Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Thoughts on Les Misérables

No, not the movie(s) or the musical; the book. In the past few years I’ve been taking advantage of the many free, classic books available for Kindle, and Les Misérables is my latest conquest. It’s taken me several months, during which time I took breaks and read other wonderful novels, but I’ve finally finished this epic and moving story.

Actually, to call Les Misérables “epic” is an understatement. In addition to the decades-spanning story, which on the screen takes hours to tell even in abbreviated form,
the book takes no shortcuts in setting up each location, each theme, each character. For example, the Bishop of Digne, who has a pivotal but brief scene early in the movie adaptations, is the primary figure in the first ten percent of the book, long before Jean Valjean appears. There are multiple chapters on the Battle of Waterloo – which does not figure in the main storyline, but helps to establish the backstory of a few characters. Before Jean Valjean hides in a convent, we are treated to a lengthy discourse on the history and philosophy of French nunneries. Before he carries Marius through the sewers of Paris, there are whole chapters on the history and, yes, even the philosophy behind those sewers.

And yet it is almost all fascinating reading. (By contrast, Moby Dick’s many retreats into the history of whaling left me snoozing.) We share the trials and triumphs of each character, from the mundane events of everyday life to the upheavals of the times in which they lived. Still, it becomes clear that none of the multiplicity of characters, from the saintly but human Bishop or the villainous Thenardier, nor even the “main” character of Valjean, is the true subject of the story. Les Misérables is a story of Providence, of the hand of God in each life’s events – from the ordinary to the dramatic.

As a follower of Jesus, I was particularly drawn to the interplay between Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean, as it is a pure conflict between Law and Grace. Valjean, a criminal who broke parole, is in the eyes of the law deserving of being returned to prison labor in the galleys, and Javert cannot see him otherwise. Yet Valjean broke his parole by starting a new life – by leaving his criminal past behind him and turning to good. The hand of Providence, first extended to him by the Bishop of Digne, has by grace provided for him a redeemed life, even though the law demands his punishment.

There is an early footnote concerning Valjean’s family history, almost a throwaway “factoid,” but it made the novel an order of magnitude more powerful to me. The footnote explains that Jean Valjean was named for his father, and “Valjean” was likely not a family name. Instead, it probably began as a nickname – the father’s name was Jean, and “Valjean” was a shortened form of “voilà Jean” – here’s Jean.” And “Jean” – John – is as common a name in France as here. 

So Jean Valjean, the man enslaved by his sin, but then redeemed by Providence and set free to live a better life, is “John – here’s John.” He’s everyman. He’s you and me. Les Misérables is a story of God and us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree completely! Hooray for grace, for Les Miserables, for the Lord who made grace available through Jesus Christ, and for you!!! RGR