Eugene Francois Vidocq and Reformation – Dom Cunningham
I am fascinated by the idea of horrible people becoming good. Many of my favorite stories feature a major character who undergoes such a change, and I’ve developed characters of my own with similar arcs, as well. Characters such as Darth Vader from Star Wars, Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, and Marvel Comics’ Scarlet Witch all demonstrate that some of the most contemptible people are capable of changing for the better. Is the message sent by these characters true, though? Can bad people change their ways? Or is reformation as much of a fantasy as the aforementioned characters’ extraordinary powers. These characters, combined with my own experiences with both pleasant and unpleasant people, have inspired me to pursue this question further. I believe I have found an answer.
Vidocq had the ultimate story of fall and redemption.
Eugene Francois Vidocq lived a life of constant imprisonment and escape. His crimes ranged from theft to attacking soldiers, and the disguises he took on to vainly avoid capture came in even more variety. Eventually, Vidocq realized how futile his constant fleeing from the authorities was, and agreed to assist the police in exchange for his freedom. From there, Vidocq used the skills and knowledge gained from his life of crime to revolutionize police work. He would use science and manipulation to find criminals and suspects, and his efforts eventually led to him founding the French National Police. And so, a petty criminal becomes the world’s first detective.
My research into Vidocq gave me hope. If a man like Vidocq was capable of making a positive change, then many others of his formerly petty stature could do likewise. The key, it seems, is having an epiphany. Vidocq came to realize that his life of crime was taking him nowhere, and that realization inspired him to try helping the police instead of fleeing from them. If anybody similarly despicable were to have such a realization, then they might find the motivation to reform as well.
So how might Vidocq’s story be relevant to others? My research also revealed that the events of Vidocq’s life have inspired many well renowned writers, including Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One must only look at the characters these authors created to see Vidocq’s influence. Themes of reformation are evident in many of them.
For instance, Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a widely known reformed character. Much like Vidocq, Scrooge experiences an epiphany; the spirits of Christmas reveal the horrifying consequences of Scrooge’s selfish actions, both to himself and those around him, and he is inspired to become more charitable.
If we look to Victor Hugo’s work, we see Jean Valjean reflect Vidocq’s change even more so in Les Miserables. Much like Vidocq, Valjean is first seen as a convict on parole, but the kindness of a priest inspires him to change his ways. Years later, Valjean has become the mayor of the town. Hugo clearly believed, because of Vidocq, that troubled people are not only capable of changing, but able to become greatly positive influences on the world.
So what is the importance of the characters Vidocq inspired? These writers did not believe that Vidocq was a one-time situation. They believed that if a petty criminal could become the father of modern criminology, then anyone, from cynical businessmen to villainous aliens, could reform with the right inspiration. By sharing Vidocq’s story through their own, the inspiration required for reformation is made accessible to anyone who may need it. Somebody may witness the changes of Scrooge or Valjean or any such character and feel compelled to change for the better. Then those people’s stories may inspire others to make similar changes. And so a moment of inspiration goes on to change all who are willing to listen.
What are your thoughts? Do you know somebody who was inspired to change as Vidocq was? Is there anything we can do to help expose unpleasant people more easily to such inspiration? Is it worth trying to reform negative people, from school bullies to convicts, or are some people better left in a prison cell? Leave a comment below.