son.
In a material world, where we're honored for what we look like and what we own and how high we score on the SAT, God looks deeper. "The Lord does not look at the things people look at," says 1 Samuel 16:7. "People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
Like Javert, we can look completely put together. Fully in control. Totally committed to a noble cause. "Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power, attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love," writes Henri J. M. Nouwen. "These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found."
So we stumble in the dark, clinging to blind pride to prove ourselves right. Until, desperate, we knock. Then, as Matthew 7:7–8 says, everything changes. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened."CHAPTER 4
Every personal encounter matters
I am in this world to care not for my life, but for souls.
—Monseigneur Myriel, the bishop of Digne
Les Misérables pivots on a single act of kindness shown by Monseigneur Myriel. It changes the life of Jean Valjean. Above all, it reminds us that a single act of kindness can last a lifetime—and beyond.
When the just-released-from-prison Valjean shows up at the bishop's door one night, the two men have little in common. At age forty-four, Valjean has been a slave to injustice, cruelty, and coldhearted men. Prison has left him nearly as much animal as man. He is branded as a convict—literally (No. 24,6012) and figuratively—and his newfound freedom promises little hope.
At age seventy-five, Myriel voluntarily chooses to eschew privilege to serve others less fortunate. Thus, when he welcomes Valjean into his home and offers him food, wine, warmth, and a bed, it is nothing extraordinary for him. In his eyes, the extraordinary thing in this situation is the stranger.
The bishop welcomes Valjean unconditionally. "Come in," he says, not even waiting to see who is at the door, a sign of unconditional acceptance. He not only listens to Valjean divulge his life as an ex-con but, when he finishes, turns to his servant and says, "Madame Magloire, another place please."
When Valjean himself warns that his papers point out he is "highly dangerous"—he'd never have cut it as a door-to-door salesman—and asks if there is a stable where he might sleep, the bishop again turns to his servant. "Madame Magloire," he says, "put some sheets on the bed in the alcove."
The bishop looks at this man and sees not his past but his future, not an ex-prisoner but promise. He looks at this encounter not as a threat or an inconvenience but as an honor. "Madame Magloire, set the places as near the fire as you can," he instructs. Then, turning to Valjean, he says, "You must be cold, monsieur."
Excerpted from 52 Little Lessons From Les Misérables by Bob Welch. Copyright © 2014 Bob Welch. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsList of Characters, xi,
Author's Note, xv,
Lesson 1 Context matters, 1,
Lesson 2 Fame brags; love whispers, 6,
Lesson 3 Knock and the door will be opened, 10,
Lesson 4 Every personal encounter matters, 12,
Lesson 5 Even the coldest heart can thaw, 15,
Lesson 6 Blessed are the poor in spirit, 18,
Lesson 7 Actions trump words, 21,
Lesson 8 It's not about "the stuff", 26,
Lesson 9 The conscience must not be ignored, 29,
Lesson 10 Starting over can redefine our purpose, 33,
Lesson 11 Goodness requires no audience, 36,
Lesson 12 Our actions ripple through time, 39,
Lesson 13 We need to see people as God sees people, 44,
Lesson 14 Crisis reveals character, 48,
Lesson 15 Grace, accepted, changes us, 51,
Lesson 16 Our strengths can become our weaknesses, 54,
Lesson 17 Trust can be misplaced, 57,
Lesson 18 God's ways aren't always our ways, 60,
Lesson 19 Not all that glitters is gold, 62,
Lesson 20 God hears our desperate cries for help, 66,
Lesson 21 Children need childhoods, 70,
Lesson 22 We need one another, 73,
Lesson 23 Faith must touch others, 77,
Lesson 24 Don't rush to judgment, 81,
Lesson 25 Faith in others unlocks their giftedness, 85,
Lesson 26 The past can be a springboard to the future, 88,
Lesson 27 Paying it forward changes the world, 91,
Lesson 28 A contented life is a thankful life, 94,
Lesson 29 Wisdom can come from weird places, 97,
Lesson 30 True character is consistent character, 100,
Lesson 31 Remember the humanity of the homeless, 104,
Lesson 32 Remember those who put their lives on the line, 107,
Lesson 33 Deceit is no respecter of social standing, 110,
Lesson 34 The truth shall set you free, 113,
Lesson 35 Political opinions are unworthy idols, 116,
Lesson 36 Jesus' life was revolutionary stuff, 120,
Lesson 37 The truth isn't always obvious, 124,
Lesson 38 Perspective changes things, 127,
Lesson 39 Love means letting go, 131,
Lesson 40 Self-pity morphs into selfishness, 135,
Lesson 41 The older are not necessarily the wiser, 138,
Lesson 42 Hiding feelings hampers relationships, 141,
Lesson 43 We can break the chains from our pasts, 143,
Lesson 44 Opportunities to help shouldn't be wasted, 147,
Lesson 45 Love has a gritty side to it, 151,
Lesson 46 We matter more than we know, 155,
Lesson 47 Religion isn't the answer, 159,
Lesson 48 True revolution starts and ends in our hearts, 161,
Lesson 49 The law is not enough, 166,
Lesson 50 Love perseveres, 170,
Lesson 51 We are les misérables, 174,
Lesson 52 To love another person is to see the face of God, 178,
Book Club Questions, 183,
About the Author, 187,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
52 LITTLE LESSONS FROM LES MISERABLES BY Bob Welch A small book but packed with a lot of information. The author takes you step by step through the story written by Victor Hugo, the magnificent story of Les Miserables, revealing lessons that God has placed in the story, and how these lessons, are needed by the world today. He begins giving you a short outline of the story in case you never read the book, seen the play or seen the different movie versions. The book, divided into 52 short chapters, it easy to read and to understand. The author points out many life lessons that are in the story which makes the story that much more interesting and will give you inspiration in your own life. It may not be what you would expect to be inspirational but God can use all things to His own good. The author shows just how God has used this story to offer the reader a new view of this story. A view that may be missed by others. The true meaning that God offers the reader is a chance to change their own life by the Godly acts of the characters of this story. Read the book and enjoy a new view of a great classic. I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255
As an avid fan of the Broadway musical, and now the more recent movie, I know this story inside out. I also know that what attracts me so much to Victor Hugo’s masterpiece is that at its core it is about sin, love and redemption. Those elements are what causes our lives to mirror those in Les Miserables. Bob Welch's book takes all all of those elements and shows how there are little lessons to be found all throughout the story. I highly recommend this book!