On Christmas Day, I flocked with crowds of others to see Les Miserables on its opening day. I haven’t seen the theater packed with so many people in a long time. This was a long-awaited film, and one that stirred a lot of interest, even amongst people who hadn’t seen the musical before.
I hope that with all the hype surrounding the movie and with all the famous actors involved, that those viewing did not get so caught up in the amazing musical numbers and breath-taking camera work , and miss the heart of the story. There is a reason that the novel Les Miserables has remained one of the most popular novels in the world since its publication in 1862, and is considered by some to be the best novel of all time.
Victor Hugo said this of Les Miserables:
“The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details…a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.”
Les Miserables has many themes but I believe it’s obvious from Hugo’s statement above that his foremost theme in the novel is man’s journey from nothingness to God. A journey which would be impossible without grace.
I think the most poignant example of this comes through the comparison we can make of the different characters. Many have compared Jean Valjean, the protagonist, and Javert, the antagonist, but instead I would like to point out the differences between the priest (because he is my favorite character) and Javert. Consider the incident with the silver. After Jean Valjean’s release from prison, the priest was the only person who welcomed Valjean into his home. When Valjean betrayed the priest by stealing his silver, the priest had a choice of whether he was going to condemn Jean Valjean to another prison sentence, or extend grace. What would Javert have done in the situation? Obviously, the opposite of what the priest did. But why? Javert considered himself a Christian too. He believed he was doing God’s work in hunting this “dangerous criminal” down.
I think it’s also important to remember that this is not simply a work of fiction. Hugo was inspired by real-life circumstances. Jean Valjean’s character is based on a man named Eugene Francois Vidocq, a criminal who turned his life around and became a well-known philanthropist and criminal investigator. Fantine’s character is loosely based on a prostitute whom Hugo rescued from arrest for assault. He used his conversation with the police as the basis for writing Valjean’s defense of Fantine in Les Miserables.
Victor Hugo’s goal in writing Les Miserables was not just to give us an idea of French society, politics, and crime. It wasn’t just to give a realistic portrayal of prostitution and poverty, or touch on the subjects of redemption and love. This is a gospel story through and through, and nothing less. This story doesn’t remain in the 19th century, but carries us forward as we recognize the immortal truths contained in it.
I think the big question to ask ourselves is this: How do we view mankind? Through the priest’s eyes or through Javert’s? Do we see a son of God or a lost cause?