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Does a Loss of Dignity Harden the Heart?

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is serving a 19-year prison sentence. Essentially he’s a slave laborer because he stole a loaf of bread. Five years of the sentence are for the original crime; the rest is because he tried to escape.

As the years pass, Valjean becomes more and more angry.  He is humiliated at every turn:

  • He must take a bath in the presence of soldiers. 
  • He must get his hair cut in the presence of soldiers. 
  • He is subject to harsh punishment for the slightest of rule infractions. 
  • He is chained to other prisoners when they move around. 
  • He must watch if a fellow prisoner is executed. 
  • He knows the bodies of prisoners are disrespectfully handled, after death. 

When prisoners are mistreated, and lose their dignity, is the result a hardened heart?

Valjean is someone who once cared so much for his family that he risked getting caught by stealing a loaf of bread. Yet the many years in prison have changed him. He is developing a "hatred of human law."  Hard labor on the galleys, Hugo tells us, has remolded him:

From year to year this soul had dried away slowly, but with fatal sureness.  When the heart is dry, the eye is dry.  On his departure from the galleys it had been nineteen years since he had shed a tear.

What do these words mean:  "When the heart is dry, the eye is dry."  

What difference does it make if a person is incapable of crying?

What does “hatred of human law” mean? Can a person who has developed a “hatred of human law” be changed? How?


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