I recently watched the film Les Misérables, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded me of my first experience of this story. In the summer of 2003, I travelled to New York City to visit friends. While in town, I was invited to see the longest running musical in the world on Broadway. It was a magical production; I delighted in this story of love and revolution, of redemption and conversion. I was smitten by this tale about the misery of the human condition, this story about sacrifice and oblation. Les Misérables conveys the wretchedness of post-Revolution France, but it also relates the meaning and effects of love and forgiveness.
Watching the musical inspired me to read the original novel by Victor Hugo, on which the musical is based. The story begins in 1815, the year Napoleon returns to power, only to lose it after the Battle of Waterloo. The novel follows the lives of several people with wretched lives in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The narrative captures the dissatisfaction of the people with the social injustices that occurred during the turbulent times of the revolution and beyond. It addresses the violent shifts in control by the people and the royalty. It tells of the suffering that occurs during both revolution and royal restoration. Les Misérables explores the depths of human suffering and torment. It also concerns itself with the redemptive power of love. In the words of Hugo in the novel, ''... the supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves.''
Of all the characters, Jean Valjean represents the epitome of this sentiment in the book: a man who was once arrested for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's child, and who ends up spending nineteen years in jail due to his many attempts to escape. After leaving jail, Valjean breaks his parole by stealing from a bishop, who had shown him compassion by feeding him and allowing him to spend the night in his residence. When Valjean is stopped by the police for stealing, the bishop does not accuse him, but instead tells the officers he had given the silver to Valjean as a gift. He adds to Valjean's fortune by giving him two candle holders of great value, and reminding him that his newly acquired wealth must be used make an honest man out of himself.
This encounter leads to Valjean's conversion. As he sings in the musical, he is faced with a new freedom:
Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
Up until that point in his life, Valjean had experienced nothing but the heartache and deprivation the world had offered him. His hatred of the world had turned his heart into stone. Yet, the kindness and compassion the bishop showed claimed him for God. He is given the chance to receive a new heart, a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He uses his life to help others. His conversion leads him to understand the real meaning of his life. He uses it to raise the lives of others in light and in love.
Valjean's life is contrasted by that of the antagonist, Javert. His first name is never mentioned. He is a police inspector, and a former guard in the prison where Valjean served his sentence. Born in a jail, he devotes his life to the law. As he sings in the musical, you cannot rise above the misery of the world, “unless you know the meaning of the law.” In his life, there is no room for mercy or compassion. He cannot understand Valjean's conversion because, for him, the law does not leave enough room for change or for mercy. He is even harsh with himself when he makes a mistake.
It was not until Javert is forgiven by Valjean and given an opportunity to escape and to live, that Javert begins to understand and to acknowledge repentance and conversion. He is able to pay in kind by allowing Valjean to save a life and to run away. But his misunderstanding of the meaning of the law causes him great anguish and, in the end, he is not able to enjoy the new freedom he had acquired. Inspector Javert commits suicide because he cannot see that Love is the fulfillment of the law:
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!
Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I'll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!
We are agents of transformation in the world. We are the forgiveness that others need, the compassion that many cry out for. We are called to be signs of hope and reconciliation in this world. This is our marching song into eternity, into the heavenly home. For what we sow here, we will reap in heaven. For me, Les Misérables is a tale about the power of love, and our hope of a better world, here and in eternity. Valjean's final prayer and the closing song of the musical capture this eschatological hope.
Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you.
Lord in Heaven,
Look down on him in mercy.
Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory
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 night will end
And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.