The Power of ‘Les Miserables’

The new stage-to-screen adaptation of Les Misérables (which releases today) is proof again of the enduring power of Victor Hugo’s 150-year-old masterpiece. The novel-turned-musical has been released for film and television now 67 times in the past 115 years.

And although I cannot commend that you go see the newest rendition — mostly due to two suggestive sex scenes involving prostitutes — we don't need the new film to explore the enduring value of Les Misérables.

The classic script for the plays and for the new movie is available online. And all the musical highlights from the new film, including Anne Hathaway’s incredible rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” can be found on this new soundtrack. Best of all, the English translation of Victor Hugo’s French classic was beautifully redone by Julie Rose in 2008. This recent edition offers us a new translation of a captivating story of mercy.

Mercy, that little word, reminds us that we are self-insufficient. We need others. In the end, our salvation must come from the outside. Salvation is a gift, a gift of free mercy. I think this is one profound reason Les Misérables has endured, and why it has attracted so many adaptations and performances.

Surrounding the romance and revolution in the middle, Les Misérables is really a story of profound theological contrast, a contrast in how sinners respond to the offer of free mercy. At a profound level, this is the story of two responses to mercy: one man is broken and lives, and one man is hardened and dies.

Valjean: Captured by Mercy

Jean Valjean is a hardened prisoner with a soul full of anger when we meet him. Hugo, of course, would be more likely to pin this stone-heartedness on society and harsh prison conditions (more so than he would understand indwelling sin as the cause). Jean Valjean stole bread for his starving niece, and for it was sentenced to five years in prison. Failed escape attempts got him 19 years total before his release.

At his release from prison, Jean Valjean finds himself in a tortuous and unending darkness of unforgiveness. “At intervals there would suddenly come to him, from within or from without, a gust of rage, an added burst of suffering, a pale and rapid flash of lightening that would illuminate his entire world and would suddenly reveal all around him, before and behind, in the glare of a ghastly light, the awful sheer drops and grim overhangs of his fate.”1 Such was his life and future.

Jean Valjean attempts to reintegrate with society, but the ex-prisoner finds rejection at every turn. At last he turns to the charity of a local bishop, Bishop Myriel, a kind and self-sacrificing man that takes him in for the night. That night Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver, is soon caught by local police and brought back to the church. The Bishop tells the police that the silver was his gift to Jean Valjean, thus sparing Valjean from a return to prison.

In the play the Bishop later says to Valjean, “By the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness.”2 And such mercy spares Jean Valjean from returning to prison, but it is a mercy that forces a crisis in Valjean’s life.

Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him [the Bishop] and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack.

Instead he offers me my freedom!
I feel my shame inside me like a knife.
He told me that I have a soul...
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in...
As I stare into the void —
To the whirlpool of my sin.3

In the light of mercy, Jean Valjean is thrown into the depravity of his sinfulness, and he is broken. By the Blood-bought mercy offered to him by the Bishop, Jean Valjean’s life is permanently and forever changed. He himself becomes a man of mercy.

Javert: Escaping from Mercy

Javert is the legalist, literally, and he holds strictly to the letter of the law. He serves as both a prison guard and a police officer who is always watching Jean Valjean with a keen and cruel eye. Javert is always looking for Valjean, chasing him, and seeking to arrest him after he breaks his parole. An eye for an eye is also Javert’s law. There is but one way to treat others, and it is by strict justice.

[Spoiler alert] The story leads up to one climactic scene when Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, who has been imprisoned by revolutionaries. But instead of an eye for an eye, instead of retribution for the lifelong struggles and pain Javert has inflicted on his life, Jean Valjean shows him mercy, cuts his bound hands loose, and sends his archenemy off as a free man.

But such mercy sends Javert, the legalist, into a tailspin from which he cannot recover. For him, mercy proves to be an unsolvable problem.

Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have caught me in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!

All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!

Damned if I live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I yield at the end of the chase!
I am the law and the law is not mocked!
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!
There is nothing on earth that we share!
It is either Valjean or Javert!
How can I allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man that I have hunted . . .
He gave me my life! He gave me freedom!

I should have perished by his hand
It was his right . . .
It was my right to die as well . . .
Instead I live . . . But live in hell!

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all those years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles . . .
The world I have known is lost in shadow
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?4

Hugo narrates the crisis: “He saw two roads before him, both equally straight, but he saw two of them; and this terrified him. . . . Jean Valjean’s generosity toward him, Javert, devastated him.”5 This road of mercy, freely offered, is incoherent to the legalist. Even worse, the offer of mercy hardens the legalist’s soul.

A benevolent malefactor, a compassionate convict, gentle, helpful, clement, doing good in return for bad, offering forgiveness in return for hate, favoring pity over revenge, preferring to be destroyed himself to destroying his enemy, saving the one who had brought him down, kneeling at the pinnacle of virtue, closer to an angel than a man! Javert was forced to admit that this monster existed. It could not go on like this.6

And it doesn’t — not for Javert. In the perplexing face of such a beast — the face of unmerited mercy — Javert the legalist jumps off a bridge and kills himself.

Triumphant Mercy

Very early in the novel, Hugo walks us quietly into the Bishop’s study as he sits in solitude and meditates on the names of God — Almighty, Creator, Liberty, Immensity, Wisdom and Truth, Light, Lord, Providence, Holiness, Justice, God, and Father. As the Bishop writes out brief meditations on these various divine names he sees in Scripture, he ends with what he calls the “most beautiful” of all God’s names — Miséricorde, or Mercy.7 In this line, Hugo plays off the book’s French title, but more importantly, he foreshadows the major theme of his book.

Indeed, God’s mercy is beautiful — beautiful to the sinner who is willing to confront his own sin and self-insufficiency, and who is willing to be humbled. But to the legalist who refuses to confront his own sins and self-insufficiency, this same offer of mercy becomes an inescapable problem that hardens the soul. It is a classic retelling of Jesus’s parables of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14) and of the prodigal son and the older brother (Luke 15:11–32).

Mercy is never free. Mercy is very expensive. Mercy requires paying the cost of justice, and that is the cost of our Savior’s life. But that mercy is beautiful to behold for those whom God has given eyes to see it. Mercy changes lives. And the offer of mercy can also harden.

The power of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables is the way it contrasts the life of the merciful with the life of the merciless. The merciful have faced their sin guilt and been broken like glass. The merciless have faced their sin guilt and hardened themselves like steel. The merciful have first received Mercy (God) and then aim to show mercy to others. The legalist adamantly rejects mercy, and in rejecting mercy has rejected Mercy.

In spite of the longstanding Javert-Valjean struggle in the book, and even the Javert-Valjean struggle we find in our own hearts, ultimately Scripture reminds us that a mercy-giving life of a Valjean will triumph over the hard legalistic life of a Javert (James 2:13).

  1. Rose, 77–78.  

  2. Les Misérables (2012), scene 13, which is more centered on the gospel than Hugo makes this point in the book itself. There the Bishop says, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you; I am taking it away from black thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I am giving it to God” (Rose, 90).  

  3. Ibid., scene 14.  

  4. Ibid., scene 105.  

  5. Rose, 1080–1081.  

  6. Ibid., 1081–1082.  

  7. Ibid., 18.