Hugo and Dickens were contemporaries. At this Christmas, the reading of this sad account of Cosette’s neglect resonates with Dicken’s classic haunting scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present:
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
I cannot deny it. JVJ could not deny it. In fact he gave his life for just one such child. He felt responsible. His responsibility came from someone else taking responsibility for him. So this chapter is the opening of the robe with the call that I hear this morning: “Yes, its a sad sight, and hard to believe how such a scene might be non-fiction. But you know it’s worse than this, and many times over, and such people are not even so far away from where I sit in comfort.”
The best we can do is to distract ourselves. And I do that pretty well I fear. At this Christmas, I recognize that the same collective union of mankind that was impacted by the star and birth announcing that God is with us (the same child who would grow to tell all how very near indeed He is), that same collective union binds us to reciprocate and own the ignorance and want for ourselves. It’s not someone else’s problem.
Cosette is not just Fantine’s child.
Cosette is not just Jean Valjean’s child.
Cosette is my child.