Friday, February 1, 2013

Les Miserables was anything but...

For the longest time my favorite book has been To Kill a Mockingbird. That changed by the end of December when I finished Les Miserables. It took me a month to read, but only because my kids think they have to eat and apparently my body does like to sleep. I also bought the soundtrack, saw the musical in Pittsburgh, and saw the movie twice - all after reading the book, of course.

There are so many things going on in this book, I could do a multiple posting; however, one specific idea captivated me throughout the book...the idea that we are all equally in need of a savior. The characters Jean Valjean and Javert play out as perfect parallels to the Bible's New Testament disciples Peter and Judas.

We meet Jean Valjean first. He is on parole after nineteen years in prison for stealing bread and subsequent attempts to escape. The man is not a hardened criminal, but was simply trying to keep his sister's children from starving. However, nineteen years of slave labor harden him and he hardly knows who he is upon release. He steals twice more and lands himself in trouble, until confronted with the loving kindness of Bishop Myriel, who gives him a second chance in the form of an alibi of sorts. Valjean's hardened heart is softened, almost against his will because he can't believe a world that seems to hate him could contain a glimpse of hope. He realizes that he is a fallen man in need of something outside of himself to live. The musical's lyrics capture this idea when Valjean sings:

                                                         I am reaching, but I fall
                                                        And the night is closing in
                                                        And I stare into the void
                                                        Into the whirlpool 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!

A new story indeed. A story of the power of forgiveness, grace, and mercy working in a person's life. Throughout the remainder of the book, Valjean is the epitome of sainthood. Although he struggles with doing right at times, he remembers the grace and mercy extended to himself and chooses to do the right thing at every turn. Valjean's likeness is found in the Bible through Peter, who betrayed Christ by denying him three times, but went on to become a cornerstone of the Christian faith and its spread throughout the nations. They chose life through Christ's salvation when confronted with the filth of themselves.

Javert, the officer who hunts the life time parole breaking Valjean, is a man who follows the letter of the law. Javert's past, being born in a prison, drives him to be better and perfection and absolute justice. He holds himself to impossible standards and expects everyone else to fall in line. There is no room for error and he even offers to resign his job when he falsely accuses Monsieur Mayor of being Valjean, after leading a dead end investigation on his suspicion. (Ironically, Monsieur Mayor IS Valjean and Javert is extended grace and allowed to keep his job.) Even when Valjean spares Javert's life in the middle of the revolution later in the story, Javert swears he will continue to hunt Valjean, despite his good deed.

By the end of the book, Javert and Valjean meet again. Valjean is in the process of saving a young man's life and begs Javert to simply allow him to get the man to a doctor and then he will go along quietly. Javert initially resists, but then the memory of his own spared life forces him to realize that perhaps Valjean is a changed man, that maybe it is possible that forgiveness, grace, and mercy hold merit. Faced with the possibility that he has worked against the very things for which he wanted to be known all his life - goodness and justice - Javert's thoughts parallel Valjean's in the beginning of the book with the realization of his fallen nature. The musical lines it up beautifully with Javert singing a similar verse to what Valjean sang in the beginning:

                                                               I am reaching but I fall
                                                               And the stars are black and cold
                                                               As I stare into the void
                                                               Of a world that I 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...

And with those thoughts, Javert jumps from a bridge into the Seine. He cannot handle the fact that his efforts to live as a just man were legalistic and backwards and that, in the end, he was as filthy as the life time convict Jean Valjean. Javert too has a counterpart in the Bible. Judas betrayed Jesus, selling his whereabouts for 30 pieces of silver. When the deed is actually carried out and Judas comes to realize what he has done, he cannot stand himself and hangs himself. They saw nothing but hopelessness and chose death when confronted with the filth of themselves.

Les Miserables's possibilities for discussion are endless and this is simply one theme (I'd argue the most important) that stood out to me. Les Mis's ultimate stand for the Hope of tomorrow is what endears itself to me.

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