Scant days ago, on that chilly time after Christmas, I strolled into our local theatre in the expectation of being entertained by an established well-loved musical that had just been rendered to film. I had no idea I would emerge from the darkness three hours later a scarlet-eyed blubbering wreck. Having bargained for diversion, I instead reaped a bounty of cinematic moral lessons wherein intense human ugliness runs headlong into the arms of sublime beauty and breaks our aching hearts in a fair exchange. Welcome to the spectacle of Les Miserables.
In retrospect, one could not ask for a more philosophical-moral biscuit to chew upon. Its sweeping themes of: justice and injustice, the law, mercy, forgiveness, courage, hopeless cruelty and redemption all congeal into that rare and breathtaking aesthetic wherein we travel beyond ourselves and hopefully examine our own stories against the adamantine First Principles of transcendence. While it is impossible to fully plumb the depths here of this masterpiece’s grand totality, with your indulgence I will clumsily attempt to examine a few of its gems.
In the figure of Jean Valjean, we witness a man nearly broken by the untempered blade of justice. Having spent half his life serving penance in the galleys for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread and escape, the harsh exactness of the law administered in the personification of the relentless Javert has stripped Valjean of much of his human veneer. Answering for so long to the number Valjean, when eventually released, is only hardened in his hatred for what he has incurred at the hands of justice. His salvation, however, comes from a priest whom Valjean robs of a fortune in silver following the former’s show of Christian charity. Quickly apprehended after his theft and returned to the abbey, the priest, in a show of divine forgiveness, admits to giving the fortune to the incredulous thief while extending the caveat that Jean must now use the silver for Good, now that “I have saved your soul for God.”
It is this quality of mercy and forgiveness that disarms Valjean, as it does us when we encounter it in its purest concentration. The law, which of its own is a civilizing and uplifting thing of beauty, nevertheless can become an instrument of harsh cruelty when applied without prudence or wisdom. We find then that in spiritual terms, although the letter of the law provokes judgment and provides the standard in which we therein strive to attain, it is in tempering the law’s nature in mercy that we begin the transformation through grace in our souls. Javert, who has rose alongside Valjean from the gutters, has found a type of beauty in the Law, but has gleaned only the harsh obedience to a graven image and has not learned the Spirit animating the Law which allows for an internal chrysalis through the vehicle of the Cross. Forever the Pharisee, Javert’s unwavering pursuit of Valjean is for the capture of a felon who no longer lives–one who has been changed by divine kindness into a being that routinely dispenses such charity freely and without regard to the wretchedness of its recipients’ human station.
In internalizing and transmuting forgiveness, Jean Valjean has become a Christian in the truest sense. Set free from the hatreds built up over years of abuse and torment, he becomes a new man with an equally new identity who not only obeys the laws but whose actions speak far more of a metamorphosis than what the letter of the law can deliver.
There are actions that humans undertake in life that we do not expect others to do, but are necessarily praiseworthy and take on the character of the heroic when we experience them: such as a soldier leaping atop a live grenade as a sacrificial act. I dare say that these actions ennoble man and arise from a spirit of goodness that goes far beyond what we should expect of moral duty or obligation. J.P. Moreland calls these supererogatory acts and indeed these doings send profound ripples out into life affecting others. Through the course of Valjean’s redeemed life, he has been purposed for these acts. Becoming an employer and mayor of a small town, he employs many hundreds of people. In adopting Cosette and taking her away from the vicious clutches of the Inn Keepers, he ransoms a life that would no doubt have fallen into depravity. Moreover, Valjean reveals the true character of his renewal when Javert informs him that the “real 24601” has been apprehended and will stand trial for a return to the hellish galleys.
In a stunning soliloquy, the fugitive contemplates the implications of his impending dilemma. On one hand, he reasons that if he reveals himself to the authorities, those he has employed in the town will be cast adrift and the tremors of his revelation will impoverish many thousands. Additionally, the wretch who has been mistakenly cast as Valjean is diminished mentally and his condemnation to this hell would be as insignificant as a tear in the ocean. And yet, Valjean understands that if he weighs morality in this utilitarian fashion-the greatest good for the greatest many- his soul is damned. That he chooses moral virtue, against all human standards of prudence, and must flee for his freedom once again marks Jean Valjean as a haunting figure who has been thoroughly re-made in the pincers of tragedy.
This theme of heroic self-denial follows the protagonist to the end of the tale, when his adopted Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary who is certain to be killed by soldiers at the barricades. Valjean initially reasons that if he does nothing, the young girl will stay and care for him in his dotage. But learning of their deep affection, he makes his way behind the lines and faces great peril in not only rescuing and saving a wounded Marius from certain death, but in freeing a captured Javert who will soon be executed. As a tribute to selfless courage, one is astounded by the spectacle of Valjean carrying Marius over his head as he is submerged in human excrement in the sewers of Paris–all in the knowledge that a freed Javert will be awaiting to arrest him upon his return home.
Perhaps the stunning fate of Javert, who cannot reconcile mercy and his charge to uphold the law, is the most anguished. While Valjean, having been unshackled from his brutalized self many years before in that church abbey became something new, Javert is quite constitutionally incapable of either dispensing mercy or in receiving it from his nemesis. The cognitive dissonance that causes him to doubt what he had never before called into question becomes too large a burden for his hardened psyche to bear any longer and he therein plunges into the depths.
In this tale of two men, one finds in microcosm the dilemma we face in a world of pain and transgression. In a sense more real than we at times can fathom, we are both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Not one of us has ever escaped either the charge of hurting another or has failed to suffer at the hands of humankind. We bear and pay out both serious evils and those of the cursory thoughtless variety more often than we would care to admit. Our inability to forgive or to accept the mercies of forgiveness, both in the Houses of the Christian or in the prevailing world, has deepened the sorrow of mankind exponentially, beginning between man and woman and extending on out into the sphere of nations. Perhaps, in our character as fallen beings, this is our default state of apprehending existence.
But there is something divine in saying, “I forgive you, let us remember this no more,” or in offering, “Have mercy on me, I have done you evil and I repent of it.” It never ceases to be shocking and disarming to us to hear these confessions, and how quickly our heart changes when they are uttered or heard in all sincerity. Of all the monumentally beautiful things that Jesus Christ speaks of, repentance and forgiveness to God and to one another is foremost. I dare say we must all move on that continuum from Javert to Jean Valjean in the matters that ultimately bind and shape our hearts. Lashed to a rough hewn cross, He who was without transgression saw fit in a final earthly plea to forgive those who did not know what they were doing. Following His example, shall we not do likewise and accept that sublime transformation? In loving another human being in the richest and fullest divine sense, do we not indeed “see the Face of God?”