I first heard of the musical, Les Miserables, when I was about ten years old. I went to my sister’s college choir’s concert, featuring highlights from the musical. A few years later, I spent my summer vacation reading through the novel by Victor Hugo not once, but three times. I loved the story, the imagery, the vivid way in which Victor Hugo told the story of the common people of France, spanning from 1815 to the June rebellion of 1832. If I sit here, I can still remember the five lithograph photos found in the pages of the library book, including a particularly pretty photo of Cosette and Marius sitting in the garden. It was a book that had a long-lasting impact upon me, and I was never fortunate enough to see the musical version of the book on stage. So when I found out Les Miserables was coming out in the theatres, I knew I would finally get my chance to see the musical version of one of my all-time favorite books and soundtracks.
Watching the movie gave me a new perspective on the story, which closely follows the events of the book. I was amazed to learn that Les Miserables the musical was a failure in its original French format, and fought severely negative word-of-mouth reviews when it first came out in the English. Here was this musical that has now turned into a mega-worldwide phenomenon with an original history that struggled to bring itself forth. I wonder if the musical’s struggle was, in essence, a reflection of the truth that is contained therein. Both the book and the musical are very Biblical in nature, and seek to discuss Biblical themes, most basically, the conflict between the law and grace.
The story itself holds to a complicated weaving of several plots together into one main storyline. The foundational element to the story is that of Jean Valjean (name means “God is gracious), a prisoner for over twenty years because he stole a loaf of bread for his dying sister and her family, as well as numerous escape attempts. He served his time as a slave in hard labor, and was subject to spend the rest of his life on parole, reporting once monthly. He was unable to get work or housing due to his past. While staying at a church, he attempts to steal a large amount of silver from the church. When he is caught, the Bishop tells the police he gave him the silver, and also hands him two large, silver candlesticks – telling him he forgot the most important element. When the police leave, he still gives Jean Valjean the candlesticks, telling him to let this be a change in his life – and to go forth and do good with the money. Realizing he would be subject to a life of bondage, Jean Valjean tears up his parole papers, assumes a new identity, and spends his time as an asset to the people. He eventually becomes a mayor.
Jean Valjean does not find it that easy to escape his past, however. Inspector Javert (name means “to relentlessly pursue), who supervised Jean Valjean while in prison and issued him his parole, sees it his personal duty to arrest Jean Valjean again, as a parole violator. Even though he discovers him years later while Jean Valjean was using an alias, he is recognized by Javert because he is able to lift a cart off a man who is trapped underneath it. Jean Valjean and Javert will spend many years as opposites, one running, and the other pursuing. As a representation of the law, Javert believes bringing Jean Valjean in to justice – even years after the fact – is a matter of God’s duty. When faced with having to admit his true identity to set another man free, Jean Valjean steps up to the courts as prisoner 24601 and then spends a number of years on the run, trying to avoid Javert, who has avowed to imprison him.
Jean Valjean, as mayor and a factory owner, owns a factory which employs Fantine (name meaning “child”), a young woman with a daughter (she was deeply in love with Cosette’s father, to whom she was not married, but the father abandoned them) entrusted to the care of the Thenardiers, two dirty innkeepers who operate by thievery and trickery. Unbeknownst to her, they claim her daughter, Cosette (name meaning unknown), is chronically ill, when she is not. She also suffers cruelty and abuse at their hands, of which Fantine knows nothing about. This is in stark contrast to the way they treat their own daughter, Eponine (name meaning unknown, but taken from a romance novel), who is indulged and spoiled while Cosette is forced to work in hard labor. When harassed by a supervisor, Fantine is fired and Javert attempts to arrest her. Jean Valjean intervenes and is able to have her set free, but the life Fantine is forced to live leaves much to be desired. Being out of work and afraid her daughter will die without money subjects Fantine to cut off her hair for money, have back teeth pulled in exchange for payment, and ultimately, succumb to a life of prostitution. Fantine becomes ill not long after, and dies. When Jean Valjean discovers Fantine was fired from his own factory, he pledges to take care of her daughter, Cosette, in her absence.
Before disappearing on the run, Jean Valjean retrieves Cosette, paying 1,500 francs to obtain her from the Thenardiers. Even though he tries to swindle more money out of Jean Valjean, Jean Valjean takes off with Cosette for Paris. Soon after, Javert discovers their whereabouts, and they have to take off, yet again. They make their way to the Petit-Picpus Convent, and spend a number of years there, living at the convent (as churches were places of refuge where prisoners could not be arrested). Here, Cosette could receive proper education and Jean Valjean could work as a gardener. They received favor from the man whom Jean Valjean rescued in the street that day, releasing him from the cart that trapped him on the ground.
The story fast-forwards eight years later to the Friends of the ABC, an uprising organization that mobilized after the death of General Lamarque, the only leader with any sympathies or interest in the French people. It was largely stirred by students, one of whom was Marius Pontmercy (name means “male”), the grandson of a wealthy man who has become isolated from his family due to his liberal viewpoints. As the Thenardiers’ daughter, Eponine, now lives poor and in poverty because her parents lost their inn, Eponine is smitten with Marius, especially his wealthy background. Marius, however, has no interest in her. Upon the sight of Cosette, now a young woman, he falls deeply in love with her. Torn between participation in the call for revolutionary battle as a people’s militia, Marius commits to the revolution. Javert finds Jean Valjean thanks to the Thenardieirs, and Jean Valjean announces to Cosette that they will have to leave for England. Protesting now due to her new-found love, Jean Valjean discovers Marius’ affection for Cosette, and he realizes his own personal duty to see to it that Marius comes home from the revolutionary battle.
The revolutionary battle is intense and results in the death of all of Marius’ friends, including Eponine, who decides to go to battle, realizing Marius was in love with Cosette, and she had no chance with him. Jean Valjean volunteers in the battle, with the intention to supervise Marius’ life. Javert is taken prisoner by the revolution, and then set free by Jean Valjean, who fully well has the opportunity to kill him. Marius is spared because Jean Valjean goes in and saves his life. In the meantime, confronted with the reality that Jean Valjean has set him free, Javert commits suicide.
Marius and Cosette plan to marry, with Jean Valjean leaving in the night, never saying goodbye to Cosette. He confesses to Marius that he must leave for fear that his past would come out, and Cosette would be disgraced. On the day of their wedding, the Thenardiers come forward, trying to figure out yet another way to extort money from the couple. Through their appearance and statement, Marius learns it was Jean Valjean who saved his life, and they discover he is at the convent. They rush over there, just in time to see Jean Valjean one last time, and to be with him as he dies, going over to see the many who died in the revolution, who have finally found what they sought in life.
Overall, Les Miserables is a story of grace and mercy; that forgiveness, grace, and mercy do triumph over the rudiments of the law. Even though Jean Valjean admitted to wrongdoing in his life, the punishment the law sought to impose upon him was unjust, as it did not fit the crime. In the face of grace (Valjean), the law could not stand, and fell upon itself (Javert).
The more I think about Les Miserables, the more I think about the church today. The movie is full of people who did what they felt they had to do: Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread to help his sister’s family, Fantine wound up turning to prostitution because she didn’t have another option to support her daughter, and Marius had to stand with the revolution – all because they did not stand before other options. In the face of the law, represented by Javert, there was no excuse, no redemption, no righteousness to be found in their intense and dire circumstances. The story reminds us that life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope it will. When Fantine was first with Cosette’s father, she didn’t have the foresight to see through unto a day when he would be gone, Cosette would be with someone else, and she would need money. When Jean Valjean stole the loaf of bread that began the entire story, he didn’t ever imagine he would spend his entire life running over one choice. Marius believed in his revolutionary cause so deeply, it didn’t really occur in a realistic terms that he might face the loss of all his friends for that cause, and in the long run, things would not immediately change all that much in France. In the face of poverty, difficulty, and oppression, these people – average, working-class people – were faced with difficult choices. If they didn’t do one thing, they would face another thing. If they did something else, they would face something different. In our world there are people who face these decisions and choices every day. Just as in the story, we have a choice: we can be an agent of grace, or we can be another Javert, imposing the letter of the law, because we want to stand as judge.
The church today lives by one form of the law, or another. They are all rules and regulations men have created. Many aren’t even found in the Bible. And Christians today run around, like little lawgivers, seeking to impose the law – because, as Javert says, “I am the law.” Instead of being agents of mercy, too many who call themselves by the Name of Christ run around imposing the law, trying to make their point, trying to be right. They consider themselves above the problems of the average, common person, and feel that, because they are endowed with some sort of authority, they have the right to impose that law.
Both Jean Valjean and Javert believed they were powerfully guided by God. The major difference? Valjean went before God in humility, believing God had never let him down, not through all his years. Javert believed God endowed him with a power that entitled him to penalize. This reminds me of Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (NIV) I hear a lot more tax collectors today (Javert) than people in humility (Valjean).
Les Miserables also reveals to us the truth of love in purpose, and how love in purpose changes our lives. Caring for Cosette changed the perspective of Jean Valjean and Cosette. He cared for her enough to allow her to love Marius, and make the sacrifice for her to be with him. These were people who were never biologically related. Today we fuss over biology and this and that, who parents are and who they are not, but here is the truth of a story: a man (a criminal according to the law) who cared for a young girl he was not related to, and was never inappropriate with her or mistreated her. Caring for and loving this young girl changed his life, as well as hers. It gave her what she needed to be an adult, able to love someone else. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t his “real” daughter or he her “real” father. In this place, grace and mercy is possible: Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8, NIV)
The storyline challenges us as to what we really believe about redemption. Do we believe it is possible? Then that means we extend the same grace, mercy, and forgiveness that God has extended to us. Romans 6;14: For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (NIV) If we live under grace, that means we operate it, lest our own actions fall upon ourselves.
Lastly, let us never forget that the word “Les Miserables” means “The Miserable” when translated. Yet, in the midst of the misery these people faced – fugitive living, poverty, disease, illness, revolt, war, and even the law – we learn that these people were not that miserable. They had grace and redemption – something the law, with all its frills and benefits, did not. They didn’t need to run around, seeking an annual yearly “word,” and God only knows how many personal “words.” Such as life was, they believed people could change – truly repent. They knew their ultimate promise lied in salvation, not in how many things they could obtain in this life. They were able to freely talk to God, whether they understood everything rightly as pertains to belief, or not. They relied on God and knew He was their hope – because, in essence, that is the result of grace. So many in the church have so much more than the people of France did in these days – and we are more rightly called “the miserable” than they were back then. People may have television sets, phones, cars, houses or apartments, computers, gadgets, vacation-based lifestyles, and even more – but they are living by the law, not by grace. Even though Jean Valjean lived as a fugitive, a greater law set him free – and in grace, he found a freedom no court or law could ever issue. In these days, we need to step back and see the power of living by grace; because therein, we will find true freedom.
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!
– Finale, Les Miserables
Writing (c) 2012 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.