Les Misérables – Spiritual Types in Valjean and Javert

Les MiserablesI recently saw the movie musical Les Misérables, and I could not help noticing the clear spiritual typecasting in two of the main characters – Jean Valjean and his nemesis Javert. Author Victor Hugo wrote the original story long before the spiritual stages were recognized and appreciated. But he must have somehow understood them intuitively, as these two characters he created almost perfectly exemplify the Mystic and the Faithful stages, respectively.

Valjean was released after a nineteen-year imprisonment for stealing some bread to feed his sister’s starving child. Javert is a guard who had promised to remember Valjean (who he refers to impersonally by his prisoner number 24601,) vowing to catch and punish him if he breaks parole.  Sure enough, Valjean does break parole and, despite leading a relatively exemplary life thereafter, Javert spends many years in pursuit, convinced that Valjean deserves further punishment for breaking the law.

Valjean is a complicated and haunting character. Originally he was imprisoned for a deed that reminds us of Lawrence Kolberg’s moral dilemmas – is it really wrong to steal in order to save a life? But his prison years seem to have hardened him – on the outside at least. During his first days out of prison Valjean is unable to find work. A kindly bishop invites him in and gives him food and shelter, and Valjean’s first instinct is to steal that bishop’s silverware. But the prelate shows great mercy, not only forgiving Valjean, but offering him more valuables: “But remember this my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.”

This experience catapults Valjean into a sort of spiritual crisis and identity quest: “Can I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?” and “Who am I?” (a sinner or a saint?) Years later we find he has established himself as a factory owner and has become mayor of his town. It is clear that he is known and admired for his fairness and respectability. Fantine, a factory worker who had been ousted from her job when it became known she had an illegitimate child, is on her deathbed and Valjean promises that her child, Cosette, will live under his protection. Taking care of this child transforms Valjean as his love for her develops.  When Cosette comes of age, Valjean learns that she is in love with a young man named Marius, who is going off to fight in a popular revolt against the government. Realizing Marius may not survive insurrection, Valjean breaks out into the song, “Bring Him Home,” which hauntingly depicts the selfless character of his love for Cosette. When Marius is wounded in the insurrection, Valjean acts heroically to carry him to safety, even though he knows Marius will take Cosette from him.

Valjean displays several elements of a Mystic level spirituality, despite his criminal record and continuing lack of confidence in who he is. Caring so deeply for others, especially Cosette, but also Fantine and Marius and the citizens of his town, he exemplifies a more profound form of interpersonal love that can only arise from spiritual inspiration. Furthermore, his Love extends beyond just the individuals in his care to the citizens of his town, and to the principles of general goodness. But Javert keeps showing up to remind Valjean of his criminal past and ongoing evasion of the law. At one point before he is fully certain of Valjean’s full identity, Javert tells Valjean another man has been caught and charged with Valjean’s defection. The self-examination to which Valjean submits himself expresses his deep sense of personal responsibility. Should he allow the wrong man to be charged, or own up to who he really is? Factors he considers in his decision include justice toward the man in question, versus his responsibility to the men under his charge.

At another point the tables turn, and Valjean has opportunity to execute the captured Javert for his part in thwarting the popular uprising. Instead, like the bishop who let him keep the stolen silver, Valjean releases Javert, despite Javert’s renewed vow to never stop pursuing him.

The puzzle – Am I a good man, or a bad man? – leaves Valjean conflicted and confused. He never fully understands ways in which he is motivated by an inner connection to God, and through that to goodness and charity toward mankind. He remains unaware of how his stance might be more enlightened than that of Javert, whose idea of morality is limited to the rigid enforcement of society’s rules.

In contrast to Valjean, Javert is an almost perfect example of the law and order-oriented Faithful stage. Despite his impeccable lawfulness, this is a less mature stance than Valjean’s Mystic one. A crucial measure of spiritual maturity is the ability to handle doubt and to tolerate cognitive uncertainties, traits Javert severely lacks. He is convinced that so long as Valjean has broken the law, Valjean is a bad man and nothing he can do will ever exonerate him. So strong is Javert’s need for this type of certainty, that when he can no longer hold his view of Valjean as a criminal, (“…and must I now begin to doubt..?”) he jumps to his death rather than allow himself to question his judgment, or to consider that Valjean has perhaps redeemed himself in ways that cannot be measured by the law.

The fact that Victor Hugo was able to extract these types from his own observation of nineteenth century French society lends further credence to the timeless validity of the spiritual development concept.  The fact that he managed to arouse readers’ sympathy for the more evolved Valjean, and antipathy for the rule-bound Javert, speaks to the moral and spiritual truth of the Les Miz story. It explains the story’s enduring appeal, even to a modern society that has long since evolved beyond the nineteenth century social restrictions on which it is based – such as an unwed mother being banned from factory work.

On an interesting note – the Thenardiers, the unscrupulous innkeepers, fit the profile of the Lawless stage.

The movie ends with the sung words “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Now, I am no fan of the bearded “sky God” of most traditional religions, but those words inspire me to welcome a far more appealing – and less literal – connotation of what the word God might mean.

 

 

 

 

 

About Margaret Placentra Johnston

Author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind, Margaret Placentra Johnston writes in hope of challenging both religious believers and nonbelievers to consider a broader perspective.

A practicing Optometrist, Margaret also loves helping people see better in the physical world. She lives in Virginia with her husband and has two grown sons.


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