By Rose Leigh
Ask any high school theater kid what musical they’d most like to be part of, and there’s a good chance they’ll say Les Misérables. Based on the 1862 book by Victor Hugo, this popular musical runs the gamut of human experience: love and loss, forgiveness and bitterness, justice and mercy, grace and despair.
At the heart of it is a story of radical conversion, of turning from selfishness and sin towards God. The life of the central protagonist, Jean Valjean, is the life of a Christian who is rescued from sin and lets God’s grace change him.
The story of Les Misérables is so popular that many film and stage adaptations (musical and non-musical) have been made in different languages. For this article, we’ll examine the Catholic themes surrounding the characters of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in the English language musical.*
Spoiler warning for the rest of the article.
“Another Story Must Begin”
Our main character, Jean Valjean, begins the story as a convict serving out a long sentence for a relatively minor crime. He is embittered by the treatment he has suffered and is steeped in hatred and anger.
When he is freed from prison after nineteen years, he can’t look beyond himself. “The day begins, and now let’s see,” he says, “what this new world will do for me.” When the saintly Bishop of Digne offers him food and shelter, Valjean repays the kindness by stealing the bishop’s silver.
Then comes a moment of grace. When Valjean is caught, the bishop tells the soldiers that the silver had been a gift from him to Valjean. This saves Valjean from being hauled back to prison.
When the soldiers have left, the Bishop tells Valjean:
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God
It’s an act of grace and generosity Valjean couldn’t have imagined, because it comes from a love for God and a mercy he hasn’t experienced. Nevertheless, it changes his life, pulling him out of his sin, anger, and hatred and into a life dedicated to God and his fellow man.
“It Is Either Valjean or Javert”
There is another character who finds mercy and grace incomprehensible. Inspector Javert, who oversaw Valjean in prison, sees enforcement of the merciless letter of the law as a religious duty. After Valjean breaks parole, Javert becomes obsessed with finding him.
Javert explains why he is so intent on bringing Valjean to justice:
He [Valjean] knows his way in the dark
But mine is the way of the Lord
Those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall as Lucifer fell
The flame, the sword
It is true that each of us will be judged by our actions by God, who is both merciful and just. Separate from God’s judgment, governments have a right to punish criminals in order to protect society and as a correctional measure. But Javert has a distorted view of justice. In the quote above, he compares earthly justice for human beings to the judgment rendered on Lucifer, an angel who made a choice once and for all to turn his back on God. Human beings, however, can repent and be forgiven by God.
Javert fails to see that Valjean has indeed changed. Valjean has used the bishop’s gift to begin a new life and dedicate his soul to God. Throughout his life, Valjean acts as a Christ figure, saving lives and protecting the people around him
Later in the musical, Javert’s life is delivered into Valjean’s hands, but Valjean passes up this opportunity for vengeance and lets the inspector go. Javert is shaken by this unexpected mercy, just as Valjean was by the bishop’s generosity. But Javert cannot reconcile it with the philosophy of his entire life. If Valjean has truly become a good man, Javert’s stubborn quest to hunt the man down has been a grave sin. Javert’s despair is so profound that he chooses to end his own life rather than change it.
A Great Musical
There are many other examples of Christ figures and Catholic themes in Les Miserables (which I can’t cover here). But despite the religious underpinnings of the story, few people would pigeonhole it in the genre of “Christian fiction.” What makes Les Misérables such a strong story, one that has inspired so many adaptations and re-adaptations more than a hundred years after the original book’s publication? And how does it weave in so many strong themes without being preachy?
Primarily, I think the answer lies in the portrayal of difficult, dramatic choices faced by characters throughout the story. Fantine must decide whether to take drastic measures to send money to her sick child. Marius must choose between his love of Cosette and desire to fight in the rebellion. Valjean faces many situations where his life, freedom, and soul are at stake.
These morally weighted, emotional dilemmas throughout the story pose questions about our duty to God and our fellow man. And the choices that the characters make demonstrate the consequences of, and ultimate reward for, those actions. This is how you develop solid themes well. And this is why so many people love Victor Hugo’s story—because the characters touch our hearts.
Content warning: Depictions of violence, prostitution and sexual jokes, some language. The mature elements are not primarily gratuitous, but set up character motivations and the weight of their choices. High school productions typically show less than the 2012 film.
*I’ve tried to find the lyrics from the English language stage musical, but I don’t own a copy of the official lyrics. My apologies for any accidental misquotations.
Rose has been drawing and writing since she could hold a pencil, creating worlds of giants, fairies, and adventurers from her imagination. She works as a graphic designer and loves discussing the good and creative aspects of literature, art, and film.