Well, watching Les Misérables was a spiritual experience for me.
As I watched, I was repenting, recommitting my life to Christ, surrendering to him again, resolving to read the Gospels more, to live by their beautiful way of love and mercy.
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Under the repressive laws of the time, Jean Valjean is sentenced to 19 years rowing in the galleys for stealing bread for his sister’s starving son–5 years for the theft, 14 for escape attempts. Many convicts were essentially worked to death there, but Jean Valjean’s exceptional physical strength enables him to survive.
When he is released, with papers marking him as an ex-convict, he cannot find work or lodging. When Bishop Myriel offers him a night’s lodging and a meal, he escapes with the Bishop’s silver. He is captured, and was to be returned to the galleys, this time for life.
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Incarnating mercy above the letter of the law—and “sinning”– the Bishop lies. He gave Jean Valjean the stolen silver, he claims, adding, “But you forget the candlesticks, my friend,” handing them over. Jean Valjean is released.
A central theme of the novel: there is no law higher than love, and to this law, all others give way–“the right thing,” “justice,” “what people deserve,” “the good of society.”
In the novel, Hugo’s narrator says of Bishop Myriel “The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.”
The Bishop then tells Valjean to use the silver to make himself an honest man. “Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
* * *
Astonishingly, with a hiccup or two, Jean Valjean makes good, becomes the mayor of a small town and an industrialist. Ironically, a good deed—rescuing a man trapped under a cart—brings him to the attention of the Inspector Javert who could recalls only one other man who had such physical strength—the convict Jean Valjean.
Javert, was born in prison to a galley slave and a gypsy fortune-teller, which left him with a “hatred for the race of bohemians whence he was sprung.” He was certain that following and upholding the law was the better path and does so with fanatical devotion.
Javert is convinced that breaking parole is wrong, that people cannot change, that it is best to return Valjean to the galleys, for he was irredeemably wicked, despite the accumulating evidence to the contrary—Valjean’s new, disciplined life; the way he rescues the trapped man; protects Fantine; adopts Cosette; and his kindness to the poor which led to the nickname, “the beggar who gives alms.”
In Javert, we see rigid morality gone bad. Hugo says he represents, “the evil of the good.” He describes the scene in which Javert arrests Valjean:
Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice, – error. The honest, pitiless joy of a fanatic in the full flood of his atrocity preserves a certain lugubriously venerable radiance. Without himself suspecting the fact, Javert in his formidable happiness was to be pitied, as is every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as this face, wherein was displayed all that may be designated as the evil of the good.
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In a novelistic twist, Valjean saves Javert’s life in the Paris Uprising of 1832, knowing that Javert would still hunt him down, because such was his nature.
At the end, Valjean does indeed fall into Javert’s hands, and Javert– to remain true to the rigid moral code by which he has lived his life, and to his respect for the law, and his belief that in respect for the law is salvation from the depravity, dissolution and fecklessness of his parents—must arrest the now aged Valjean who has done only good for years, and, moreover, has saved his, Javert’s, life. Must return him to the galleys for life—that is certain death.
For the first time, he sees that following the law would be immoral. As would, according to his own value system, disobeying it.
The foundations on which he had built his life are crumbling: honouring the law, determination to capture Jean Valjean. Faced with the fact that man whom he pursued for decades as irredeemably evil might be closer to a saint, Javert cannot obey the law. He is too honest to remain a police officer while not doing his duty. Unable to resolve his cognitive dissonance, he leaps into the Seine.
* * *
Jean Valjean is a Christ figure, who reinvents himself by steadfastly doing the right thing, showing mercy as he has received mercy. His life broadens out. He achieves worldly success. He also finds meaning in loving Cosette, and doing good in the world.
The life of Inspector Javert, his antagonist, on the other hand, steadily narrows. His focus on bringing Valjean to justice narrows his life to an essentially ignoble aim.
While Javert represents, in Hugo’s words, the evil in the good, there is another antagonist, the former innkeeper, Thenardier who is entirely self-seeking and evil—greedy, self-seeking, corrupt, and who steadily sinks into a whirlpool of ever greater evil and depravity. He represent what Hannah Arendt at the Eichmann trial calls “the banality of evil.”
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Interestingly, both Jean Valjean and Javert were modelled on Eugène François Vidocq, an ex-convict who became a police official, noted for his ability and photographic memory and, then later, a successful businessman widely noted for his social engagement and philanthropy.
We have them both within us, the white dog and the black dog. Choosing love and mercy gives us a life which broadens and opens out into sunlit paths. Choosing vindictiveness and vengefulness commits us a narrow, narrowing life.
“Choose you this day whom you will serve.” Like Vidocq, we all have some of both Javert and Valjean in us, but I, oh, I want to feed the white dog. I choose mercy.