The Theology of Les Miserables

The Theology of Les Miserables December 29, 2012

I cannot think of any work of fiction that conveys the contrast between Law and Grace as vividly and profoundly as Les Miserables.  As a long-time fan of the novel and the musicals, I went to see the movie recently and enjoyed it immensely.  With minor variations, it’s a rendering of the musical, and the musical does an extraordinary job of capturing the major moral and theological themes of the novel.  With a harrowing performance from Anne Hathaway and fantastic range and power from Hugh Jackman (I felt a bit bad for Russell Crowe, who is a fine Javert in pure acting terms but hardly a singer), and strong performances also from those playing Cosette (young and old), Eponine, Marius and the Thenardiers, this is a movie worth your time.

Leah Libresco gets to the theology of the work when she writes about Inspector Javert:

“Javert loves God, in his own way, because Divine Law is the source of order in the world.  For Javert, the absense of mercy is the greatest mercy of all, because it allows Javert to perfectly understand the world around him.  Grace is a miracle, a dirty word, a motion to suspend the rules.

“Mercy unmoors the moral stars Javert navigates by, and, as an agent of the Law, he needs some kind of unfailing light to steer by.  The more precisely he understands the world, the less margin for error he needs to leave.  But, if God can break the rule that, if Lucifer falls, he will be in flame, how can Javert trust that the promise to the righteous will be kept?  Perhaps he lacks faith in God’s goodness, but I think he’s also afraid he’d have to give up a little faith in Javert.

After all, if the moral universe is as mechanical as Javert dreams, he can save himself through his own efforts.  If the rules are fixed and known, then all he has to do is follow them.  If there are no miracles and no mercy, then everything is within Javert’s understanding, and his mastery is only limited by his self-control.  God sets the rules, and Javert gets to play a fair game.”

You can read the rest here.

I think she has the Javert part right.  What I love is the contrast between Javert and Valjean.  Both are creatures of the gutter (Javert was born in a prison), but their paths from a common origin are strikingly different.  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.

Have you seen the flick?  What did you think?  Let me know in the comments.

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  • LD

    It makes me sad to see Christians persist in promoting this “law” vs “grace” binary. . . it just reads anti-Judaism to me, which is sad for me, a Jewish Les Mis fan.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I didn’t say Judaism vs. Christianity. There’s a lot of grace in Judaism – and David’s love for the Law is not without reason. When we speak of the Law in this way, we’re really referring to not just the fact of a divine Law but to a Legalism that is just as possible amongst Christians as it is amongst people of other faiths.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Or I should really say the Psalmist’s love for the Law.

      • Trish

        Very important distinctions, Timothy. I’m glad you clarified. (I just
        discovered this site today, by the way.) And I’d like to add to this comment of yours “Valjean is, almost literally, born again, as he lets go of his
        former identity and begins a new identity and a new life.” And you mention the Bishop’s role in that. I haven’t seen this film version (only Liam Neeson’s), but I’ve read the book more than once, and there is a beautiful scene which occurs shortly after the one showing the Bishop’s bestowing of love, kindness, and mercy on Jean Valjean. That is the scene, I believe, that shows Jean Valjean’s actually being born again. The bishop had behaved like Jesus towards Jean Valjean, opening him up to his born-again experience shortly afterwards.

        In that scene (which someone told me, I think, is either shown or at least
        referred to in song in this most recent film), Jean refuses to return a coin
        belonging to a little boy, a traveling minstrel, who was juggling with it when it escaped him and rolled towards where Jean Valjean was resting. Jean steals it, in other words. The boy practically begs him to return it, and he refuses several tmes. After the boy gives up and goes his way, JV is filled with remorse for what he’s done and frantically tries to find the boy to return his money to him.

        “It was his last effort; his legs gave way abruptly under him, as though an invisible power had suddenly overwhelmed him with the weight of his evil conscience; he fell exhausted, on a large stone, his fists clenched in his hair and his face on his knees, and he cried, “I am a wretch!”

        Then his heart burst, and he began to cry. It was the first time that he had wept in nineteen years.”

        The passage goes on to recount his being born again, using the bishop as a symbolic stand-in for Jesus in Jean Valjean’s eyes, which is understandable since the bishop was really a personification of the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus to Jean Valjean. It is beautiful.

  • Michele Leonard

    Loved tbe play in SF and loved the movie. Loved the analysis also, it helped explain a few things. Thank you.

  • I got back from seeing it about an hour ago, and it was fantastic. A few unorganized thoughts:
    1. Javert existed because society needs someone to uphold the law. Likewise, both Law and grace are equally important components of the Gospel. God is just, and demands justice. If sin is committed, someone’s gonna pay. We can all watch Les Mis and talk about hos God is all about grace instead of justice, but in fact, He’s both. If He isn’t just, then the Gospel doesn’t have meaning, because we don’t need a Savior.
    2. Not only does Javert represent Law and Valjean represent grace, they both actually mention those very words in their final speeches just before they die. Javert identifies himself with Law and order, and then, when Valjean is dying, he mentions the word grace. Just so we get the message.
    3. A little less than a year ago, Steve Taylor, Christian musician and director of the Blue Like Jazz film, posted a blog piece expressing his desire to see the subgenre of “Christian” films come up with higher quality movies than recent examples such as “Fireproof” or “Facing the Giants.” It occurred to me while watching Les Mis that the Sherwood folks have not come up with anything with as clear a presentation of the Gospel as Les Miserables.
    4. This version had a comic-relief scene which included a quick shot of a prostitute riding a man dressed up as Santa Claus. The motions were pretty graphic. It really bothered me, and to be honest, I felt a little like Javert in saying so.

  • Cordelia

    Didn’t know a thing about the story – help! cultural illiteracy! – but now I’m eager to see the film.

  • Tim

    Some of what is said here may be true, but I have to wonder what Christians will sit through to get a theological message. I have not seen the movie but I have read the review on:
    Are Christians viewing too much on the big screen that clashes with what our moral standards should be as we guard our hearts and minds? Is there such a thing as acceptable pornographic scenes in movies for Christians now as long as it has something of a biblical message to it? For me it is a battle I want to continue to take seriously, even if i miss a “good” movie!

    • Depicting a sin while telling a story isn’t the same as glorifying the sin. While the film does show that someone does have illicit sex, it doesn’t endorse it. The bible does the same, by the way.

    • Most of what “Plugged In” saw went by so fast, or was so buried in the background, that you can’t even see it. They must have brought a giant magnifying glass to their screening. 🙂

      More to the point, I think “Plugged In” sometimes provides a perfect demonstration of the above point about legalism. They can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.

  • Tom

    Tim, are you at all bothered that Hugo was a romantic, universalistic, heretic of sorts? I remember him writing something like, “God will one day look down on Jesus and Satan and will be unable to tell the difference.”

  • The best lyrical juxtaposition between the Valjean and Javert characters happens in Act 1’s “Valjean’s Soliloquy/What Have I Done?” and in Act 2’s “Javert’s Suicide”.

    Musically, both carry the same melody and take each character inward to their thoughts of the possibility and impossibility of transformation. The very last lines of each track begin with:

    “I’ll escape now from the world / from the world of Jean Valjean”

    Then each track veers into variations on the ending…

    Valjean finishes by singing “Jean Valjean is nothing now / Another story must begin!”
    Javert finishes by singing “There is no where I can turn / There is no way to go on”

    — quite poignant depictions between the upward and downward trajectory of grace and the law, respectively.

  • I’ve not seen the movie yet, but hoping to soon. I did just read the book. I began reading it in late September, finished on December 8. The version I read was a Julie Rose translation from Modern Library Classic. It’s a huge book that is intimidating to some readers. I put a tiny post-it-note at every 100 pages, and had a goal of reading 100 pages each time I sat down to read the book.
    My review is here:
    Yes. I’m very glad I read this story. It is above all a love story. No, not a love story between a man and a woman, but a man who’s been branded a hardened criminal and an orphaned little girl.

  • Joe Rigney

    I agree with the substance of the analysis, but think we shouldn’t call this a Law/Grace dichotomy. As you say in one of the comments, “Law” in this context means Legalism, not biblical law. There’s nothing righteous about the Law as expressed in Les Mis (19th Century France). It’s profoundly unjust (when measured by God’s Law) to condemn a man to 5 years for stealing bread, and then to brand him a dangerous criminal for the rest of his life. Javert is passionate for the Law, but it’s not the Law of Moses, the Law of God, or the Law of Christ. It may be French Law; it may be draped in a veneer of religiosity, but it has only a passing resemblance to biblical law.
    The distinction is more than merely semantic. It colors the way that we as Christians read our Old Testament. It can perpetuate the idea that attempts to obey God’s law are problematic and flawed at the outset, when such efforts are worthwhile, provided they are done from faith in God’s mercy and acceptance in Christ.
    Another way to put it: If Jesus (or Moses) came to Javert, he would not condemn him for his meticulous attempts to keep God’s Law; he’d condemn him for neglecting God’s law, for ignoring the weightier matters of the Law: mercy, justice, and faithfulness. Javert is a Pharisee, but Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their law-breaking, for their human traditions which trump God’s Law, for oppressing the poor and the weak, for not caring about the Law ENOUGH (for if they did, they would recognize Jesus as it’s fulfillment). And let’s not forget that it’s Jesus that ups the obedience ante in the Sermon on the Mount, calling sin what the supposed Lawkeepers would have excused (lust, anger, oath-taking). All of which is to say, in keying off Les Mis, let’s not equate Javert with God’s Law or with obedience; Valjean is the true Lawkeeper, who upholds the weighty matters and protects the weak, the poor, and the oppressed.

    I’m not saying that Les Mis doesn’t communicate the beauty of mercy (it certainly does), but it does so as a part of a larger narrative that isn’t necessarily Christian (e.g. it romanticizes revolutionary violence (the “angry men” make it to “heaven”) and fails to acknowledge that Valjean would have been initially imprisoned in the 1790s, during the time of the first French Republic, not under the ancien regime).

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great points, Joe. Thanks.

  • Gosta Torvik

    A lesser known work of fiction that depicts Law & Grace, or Law & Gospel, is the Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. I’d highly recommend it, an eye opening book that deals wonderfully with these themes. Great post by the way!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for the book recommendation!

  • Travis

    It’s been a while since I read the book or saw the play, and I have yet to see the film, but I remember the main tension being between justice and grace, not law (and certainly not God’s law) and grace.

  • George

    Hugo was a great novelist. But he may not get the theology right. IF he meant to portray Javert as the law that is inferior to grace, portrayed by Valjean, and eventually failed. That would’ve been tragic. Because law is not bad, cruel, or unnecessary. Grace does not mean to ignoring law. Law reveal our need for grace to us.