Jean Valjean is the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I first read the book in high school and immediately had to watch the movie – the first version I saw was the 1998 version with Liam Neeson playing Jean Valjean. I haven’t seen the 2012 version with Hugh Jackman yet, but I’ve heard it’s good. Les Miserables is a hard book to get through. If you’ve read Victor Hugo before, you know what you’re getting into. I read the unabridged version, and it is a slog. But much like one of my other favorite books, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it’s worth the work to read it. It’s not a fast paced adventure of a story, although there is drama.
Hugo layers commentary on the French Revolution and social justice (particularly the plight of orphans, as well as the poor in general). But what I love about it is how Les Miserables elevates the importance of love and compassion rather than law and justice.
Javert, the policeman who pursues Valjean throughout the book, dutifully serves justice and the law. He is a “good” man, in that he faithfully carries out laws meant for the good of society. Javert is blind to the purpose of the laws he upholds. He doesn’t understand how Jean Valjean changes from the angry criminal Javert meets at the beginning of the book into a selfless, generous man who is a benefactor to the poor and helpless. Justice cannot comprehend mercy.
As a Christian, I find Les Miserables one of the greatest pictures in literature of saving grace and transforming love. Jean Valjean is transformed from who he was into someone much greater by the power of his love and forgiveness. At the beginning of the story, you might pity him, but he isn’t someone you necessarily want to emulate. At the end, even Javert recognizes that Valjean is someone great.
Tragically, Javert cannot find a way to reconcile this recognition and his own sense of justice. The law must be served, even if justice has moved beyond the law. For the sake of the theft of 40 sous, Javert wants to have Valjean executed. Valjean, at the end of a long life that has moved beyond fear of punishment, is finally at peace with this idea and essentially consents. Javert commits suicide rather than follow through with it, although he’s been pursuing Valjean for nineteen years.
It’s been a long time since I read the book, and I confess some of the details are fuzzy. But the picture of love transforming an angry, bitter, desperate criminal into a generous, selfless man characterized by love and forgiveness has always stuck with me. Jean Valjean is what we should be…. maybe not what we are, but what we should be. Javert is what we might be, if we don’t value love, and we don’t put others first.
Honorable Mention (literally): Bishop Myriel AKA Monseigneur Bienvenu
Bishop Myriel takes in Jean Valjean when he’s first parolled from prison. Valjean has no connections, no food, barely any clothes on his back, no social skills… if anything, he’s even more desperate than he was in prison. Bishop Myriel offers him hospitality for the night, feeds him dinner, and gives him a room to sleep in. Valjean wakes during the night and flees, stealing most of the Bishop’s silver when he goes. He is quickly apprehended and brought back to Myriel, with the police assuming Myriel will confirm that the treasure was stolen. Myriel gently tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean, tells Valjean that he forgot the silver candlesticks, and gives them to him with the admonition that he should use the silver to become an honest man.
I have a few thoughts on this section. First, I think it’s kind of funny that a “poor country priest” is presumed to have lots of silver laying around. Myriel was supposed to have been promoted to some higher office and continued to act like a country priest, which would partially explain the treasure. But that gives rise to the second thought, which is that the treasure would presumably belong to the church, rather than the priest himself. I understand that in 19th century France there may not have been a strict distinction between the priests’ personal belongings and the church’s estate, but it seems that a spirit of generosity requires a personal sacrifice, rather than giving of the largesse of an entity such as the church. Not that the church can’t be generous, of course, but then the generosity is more to the credit of the people who tithed and sacrificed to buy the candlesticks, rather than the priest who possesses them and gives them away. Of course, that’s my 21st century Protestant self talking, not my literary critic self talking. In any case, the incident is obviously meant to convey that Bishop Myriel is a generous, forgiving person. His other name, Monseigneur Bienvenu, translates as Sir (French honorific that doesn’t translate directly) Welcome, which gives you the idea of his purpose in the story.
Bishop Myriel gets an honorary mention because his actions in this incident are pivotal in Valjean’s transformation. He questions his own actions in light of Myriel’s generosity, and changes his behavior in order to be more worthy of Myriel’s trust and forgiveness.
Of course, in reality we can’t always be “worthy” of forgiveness… that’s the point of grace. Grace hunts us down BEFORE we deserve it, just as Myriel forgives Valjean before Valjean ever considers asking for forgiveness. But the attempt to live in light of forgiveness already received… that’s how we grow. That’s how we become better than we are. Myriel’s influence lasts long after he leaves the story.
May we all be like Myriel and his candlesticks.