Les Miserables, Forgiveness and Transformation
About two years ago during the beginning of production for The Forgiveness Journey, I wanted to interview local actors at the Hale Theatre in Salt Lake City. They were performing, Les Miserables, a play (and movie) based off the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, that is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the theatre was unable to get permission from the movie studio for us to bring our cameras in and get footage for our documentary film. I was a frustrated. I wanted so much to show viewers of the film the thematic comparison of the play and forgiveness.
Now I have the chance to write about it on our blog. If you have not seen the play or movie, I highly recommend it. Growing up, I had heard of Les Miserables but never had the interest of seeing it. I had thought it was a boring musical with weird songs and bad actors. I was wrong. The first time I watched the film was only three years ago. Please read this powerful description written by Dr. Andy Johnson, Nazarene Theological Society, 2013:
The play opens with Jean Valjean (the main character) finishing the 19-year prison sentence he had received for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew. With Inspector Javert standing over him reminding him that he is and always will be a marked man, he re-enters society being rejected by everyone he encounters. But a kind bishop takes him in and gives him food, wine, and a place to sleep. Valjean repays him by stealing the bishop’s silver and running away. When the authorities catch him and bring him and the silver back to the bishop, the bishop—like the Father in the parable in Luke 16—commits a lavishly graceful act. He tells the authorities that he had given the silver to Valjean, makes a show of giving him the even more valuable silver candlesticks that he had “forgotten,” forgives him, and then challenges him to become an honest man because, he says, “I have bought your soul for God.”
This liberating act of forgiveness shatters Valjean’s old vengeance–oriented world, forges a new one in its place and completely transforms his life. But throughout the play he is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert whose world is ordered by a sense of “law” and “justice,” where “justice” is understood as strict retribution. Valjean’s transformation is evident in his taking on a new identity (thereby breaking his parole) and becoming the mayor of a town and a businessman who employs a large number of people. But more than that, his transformation is evident in the variety of ways he becomes a channel of the grace and self-giving love he has received—albeit not without struggle
The most moving instance of this comes when Javert, while attempting to infiltrate their ranks, is captured by a band of young insurrectionists and given over into Valjean’s hands. Valjean now has the opportunity, the right, and—from the standpoint of the cause of the radicals—the duty to shoot Javert thereby avenging himself, freeing himself from Javert’s relentless pursuit, and safeguarding the worthy cause of the insurrectionists. But, like the bishop—and like the Father in Luke’s parable—Valjean commits a lavishly graceful act by setting Javert free. His own experience of lavish forgiving grace did not just change his status from “guilty” to “innocent” but slowly changed him into a person whose character reflected that of the one from whom he’d received such grace.
But transformation in the face of such grace isn’t automatic in Les Mis (and certainly not in life) because it requires a person to give up the world which seems to make so much sense. Valjean’s action shatters Javert’s secure world whose center only holds when people get exactly what they deserve and Javert would rather die than undergo the transformation that would require him to give up the security of that world. And so Javert ends his own life in an effort to escape from such a world ordered by lavish grace, “the world of Jean Valjean.” With these words on his lips, he leaps into the abyss:
The world I have known is lost in shadow
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….
This analysis is well stated by Dr. Andy Johnson. I feel that this analysis is about “Second Chances” for people as well as transformation and forgiveness: “Valjean’s action shatters Javert’s secure world whose center only holds when people get exactly what they deserve and Javert would rather die than undergo the transformation that would require him to give up the security of that world”. In my opinion, people have a hard time letting go and are unable to forgive, transform or offer second chances for people because they world would shatter, like Javert in Les Mis.
Thank you for reading. The Forgiveness Journey is free to watch on YouTube.