The year 1817 is wonderfully described by Hugo in all of its confusion, just like any other year, including the new 2015 unfolding before us now. Looking back on such a year provides the context we need for the “good farce” that set into motion the conflict of the novel, and I spent a lot of time learning about these people and events he mentions. However, I am greatly impressed by the context and priority lessons that his account provides. For what seemed urgent then, urgent enough to make people perpetually angry, seems artificial now, especially arguments and posings. And what lasts in this 1817 account are etchings of pleasure-seeking, belligerence and pride.
But the novel now turns to those greater lives. There were indeed lives devoted to love and justice and mercy which have much more noble and lasting effect. There were mothers like Fantine who loved their children unselfishly and there were pastors like the bishop who cared daily for his flock and contemplated God. And there was even a convict who decided to turn and love God by giving away his own life to a small child to complete the work of this frail mother.
Although men strive to attach their name to those matters which get written up in this type of summary, the works of love are best lived in anonymity. And so I find myself solving problems as an engineer in the ORNL world of materials science, dedicating the best of my career to making a better target (neutron light bulb filament). Its so easy to get lost in the daily puzzle solving and to neglect the finer moments of prayer, mercy, and waiting. As I learn these lessons in later years, I have no regrets for God used my impatience and stumblings of youth to do wonderful things in people, even if the most remembered aspects of my life by my acquaintenances were foisted upon them through my prideful acts, there are tenderer moments I am sure that are remembered by my nearer friends and family. It is these acts, supported by small decisions to wait and listen and focus on another life, that build and provide leverage for future generations.