Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We, The Miserable Ones.

Warning. Today's post is quite long, so bear with me.

I love musicals. Really love them. My favourite though is Les Miserables. It is based on the French novel by Victor Hugo, and translates roughly as "The Miserable ones" or "The Wretched." If you've never seen the musical I can highly recommend it; and if you don't know the story... you might want to skip this post, because I'm going to tell you how it ends.

Among the many sub-plots and story threads, runs one central theme and story-line. The story of Jean Valjean and Javert. Valjean is a prisoner who goes on the run for 27 years, and Javert spends those 27 years chasing him across the lengths of France. Talk about dedication.
One of the things I love about the musical is the clever way that similar themes are introduced, and contrasted, by having different characters sing the same/similar lines in different circumstances. There is a brilliant piece at the end of the first act, where all the cast sing the same song "One day more" explaining how in one more day, everything is going to change.

But back to Valjean and Javert. Near the beginning of the story, Valjean who has just been released on parole after 19 years in jail, spends the night with a Bishop, and steals his silverware. He is captured and brought back to face the Bishop, where he finds the last thing he would expect; mercy. And not just mercy, but Grace. The bishop not only lies to the police by saying that he gave the silver to Valjean (Mercy) but gives him the rest of the silver in the house (Grace) and tells him to use it to make himself an honest man. He says to him "I have bought your soul for God."

So Valjean has a real moment of epiphany, and sings a beautiful song called "What have I done?" where he says :

One word from him and I'd be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom,
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit came to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

In the end he has a crisis of faith, and breaks out of nearly twenty years of hatred and guilt in a stunning moment of 'conversion'

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

Tell me that isn't a beautiful image of our salvation. Jesus 'buys' our souls for God, but we have to decide what to do with it. A spirit moves within us, and we are faced with the whirlpool of our sin. We realise we have to leave our old life behind, and start a new story.


But that's only half the story.

Valjean breaks his parole, and goes on the run. Over the course of the next few years he builds up a business and becomes mayor of a town. Due to certain circumstances, he promises a dying woman he will care for her daughter. Then his past comes back to haunt him. Another man is captured, and the police think it is him. He loses everything in an attempt to save the man from a life in prison, by turning himself in. Then he escapes, and flees. Javery catches him, and they have a wonderful duet. (As one does.)

Valjean promises Javert that he will come back in three days if he will let him go rescue the little girl. He refuses of course, and Valjean runs away and does it anyway. Cue another two decades of running.

Valjean makes a lot of mistakes in his life, but every major decision is guided by his desire to earn the salvation he has been given. He says at one point, when trying to convince himself to surrender to the police "My soul belongs to God, I know. I made that bargain long ago." Not a perfect man, but a man who is struggling every day to live in accordance with the grace and mercy he has received.

So who is this Javert who chases him so long. Javert is a man of great faith. Faith in The Law. He says repeatedly things like "I am the Law, and the law is not mocked." and "Hard work, just reward. That's the way to please the Lord." Javert is theoretically the good guy in the show. He is a completely honest, completely incorruptable police officer, who cannot be swayed from his duty. He gives us an insight into his character when he tells us that he was born in a jail, and comes from the gutter. He has chosen to try and rise out of sin by following The Law. (Do you see where this is going.)

Then there is a final confrontation. Valjean has a chance to kill Javert. In the middle of the Paris riots, he is literally handed to him, tied up by his enemies, and he offers to kill him for them. Instead he lets him go, and pretends to kill him. He goes further, by telling him where he can find him. After thirty years on the run, he not only refuses to take the opportunity to 'save' himself; he turns himself in to the proper authorities. A little later we once again see the two protagonists facing each other. This time Valjean again asks for three days, but so that he can take his daughters dying fiance to safety. (He has been wounded in the riots.) Again he promises to return.

This time however Javert lets him go, and himself has a crisis of faith.

***************spolier alert**********spolier alert**********************

He sings a song, very similar to the song Valjean sang after being offered his life.

It ends with similar words.

I am reaching but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I'll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on.

He also has difficulty with this Grace he has been given. But he has no way to grasp it. He knows only the Law, and that cannot help him. He finds himself in a position where he knows that his duty is the wrong thing to do.

I should have perished by his hand
It was his right
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live.. but live in hell

Javert cannot live with this situation. Everything he has based his life on is turned upside down. The Law has failed him, and he kills himself rather than try to live with the Mercy he has been given.

Two men. Both given a second chance. Both brought to face their own shortcomings. One uses it to try and become a better man, one cannot live with it, and rejects the gift he has been given. Prefering to doom himself than live in debt to another.

So who are you? Valjean or Javert?


  1. Interesting question.
    I remember wondering at one point if Jesus's suffering would be less if I did NOT accept Him...Then He would suffer less physical pain, because of MY sin... It took a while to come to terms with the fact that enduring the pain for me was His choice.
    Anyways, it is an interesting question.

  2. I'll make an effort to get this flick now, thanks.

  3. Hoo Ha Ha!

    Nice post! Thanks for your humor and insight at the brain lab!

  4. cool post - i have never seen / listened to the musical before but i got it last night and i am loving it. the writers of the words certainly knew how to convey the meaning that Hugo wanted.

    i guess i am torn between Jean Valjean and Javert... but Valjean is my hero - he was a man "strong enough to love" as Jesus put it in a movie made in '98 (i know that quote isn't in the Bible, but i really believe that He could've said it).

    back to musical - i find it strange that it also ends with Javert's death. there's a whole new story that happens after that in the book - which shows Jean Valjean even in a better light (if that is possible). but i guess it's all good :)


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