Victor Hugo had turned away from the Catholic Church because of its indifference to the poor when he wrote Les Miserables and the book was condemned by the Church when it was published. Yet the novel is deeply imbued with the Gospel and some Church figures are strong witnesses to it. Go figure. Better yet, go see the movie of the musical if you haven’t already.
Jean Valjean, rejected by all as an ex-con, is invited to eat and sleep in the bishop’s house, but still embittered and desperate, he runs off with a silver plate. When brought back by the police, the bishop says the plate was a gift and orders the police to release him. The bishop presents this act of mercy to JV as a challenge to make the most of his second chance at life. The self-sacrifices required of JV to live up to this challenge make it clear that the forgiven life is far from easy or soft. Meanwhile, the police officer Javert, deeply scandalized by the bishop’s forgiveness, makes a career of tracking down the criminal in the name of justice.
A successful factor owner under an assumed name, JV inadvertently fails to protect his employee Fantine from being driven out by her co-workers and corrupt foreman when it is discovered she is an unwed mother. To atone for this, he takes responsibility for Fantine’s daughter while Fantine is dying. This entails bargaining with the venal Thénardiers to take the girl Cosette away to a better life. With JV’s past exposed by Javert, JV and Cosette escape to a convent that gives them sanctuary.
During the 1832 uprising in Parish, two mimetic triangles form around the grownup Cosette when she and Marius, a rich young man turned student revolutionary, fall in love. JV fears losing his daughter and at first hopes the street violence will lead to the young man’s death. But JV quickly realized he must put his daughter’s interests first and he then sees in Marius the son he might have had. More complex is the triangle of the two lovers with Eponine, oldest daughter of the Thenardiers. Having fallen in love with Marius only to be politely turned away, Eponine protects Cosette and JV from a police raid led by Javert and her father but encourages Marius to join his fellow students in the revolt with the hope she and Marius will be killed. When fatally wounded by a bullet intended for Marius, she repents and tells Marius where he can find Cosette. Renouncing mimetic rivalry is shown to be possible, but costly.
Meanwhile, Javert infiltrates the rebels, is exposed by the street urchin Gavroche (a castoff son of the Thenardiers), sentenced to be killed, then handed over to JV who has joined the rebels to save Marius if he can. With the chance to exact his revenge, JV frees Javert, doing for the self-righteous officer what the bishop had done for him so many years ago. When, after the tragic street battle, JV drags the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris (a Christ-like descent into hell if there ever was one) Javert ambushes him but can’t bring himself to arrest the convict. Totally disoriented by the prodigal forgiveness offered him, the legalist representative of the law throws himself into the Seine, a tragic demonstration that forgiving love is a tough challenge.
The musical strengthens the Gospel theme considerably in comparison with the book. The streamlining of the convoluted plot of the book puts the law/grace and revenge/mercy dichotomies front and center. The vulnerability of women and children to personal (the Thenardiers) and institutionalized (Javert) violence is stressed through Fantine, Cosette, and Gauvrache. Javert sings a song that betrays his warped mirror-imaging of the Gospel: declaring JV to be “fallen from God/fallen from grace” he reveals himself as a man so fallen. Musically, the singing of JV, Marius, and Cosette (especially as a child) is very soft while Javert is loud and assertive and the Thénardiers boisterous. (Strength in weakness.) In the finale, JV dies and is brought by Fantine and the good bishop to a heavenly barricade turned into a heavenly chorus of revolutionaries who sing, in a song filled with biblical allusions: “Somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you long to see?”
A miserable, offensive Gospel if there ever was one.
Wonderful article, Andrew. You rightly highlight that being forgiven sometimes is more difficult for us than offering forgiveness to others.
You mean that church sometimes gives the alms of foregiveness instead of proclaiming the real revolution of the real gospel?
It seems to me that “the alms of forgiveness” IS the revolution of the Gospel founded on the Risen Forgiving Victim.