My favourite book character.
This was a hard one. There’s Atticus Finch. He was a fine, upstanding man, great to read. Then there’s Ged, Archmage of Earthsea. I really fell in love with him. The winner though, has to be Jean Valjean of Les Miserables fame.
I have to admit that when I read Les Miserables (both times) there were vast tracts of it that I skipped through, either skim reading or leaving them unread altogether. I really wasn’t interested, for instance, in the layout of the sewers in Paris in the early 19th Century, so that was forty pages I didn’t read. Whenever it came to passages with Jean Valjean though, I was riveted. I’ve gone back and reread some scenes just for the heck of it a few times since.
Colm Wilkinson, who played Jean Valjean in the musical of Les Miserables for so many years, is quoted as having pointed out that Valjean is not the hero of the piece. Very true. That’s why the Bishop gets so many pages at the beginning before Valjean is even introduced. But it’s also true that Valjean didn’t have to take the Bishop’s sacrifice the way he did. He could have gone on thieving and told himself that he deserved the candlesticks after what life had thrown at him. The story would have been very different then. Maybe Javert would have been the hero?
Valjean did take what the Bishop did very much to heart though, and becomes a man of integrity. But he was still not perfect. That’s what makes him such a good character. He does some really great things, but not without going through the agony of being tempted away from the good act. If he had blithely chosen to save the man from prison who everyone thought was him, he would have seemed two-dimensional. If he’d chosen to let the name of Valjean die with the man, I would have shut the book and walked away muttering under my breath. But he goes through hell trying to persuade himself that he doesn’t need to do anything to save him and then still acts. That’s a great character.
One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve been writing is that often it’s more important to stress what the character doesn’t say, than what he does. Hugo was an expert at this. I started reading the scene where the Thenardiers kidnap Valjean and threaten to torture him one Saturday morning as I ate my breakfast. (Tut tut, reading while I’m eating –what sort of librarian does that?) What struck me most was Valjean’s silence. He didn’t want to be noticed by the police, so he didn’t shout, but he didn’t even speak in a soft voice. He just let them talk while he planned his way out. When he does finally speak, it’s a statement of love for his daughter. It was such a strong character portrayal that I think if the fire alarm above my head had gone off at that moment, I would have completely ignored it until he was out of that room and safe.
I have to admit that there’s a part of me that relates to Valjean on another level too. He’s an adoptive parent. Never once does he doubt that he can love a child that bears no physical relation to him. He just loves her, to the point of dying of a broken heart when he thinks she has rejected him. A little melodramatic maybe, but I can relate to that.
I suspect there are a lot of people who have looked at the 1500 pages of Les Miserables and thought ‘No way!’ But if you haven’t read it, try it, even if like me, you skim through all the protracted description. It’s worth it!