Go back to the Hugo page for more texts and other resources.

Les Misérables : A Theology

The theme of redemption in the musical production of Les Misérables

Les Mis?rables : A Theology

Billed as the world?s most popular musical, Les Mis?rables is ostensibly a story of love set against a background of revolution, but in telling the story it traces the spiritual journeys of two men and the underlying theme of the show is one of redemption. The popularity of the musical makes it a powerful medium for taking such theological concepts into the hearts and minds of a theatre-going public who might not otherwise reflect on theological issues. Personal and historical redemption are both endorsed in Les Mis?rables and, through their portrayal, the show also offers insights into the concept of grace and God?s presence in the world.

Redemption is a mode of salvation that carries with it the notion of a price to be paid; release on the payment of a ransom. It is a theological concept that is more commonly embraced by conservative branches of Christianity and is a theology that Les Mis?rables endorses.

Set in post-revolutionary France where misery and corruption are rife, the show holds out a hope beyond hope through the media of redemption and sacrifice. When all appears to be lost, light shines through and what appears not to change is somehow different. The cycle of history keeps turning but we are led to believe that a purpose underlies it all ? that those who die do not die in vain, and those who lived their lives in misery may yet find peace.

Les Mis?rables does not glamorise the human condition. The evils that accompany and arise from poverty and oppression are well-depicted as a backdrop for the complexity of emotions and motivations that carry its characters forward. It is against this backdrop that the lives of the convict, Jean Valjean, and the policeman, Javert, are marked by striking parallels, but in the end they take divergent courses.

The parallelisms of the story are echoed in the music and lyrics of the show, reinforcing the connections and sharpening the contrasts of the two men. The audience is told how the dehumanising conditions of prison life were instrumental in shaping the lives of both men. Javert was born inside a jail whereas Valjean lived much of his life as a prisoner inside one. Their experiences may have been different but the overwhelming need to escape their prison histories was common to both men. In their own ways, both Valjean and Javert were shackled by the law: Valjean was first a prisoner and later a parole-breaker on the run, whereas Javert was enslaved by the fear of transgression, ?for those who falter and those who fall must pay the price?. Together they became the hunter and the hunted, but neither man knew peace.

The ultimate parallelism comes when both men have their lives destroyed through the gratuitous grant of freedom, and it is here in their responses that their paths finally diverge. In gaining their freedom each man is suddenly faced with the dark, emptiness of his life and catches a distant glimpse of the possibility of a new life. In both cases the revelation drives the men to abandon their current lives but, as the story is depicted, only one man, Valjean, finds redemption.

Valjean had grown up learning to hate the world that had shown him nothing but hatred. Punished for stealing food, he was dehumanised and robbed of his name. The world he knew was a world without forgiveness, and he sank into a state of hopelessness. When offered the apparent freedom of parole, all Valjean wanted to know was what the world would then do for him. But the promise of freedom soon showed itself to be empty when the world he was released into proved to be another prison, no kinder than the jail he had left. When shown true compassion by a bishop, Valjean met the kindness with cynicism; he pretended to be grateful then stole from his host, seeing the bishop as no more than a foolish representative of a heartless world which destroyed his life and owed him a life he had never known.

However, the cynical, embittered Valjean was subsequently shattered when the bishop, renouncing his rights to retribution, again showed kindness and gave Valjean his freedom, thus saving him from the living death that would have claimed him back in prison. Through this gift Valjean was offered redemption: ?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.?

For the first time, Valjean glimpsed another way of living and saw his own life as a stark void. He recognised the depths to which he had fallen and was filled with shame. There was no escape for him; the life of the criminal Jean Valjean had to end. He cast aside his past (along with his parole card) to begin life anew and in doing so, accepted redemption.

Like Valjean, Javert also learned in life to hate, but his hatred was the juxtaposition of his passion for the law. So marked was he by his jail birth, he poured his very being into rising above that squalid existence. ?Honest work and just reward; that?s the way to please the Lord,? became his driving force and it helped him to rise to a position of power and influence. For Javert, there could be no compromise and no forgiveness.

Justice, for Javert, was upholding the letter of the law, for only then could one hope to live with dignity and freedom. But it was no real freedom because he lived his life in fear of falling. For Javert, a fall was necessarily final, a fall in flames, for ?once a thief, forever a thief? - the leopard could not change its spots in his world. But just as the bishop shattered Valjean by offering him forgiveness and freedom, so Javert was shattered by the forgiveness and freedom offered in turn by Valjean.

But whereas Valjean had embraced the new, Javert ran from it, and it was through their different responses to these gratuitous gifts of freedom that the paths of the two men finally diverged. Valjean had not known goodness before his encounter with the bishop, and the bishop?s compassion had pierced his soul like light into darkness. But Javert considered himself (and in many ways was) a godly man. He lived faithfully by a theology in which good and bad were diametrically opposed, with each naturally seeking to destroy the other. Yet inValjean?s gift of freedom, the ?truth? of this theology was shown false: Valjean, the lawbreaker, had the chance to destroy Javert, the law upholder, and chose not to; the convict did not behave as a criminal; vengeance was his but he chose not to take it.

Javert?s first response to Valjean?s compassion was similar to that of Valjean?s first response to the bishop: cynicism. Javert envisaged Valjean claiming dominion over his life and the thought was an abomination to him, a living hell, far worse than the death he expected. But doubts inexorably crept into Javert?s mind throwing him into a deep existential crisis. Was it possible that Valjean was a changed man? Was forgiveness a possibility? Could sins be forgiven and crimes reprieved? Like Valjean, Javert glimpsed the possibility of a new way of living and, for the first time, saw his own life as a dark void. The rock he was standing on crumbled beneath him and he became a broken man: in being granted his life, he had lost it. But unlike Valjean who hungered for the prospect of a new world, Javert could not bear to face a world of uncertainty and doubt; a world that was no longer black and white. As with Valjean, his old life had to end, but he could not embrace a new one. The only solution he could face was finality; the man who lived in fear of falling, jumped to his own death.

While these two central characters are poised to offer positive and negative models of redemption, woven around them are characters who call into question the nature of redemption.

Fantine was a tragic, innocent figure who could only dream of God?s forgiveness for having loved a man and borne his child out of wedlock. She paid a heavy price for her summer of happiness, as Javert might well have expected her to, and her fellow factory workers held Christianity up as a stick with which to beat her. Fantine could have abandoned the child just as the father had done, but her love and commitment to her daughter, Cosette, prevented her from putting the past behind. Unlike Valjean and Javert, Fantine was never offered the chance of a new beginning in life but she offered up her life to God in exchange for the life of her child. The offer was seemingly accepted; Fantine lost her life and Cosette was saved through the intervention of Valjean. Fantine?s redemption came only in death, bought with her own life. One could argue that Fantine?s prayers were answered; her child, rescued by Valjean, was raised in love and, wanted for nothing. But it raises the question of why Fantine had to die. Was it because of the need for justice as Javert would have seen it, were there reasons unfathomed by the audience, or did her death lie beyond God?s control?

Eponine was another tragic character who had little chance of happiness in life. Worldly and living by her wits, her life was one constrained by the bounds of her upbringing. With unscrupulous and unloving parents, Eponine was hardened to most aspects of street life, but in her inner world she realised that she had been living a life of pretence and she dreamed of a better way. Her visions were borne of her love for Marius, an affluent student caught up in the revolutionary movement, but her affections were not returned. The hardship of her life was compounded by the bitter-sweet agonies of unrequited love, and happiness was ever denied her.

The pain of Eponine?s existence was further intensified when Marius fell in love with Cosette, but her love was stronger than the pain it brought, and she determined to give that love unconditionally. The manifestation of her love led to her death, yet in her death she found the peace she sought. Her life had been redeemed.

The price of redemption for both Fantine and Eponine was not paid by a bishop?s silver; it was a price they paid themselves by the laying down of their lives for ones they loved. In witnessing their deaths there is sorrow for two tragic lives cut short, yet there is also a sense of release and relief that their suffering was finally over. Death seemed so much kinder than the lives they were living.

The students who died on the barricade also laid down their lives, not for individual loved ones, but for the vision of a liberated nation. They were young and na?ve idealists who fought for the emancipation of the people of France, believing that the people would rise up and join them in the fight for emancipation. But the people didn?t rise and the students were left to die on the lonely barricade. In their deaths there is no sense of relief or release as there was for Fantine and Eponine; instead the audience is confronted with a scene of stark desolation and barren hope. The bold new world the students had dreamed of seemingly died with them on the barricade and they had given their lives in vain. Nothing had been achieved beyond disillusionment and the generation of new widows and orphans; the same piteous cycles of life continued.

Marius, heroically rescued by Valjean, was the sole survivor among the students. His rescue was something to be celebrated and yet he too lost his life in a sense. He was no longer the na?ve and optimistic young idealist. Haunted by the memory of his friends, tormented by grief and racked with guilt that he alone survived, he cried out his despair over the empty sacrifice of their lives. Life, for Marius, could never be the same again.

Yet, unlike Marius, the audience has the benefit of a more distant hindsight. History tells us that things did eventually change, although not in the time-frame depicted in the story. We are left to wonder to what extent these seemingly senseless deaths changed the social climate of the country enough to enable the revolution to happen. Were these lonely deaths really in vain or were they an instrumental part of a larger plan?

Not everyone in Les Mis?rables is fated to die or to a life of sorrow. In contrast to the other major characters in the show, Th?nardier and his wife led a relatively carefree existence. They also represented the worst aspects of a hypocritical society. Always looking to advance themselves socially and financially, they had little care or regard for anyone else, including their own daughter, Eponine. Like Fantine?s fellow factory workers, they show scant evidence of consciences though they publicly profess a Christian faith and Christian values when it is in their best interests to do so. Privately, however, Th?nardier believed God to be dead in any real sense, for his God was a God who stayed in the heavens and did not interfere in human life. Unrepentant and unredeemed, Th?nardier and his wife grieved neither for their daughter nor for the youths who died at the barricade. Whatever the situation, they were survivors who lived by theft, fraud and extortion, and always landed on their feet. In many ways they seemed to lead happier lives than the less self-centred people who lived and died around them, and yet we need to wonder whose lives were really the poorest.

Thus the musical, Les Mis?rables, sets out a series of questions pertaining to life and death, purpose and redemption. And along with the questions it offers some answers. But not all the answers offered are satisfactory.

The finale of Les Mis?rables carries the refrain ?to love another person is to see the face of God?, and it is here that we are asked to see the path to salvation. The dead students line up alongside Fantine and Eponine as, together, they lead the newly deceased Valjean towards salvation where he would ?be with God,? and the audience is invited to be strong and make a stand for freedom on the promise that tomorrow will come. From beyond the grave, the students tell us that their lives had not been sacrificed in vain, and that one needs to hold on to and strive for one?s visions. In the chorus we hear echoes of the evangelical catch-cry, ?It?s Friday; Sunday?s a-coming!? Les Mis?rables believes strongly in personal and historical redemption; God?s purpose can be found in the unfolding of history and if we hold true to our visions, tomorrow will dawn.

However, one person is noticeably absent from the line-up of the dead. That person is Javert. Salvation is apparently denied him. This is in keeping with a theology which claims that persons are only saved in so far as they respond to, and appropriate into their existence, the saving activities directed towards them. The others looked towards love; Javert saw love and looked away.

Yet it is the omission of Javert that calls this theology of redemption sharply into question.

Like Fantine, Eponine, and the students, Javert gave up his own life. But where they gave their lives as gifts of love, Javert surrendered his life to hide from love. Here then, lies the probable reason for Javert?s omission. But in denying Javert?s salvation, Les Mis?rables is denying the prodigal nature of God?s love.

In the Christian tradition, the wonder of God?s love is not that God loves us when we respond positively, but that God never stops loving us when we don?t respond or when we respond negatively. This was witnessed in early scenes when God continued to act in love even though Valjean scorned the bishop and stole the silver. Javert didn?t scorn God, he turned away in fear and trembling, just as Moses did when God called to him from the burning bush in the story of Exodus. By denying Javert?s redemption, Les Mis?rables underestimates the magnitude of God?s grace.

Javert was the one character who honestly and earnestly sought to honour God all his life. His ways may have been misguided but his intentions were true. He loved God as best he could but the only aspect of God he knew was that aspect manifest in law. When finally faced with God?s grace through the actions of Valjean, Javert?s life and beliefs were shattered, not because he denied God, but because he recognised God in a way he had never seen before and that recognition shook him to the core. In some ways, we might argue, Javert?s death was the most tragic of all. In life he had been a harsh, unyielding man and when faced with the emptiness of all he had stood for, he was unable to see a way forward; he died never having learned to give or receive love.

In some ways Les Mis?rables sets up Javert ? or, more accurately, his theology - as a strawman. Through the parallel lives of Valjean and Javert we are given two models of redemption. In the first, the law offers redemption upon the payment of a penalty, but it is a hollow redemption because nothing is really changed. Second, there is redemption bought by love, that is realised in a new identity and a new way of living, or, in death, a new mode of being. The show leaves the audience in no doubt which is the model of redemption it endorses, and uses the omission of Javert from the chorus of the redeemed to emphasise its choice. But the dichotomy set up between love and law is a false one, not unlike the false dichotomy sometimes set up between the first and second Testaments.

The law cannot be set against love as Les Mis?rables would have us do, for law is an essential element of love. It sets up boundaries to protect relationships and is an integral part of all societies and social interactions, without which there can be no love. Javert?s mistake was not that he loved the law but that he believed the law (and God) to be immutable.

The immutable God is common to many theologies, perhaps largely through the pervasive influence of Thomas Aquinas, but the immutable God is not the God of the biblical traditions nor is it the God of Les Mis?rables. Instead we are shown a deeply personal and passionate deity with what might seem to be a capricious nature. But the biblical God has balances and one of those balances is law. In this reading, the law almost acts as a tempering mechanism in the relationship between Creator and creation. Like the sabbath, the law was made for humankind and whilst there is a difference between God?s law and human law, this difference intensifies the need for its judicious application.

Les Mis?rables rightly rejects the immutable God, however, rather than underscoring Javert?s flawed understanding of God and the law, it tends to vilify both the man and the law he serves in much the same way that the Pharisees are vilified in the book of Matthew. As a rhetorical device in a theatrical context this vilification is very effective, but the theology it conveys is disturbing because of the dichotomy it sets up.

The hope in Les Mis?rables is to be found in redemption as a state of grace. Under his new identities, Valjean could not claim to be a happy man but he, like the bishop, was a man through whom the presence of God could be perceived in the world. And the structure of the story leads us to discern the presence of God in the deaths, if not the lives, of Fantine and Eponine. Because the lives of the students were left largely unknown to the audience one cannot say whether they lived in a state of grace. But the students themselves tell us that we can discern the presence of God in their deaths by looking to history ? to an unfolding of events in which some form of social progress is made. We are offered an interpretation of events that is similar to the historical interpretations of the Deuteronomic redactors.

This could be construed as theological straw-clutching in much the same way that ?good? events are so often attributed to God?s beneficent actions whereas ?bad? events are somehow regarded as beyond God?s control. If one looks long enough and hard enough, and over a sufficient time frame, almost any calamity or trauma can be seen to play a positive role in unfolding events. But perhaps therein lies a theological truth. For it is only when there are persons willing to see G[o]od in all things that there can be any hope at all.

That one chooses to believe in a god reflects any one of a particular set of perspectives on reality; that one chooses to believe in a beneficent and loving God indicates a desire and will to see the world in a particular way. Redemption, for Valjean, came not through putting his past behind him as he believed, for he was never able to escape the shadows of that past and he continued to carry its commitments; rather redemption came when he learned to see and to seek G[o]od in the world, just as the bishop had sought it in him. And it was in his seeing and seeking of G[o]od that others could discern the presence of God in him; this was his state of grace.

By his own embrace of grace, Valjean enabled God?s grace to reach others. Fantine, who had all but lost her own vision of God through the horror of her life, was able to reach out to God when she recognised God?s grace in Valjean. And it was grace manifested in Valjean that finally penetrated Javert?s stony shell.

For this reason the omission of Javert from the chorus of the redeemed can be considered ungracious. It can be argued that it was the realisation that Good might be found beyond the law that shattered Javert when he suddenly saw G[o]od in places and in ways, he had never seen before. Javert was redeemed. That he could not live with such a revelation was a testament to its power and Javert?s anguish rather than his damnation.

The irrepressible Th?nardier had no such awakening. Whether he is redeemable is a question that remains unanswered in the story but his role in the exploration of the issues surrounding redemption is an important one. It is one of the great strengths of Les Mis?rables that it does not attempt to equate grace or redemption with happiness and earthly rewards. Nor does it tie them to doctrinal orthodoxy or the profession of a particular ?Faith?. Th?nardier is arguably the happiest character in the stage show although he also goes through difficult times. He is an unscrupulous opportunist with little regard for anyone or anything, and it would seem that it is this lack of regard that allows him his happiness. He grieves for no-one, is not burdened by any sense of responsibility or guilt, and takes pleasure wherever he can find it.

Thus the merriment of Th?nardier stands in stark contrast to the inner torments of the redeemed Valjean and the stoniness of the righteous Javert. Whichever model of redemption one chooses, happiness would not appear to be part of the package. Even the two lovers, Marius and Cosette, (perhaps the least developed characters in the show) are not destined to live ?happily ever after? in grand theatrical tradition despite their joyous union. Marius will ever be haunted by an unspoken grief for the loss of his friends and the guilt that he alone survived, and Cosette fails to understand his torment. It is not difficult to see that as much as they might love each other, his inner despair and her shallowness of perception will be a gulf between them.

As a popular vehicle for theology, the musical Les Mis?rables presents a deeper and more complex perspective on the issue of redemption than most ?entertainment with a message?. It does not offer up the simplistic and erroneous theology of retribution that is all-too-often evident in theatrical productions. Instead it offers keen insights into the theological notion of grace while unashamedly promoting belief in a God who acts in the world and whose purpose can be discerned in history. Love, hope and charity are the creeds Les Mis?rables assents to, but it slips in denying these to Javert.

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us