Miserable Theology or Théologie Misérable
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 10, 2013
I Synopsis of our story
The book, Les Misérables is a French historical novel by Victor Hugo. Published in 1862, it is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. It is also considered one of the longest ever written; the novel is lovingly known by fans as “the brick.”
The book and the subsequent musical and film adaptations are known by the original French title. The title is not exactly a misnomer; it’s more that the phrase “les misérables” is not easily rendered into English. It could be The Miserable, The Wretched, The Poor, The Dispossessed, even The Outsiders: these are all suitable translation candidates, but in a way we need to include all of these concepts to get at the French concept contained in the title Les Misérables. All of the major characters, in one way or another, are outsiders, poor, miserable.
The story was turned into an award-winning musical. It premiered in 1985 in London and on Broadway in 1987. It is in the top five all time longest running Broadway shows, coming in fourth after Chicago and Cats and the other famous Victor Hugo story, Phantom of the Opera. SRO, a local community theater company will be performing this show during the last three weekends in January. I strongly encourage you to go.
Here is a quick synopsis of the major plotlines of the story. The story tracks the life of Jean Valjean, starting the completion of his 19 years of hard labor in prison. Valjean experiences hardship as an ex-convict, but by an act of compassion on the part of a bishop Valjean has an opportunity to start a new life.
Fast forward 8 years and Valjean is living under an assumed name in a small town where he has become a wealthy factory owner and the mayor of the town. We meet Fantine. She is a worker in one of Valjean’s factories. Fantine has an illegitimate child, Cosette, who lives in another town with an innkeeper. Fantine send all the money she can to the innkeeper to care for the child. Fantine’s circumstances go from difficult to worse when she losses her job at the factory and falls ill. The mayor, Jean Valjean, gets involved and does what he can to care for Fantine as she dies. Valjean promises her he will take care of her daughter Cosette as his own child. The iconic picture of the young waif that is all over Les Miz material is a drawing of young Cosette.
When Valjean reaches the child Cossette, we meet the innkeeper and his wife, the Thénardiers. They are a duplicitous couple who are treating Cosette as a servant while extorting money from Fantine. Valjean pays off the Thénardiers and he flees to Paris with Cosette to start a new life again.
Fast forward 9 years and Paris is in upheaval as young people ferment a rebellion against the French government. Cosette, now a young woman, falls in love with one of the young men involved in the uprising. She and Marius have only a few days together before rioting starts and the young people build barricades in the streets.
Meanwhile Valjean is ready to pull up roots and flee with Cosette again. You see all this while the police officer Javert, who had known Valjean from his time in prison, has been chasing Valjean to bring him in for breaking parole. The Thénardiers are after him too because they are greedy and angry after losing Cosette. And because this is not complicated enough, we add a love triangle for Cosette and Marius in the figure of Eponine, who is the daughter of the Thénardiers!
It all comes to a head at the June Rebellion. Valjean, rather than fleeing as he had planned, joins the uprising after he learns the Cosette is in love with one of the young men involved. Valjean has another confrontation with the policeman Javert, and he also manages to rescue Marius.
The story lifts up themes of redemption and forgiveness, with some strong subthemes of justice and grace. We could do a year of Sundays exploring the lessons of social justice and moral theology in Les Misérables. But we shall endeavor to confine ourselves to one hour today.
The story opens with Javert, the police officer, releasing Valjean on parole after serving nearly 20 years in prison with hard labor.
Prologue, parole song
This scenario is an oft-used literary example of the moral dilemma about the ends justifying the means, commonly called the Heinz Dilemma. Is it morally right for a man to steal an expensive drug that he can’t afford but that will save the life of his dying wife? Are there circumstances under which stealing or other crimes are morally justifiable? Are there absolutes worth defending? Where is the line when considering relative morality? Does society share in the culpability of the crime? This line of questioning is a standard use of Les Misérables for an ethics class.
In Les Misérables, Valjean experiences great difficulty after leaving prison. The 19 years of hard labor was perhaps not the worst part. Valjean is plagued by the ex-con label. He can’t get decent work, he is kicked out of inns, nobody trusts him, and he has to report in to every police station regularly. His whole life is defined by being a convict. We who watch this story know it is unfair, unjust. Valjean is understandably bitter and resentful.
The turning point for him – and this all happens still in the prologue of the show – is when a bishop shows him kindness, takes him in and feeds him. Valjean accepts the hospitality but later at night steals as much of the church silver as he can find and runs. He is picked up by police and taken back to the bishop. And here is the twist. The bishop lies to the police and tells them that the silver was a gift he had given to the ex-con. This is what the bishop then says to Valjean after the policemen have left.
Prologue, Valjean forgiven
Prologue, What have I done
II Reflection on Redemption and Transformation
Is there another way to go? This moment in the story is not the climax, it is the starting point. Les Misérables is not a story leading up to that epiphany moment for the character. It starts there for Valjean and then shows the progress forward from that moment. Towards the end of the novel, Hugo explains the work’s overarching structure:
The book … from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … is a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, …from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.
For Valjean it begins when he sees there is another way to go. We all have the capacity to change. The theological argument of this story is that human beings are capable of rising up out of whatever wretchedness in which they may find themselves. And for Victor Hugo the theology was deeply entwined with the critique of dehumanizing aspects of society. It was the law of society that stripped Valjean of his dignity and sense of worth. It was an individual who saw through the labels and the pain to the human soul still struggling within. The bishop did not say to Valjean: ‘yes this is all their fault, look what they have done to you.’ He said, ‘you can change – you can become an honest man.’ We Unitarian Universalists can be too quick to look for the light, seeing guilty feelings as a problem rather than sinful or hurtful behaviors as the problem. The bishop acknowledges Valjean’s sins and crimes, and then opens up a way for Valjean to change.
But, the bishop did not simply offer Valjean mercy and forgiveness. He also offered him the means by which he could make a new life for himself, to redeem himself, to remake himself into the noble and honorable person he had been. In the New Testament there are two versions of the Beatitudes. Matthew (5:3) says “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But Luke (6:20) says more simply “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” There is a spiritual component for Valjean, he was poor in spirit. But the bishop knew it was not enough to forgive him and say ‘go sin no more.’ He also gave Valjean resources so that he could change.
Hugo’s theology of human nature mirrors mine: we all have an inherently good nature that can be soil, broken, shattered, damaged, and ignored. But it can never be utterly destroyed. Every human has the capacity to rise up and be transformed. Hugo’s sense of ethics also parallels my own: people are more important than rules; corruption and greed are realities we must navigate with compassionate action on our part.
Valjean had nearly lost his soul, his sense of worthiness as a person. Later in the story – when he has moved on to the small town and become the mayor and a successful factory owner – he faces a test. He learns that the courts believe they have captured Jean Valjean. The real Valjean has a choice to make now that he has an active conscience again; it is a difficult and bitter choice.
Who Am I
III Reflection on Justice and Grace
Valjean is a man of high principles, a deeply moral and thoughtful man who is committed to living his life with integrity. The same could be said, word for word, for Valjean’s nemesis Javert: high principles, deeply moral, thoughtful, committed to living with integrity.
Many people say the major theme of Les Misérables is the question of grace vs. justice. This is not entirely accurate. I think the nuance I am poking at is about grace. I think the greater theme is closer to the question of redemptive or restorative justice vs. retributive justice. Valjean’s experiences at the hands of the law are about retribution for his actions, not restoration. He does, as I said earlier, receive redemption, but not through the law. Valjean’s counter point in the story for this theme is the policeman Javert. Near the end of the story Valjean says to Javert “You have done your duty, nothing more.” There is likely a double meaning intended. Valjean is not holding a grudge; he understands it was Javert’s duty to pursue him. The other meaning is an accusation: you did nothing beyond the letter of the law.
It is mistake to assume Javert is the villain in this story. Javert is just as much one of Les Misérables as all the others. And at heart, he is a man committed to the principle of justice. Javert has many commendable qualities. He is tenacious, principled, loyal, and courageous. Unfortunately he is also stuck in an absolutist sense of right and wrong. He believes the law of France is aligned with the law of God. He believes a tiger can not change its stripes, that change is not possible, that the only solution to disorder is swift reordering. He believes this not because he is cruel or spiteful. He believes this because he wants to create a better world where good and honest people can thrive.
On My Own
IV Reflection on Love
Many people love this song and love the character Eponine. It seems everyone loves Eponine except Marius! In the grand themes of this story, Eponine’s misery of unrequited love seems small by comparison to Fantine’s life and death, Valjean’s efforts to live with integrity and compassion, and Javert’s inability to come to terms with the moral world of Valjean. But when Eponine’s song is seen not as the pining puppy love of a teenager, but as the deep lonely cry of her whole life, it makes greater sense in the broad themes of the story. Eponine is one of the truly noble characters in Hugo’s story.
The arc of the story is from injustice to justice, from wretchedness to wholeness, from hell to heaven, from abandonment to love. The questions the characters ask over and over are “What shall I do with my life?” “Who am I?” “Is there another way to go?” Victor Hugo’s story circles around again and again to a theology and an ethic of love. Even if you are among the wretched, Les Misérables, and our society does not value you or even see you, still you can rise above that, still God’s love can give you strength. And when you are caught in a dilemma, love can lead you through. Both theologically and sociologically, the solution for much of what is wrong in the world can be transformed by love.
In the preface of the book, Hugo wrote this about the purpose of his story Les Misérables:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; … in other words, …so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Society and civilization are not going to lift humanity up, indeed too often they do the opposite. But one individual who cares can make a difference. The closing theological statement of the story is sung on the deathbed of Jean Valjean: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Our final song is Jean Valjean’s famous aria “Bring Him Home” is sung after Valjean learns his daughter’s beloved has gone to fight on the barricades. Valjean goes to protect him and hopefully to see him through alive.
Bring Him Home
— end —