Finding Law and Grace in the New Les Miserables Film

Timothy Dalrymple has a terrific breakdown of the differing perspectives on law and grace held by Valjean and Javert in the new Les Miserables film, which I highly recommend. The performance by Anne Hathaway as Fantine is jaw-dropping. One of the best bits of acting I’ve seen in a film, ever.

The tension between the two lead men is arresting (no pun intended). It elegantly highlights the biblical tension between law and grace, as Dalrymple shows. I’ll quote at length from this breakdown of the movie; Dalymple’s theological work here helped me think through legalism and God’s kindness in my life and the lives of others. It’s more than just a rundown of some film interaction, as you’ll see:

With a serious SPOILER WARNING for those who have neither read the novel nor seen the musical, here are some of the key contrasts:

  • JAVERT has risen to the heights of his current position through unyielding will and meticulous discipline, by virtue of his own efforts.  VALJEAN rises even farther, but through the decisive intervention of a Bishop who shows him a thoroughly unmerited grace that changes Valjean forever.  Valjean is, almost literally, born again, as he lets go of his former identity and begins a new identity and a new life.
  • JAVERT insists that every person without exception should be judged and punished according to his or her deeds.  He’s genuinely irritated with Valjean when Valjean refuses to punish him for what Javert perceives to be a misdeed.  He would agree with Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias that it is better for a perpetrator to be caught and punished.  VALJEAN extends to others the same grace that was given him.  He shows an extravagant grace to Fantine, the woman who worked in his factory and fell into prostitution after she lost her job, and an even more remarkable grace to Javert himself, when he lets the inspector go free from the student rebels’ camp.
  • For JAVERT, God is essentially Deistic and explicable, even mathematical.  As Leah illustrates, the celestial mechanics of divine judgment are, in Javert’s philosophy, as brilliantly clear and timelessly predictable as the paths of the stars.  For VALJEAN, God is personal.  When he prays to God, God is not merely the source of moral order and truth but a source of passionate love and intimate solace.
  • JAVERT is incapable of compassion.  He is unmoved by Fantine’s protestations regarding her daughter’s need, unmoved by Valjean’s plea to let him care for Cosette before he apprehends him.  He watches, not hateful but simply unmoved, when a man is pinned underneath a cart, before Valjean lifts the cart to save him.  Legalism ultimately devolves into something like the Law of Karma: everyone always, in the end, gets what he deserves.  VALJEAN understands that people are more than their actions.  Divine grace and mercy is inexplicable apart from — indeed confers — the sacred value of each individual.
  • Finally, JAVERT does not believe that people can change.  Once a thief, always a thief.  Even when all the evidence shows that Valjean is a transformed man, Javert cannot even contemplate it.  In a world without grace and rebirth, everything must proceed organically from that which precedes it.  There is nothing new, nothing truly transformative, no dying-to that leads to a new being.  VALJEAN knows that there is re-creation, a Second Adam, because he has experienced it personally.  Hugo’s portrait of Valjean’s conversion and reformation is one of the greatest in western literature.  It’s the difference between “there is nothing new under the sun” and “all things are made new,” the difference between the Law of Sin and Death and the Grace of God in Christ.
  • Joe Rigney

    Curious about your thoughts on whether we ought to call the tension in Les Mis “Law” and “Grace” vs. Legalism and Grace? See my comment on Dalrymple’s post.

  • ostrachan

    Good thoughts, brother. I do think that the law condemns. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

    This does not mean that the law is bad. You sometimes hear that, and I think you were guarding against that in your reply to TD. The law is good. It declares God’s will and character to mankind. So I’m with you in that respect. But ultimately, the law does not save. Christ alone could fulfill it, so for Christ it was not an instrument of death. For all the rest of us, though, it is.

    It’s much like the holiness of God. God’s purity is a good thing, not a bad thing. But because we are sinful, we must of necessity see our impurity in light of God’s character. God’s excellence (there’s a good Edwardsean word for you, right?), frankly, does condemn us before his grace solves the problem of his holiness.

    So neither God’s law nor his holiness is bad. Let’s be clear on that. But like Javert, the law does hunt us before we are saved. It surely will condemn us.

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  • yankeegospelgirl

    I really enjoyed this film! Am considering doing a proper review of it on my site (hope you don’t mind my linking to it here if/when I do). Not having seen the musical I was coming to it fresh. Myself, I almost felt that the music got in the way at times (I know that’s sacrilege for music theater buffs to hear!) I think that’s because I was first introduced to the story through Focus on the Family’s radio adaptation (which I think is the best adaptation I’ve enjoyed yet). Even though the story does lend itself to opera in places, I think it’s ultimately more powerful spoken than sung. Still, for the most part this was an excellent film, and the live singing made the emotions very deeply felt.

    I have to offer a word of caution though—if you have kids, don’t take them to the theater. I watched this via streaming Internet video and fast-forwarded through the section where Fantine first prostitutes herself, because it is very disturbing. We actually see a man rape her (though no nudity is shown). I don’t think children should see that, and for that matter, adults are probably better off not seeing it either. Plus, the Thenadiers’ number “Master of the House” is full of low, crude humor. Just some gross images nobody needs to see. So I say definitely skip those bits for your kids, and my advice would be skip them for yourself as well. You’ll enjoy the movie a lot more without them.