To Truly Live — Barricade and Blessing in Les Misérables

It is nothing to die; it is frightful not to live.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a novel steeped in Holiness — gritty, bleak days wrapped in life-affirming Holiness. And in our current state of affairs, we must remember that the Holiness has not left us.

Although I initially wanted to avoid weaving the current Coronavirus pandemic into this article, there are parallels between the events in the final chapters of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and life as we know it now. We live today like the French revolutionaries in that great novel. Barricades surround our lives, not with timbers but with overwrought schedules, pursuance of perfection, and a perpetual focus on media. Our vision is distracted from the holiness of relationships and fixed on temporary demands and material importance. Similar to the protesters, desiring to protect ourselves from what we disagree with, we isolate into self-interest. Now, because of a worldwide crisis, our society is forced to see the fallout from decades of little protests we make each day.

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THE BLESSED GARDEN: A HOPEFUL VISION

The sixth and final chapter in our book explores the theme of the garden. The garden is key to the story Victor Hugo tells in Les Misérables. It is also key in the story of Scripture. Gardens are a sign of grace. They show us the beauty and creativity of God. They remind us to rest. They also invite us to participate as workers and cultivators, creating space for communion with God, with creation, and with others. Not only are gardens signs, but they also offer us a foretaste of the new creation that has come and is coming.

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BUILDING THE BARRICADE: THE STORY OF LES AMIS

The fifth chapter in our book explores the idea of revolutionary change. Jesus came to change our world. But he did so through love and self-sacrifice, humility and service. To the contrary, the revolutions of our world sadly and all too often resort to violence. Often, we believe change can only be achieved through the use of force. Les Misérables offers a good example. The desires of the Friends of the ABC were noble. They believed that the monarchy was creating the conditions that yielded poverty and oppression, and that a republic would result in a more just society. But in fighting for their cause, the Friends of the ABC resorted to violent resistance. We often do the same. Jesus offers us an alternative.

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An Exile’s Return: Hugo and the Paris Commune

Decades of reading as taught me one thing: A good book will find you. For much of my reading life, I never had much of an inclination to pick up any book by Victor Hugo, even when his most popular novel, Les Misérables, hit the big screen. I was quick to make snarky comments about a book that could be transformed into a Broadway play or cartoon. I mean, Dear Lord, what would they do next? Turn Kafka’s Metamorphosis into a kitschy Hollywood musical?

The only thing I knew about Hugo were a few anecdotes that I’d picked up in college, namely the apocryphal story about him writing his most famous book locked in a room buck naked as Adam in the garden. Lore has it that Hugo wrote covered only with a blanket so that he would not get sidetracked from his work. I liked the story about the man. I mean us writers are quirky bunch anyway. (I am, however, fully clothed writing this.) Yet Hugo’s extreme approach may have helped him to better understand the abject poverty of fictional characters like Fantine, an unwed mother who traded flesh, not for gain, but for sustenance.

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THE GIFT OF LOVE: THE STORY OF MARIUS AND COSETTE

One of the great longings of the human heart is to know and experience true love. Stories of romantic love are prominent in music, literature, and film, but there are other forms of love. There is friendship love and familial love, as well as agape love, or the self-giving love often associated with God. In the fourth chapter, Matt Rawle examines the love that exists between Marius and Cosette. We learn of how they encounter one another, how they fall in love, and how their love grows. We also learn of the complications present in their relationship and the obstacles they overcome that offer us the hope that we, too, might find love.

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THE POOR ARE ALWAYS WITH YOU: THE STORY OF FANTINE

The third chapter in our book focuses on the plight of the impoverished. Many of us have learned that Christianity should lead us to have concern for the poor. But knowing how to be in ministry with the poor with grace can be challenging. We want to meet the real, material needs of people and ask the difficult questions addressing the causes that lead to poverty in the first place.

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When the Story is Not What You Think It Is

I suppose you could call me a Les Mis fan. I’ve seen the stage version of Les Misérables twice. I’ve seen the movie twice. I’ve watched the anniversary specials on PBS (the ones they show during fundraising months). I know the words to the big songs. I am deeply enthralled with the character of Jean Valjean. My heart breaks for Fantine. I laugh at and secretly adore watching the comic and grasping Thenardiers.

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WHEN GRACE AND JUSTICE COLLIDE: THE STORY OF JAVERT

Javert would be very uncomfortable with the way we offer Communion. Justice, for Javert, is nearly the sole expression of “You reap what you sow,” except the only way to make amends for wrongdoing is through penalty. Upon leaving M. Bienvenu’s home where Valjean received grace for stealing his silver, Valjean steals a coin from Gervais, a young chimney sweep traveling the road. Interestingly, stealing this coin from the boy, as opposed to the silver from the priest, is what finally convinces Valjean to change his life. It was the realization that the temptation to steal was too deeply ingrained in his soul. The silver he had was more than he needed, yet he stole from the boy seemingly out of habit. It’s like what St. Augustine said in his Confessions, written around AD 400:

“I was in love with my own ruin, in love with decay: not with the thing for which I was falling into decay but with decay itself.”

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GRACE WELL RECEIVED: THE STORY OF JEAN VALJEAN

All of the characters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables offer us a profound picture of how we understand and interact with the world around us, but none has captured our collective imagination as much as the redeemed criminal Jean Valjean. From stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family to becoming an unmarred and saintly figure by the end of the story, Valjean represents our own struggle with not only understanding what is good, but having the courage to do the good. The popular musical based on Hugo’s story suggests that Valjean’s conversion from criminal to saint happens in the blink of an eye, and his commitment to following a holy path becomes an almost instinctual action. The original story, however, suggests that choosing the good is a daily and often difficult choice. Much like a recovering addict, Valjean struggles with dampening his personal demons for the sake of making holy choices. If we are honest, our story is similar. Always choosing the good would be easy if the good were obvious. Jean Valjean’s journey helps us recognize how difficult accepting grace can be, and how sharing grace can sometimes be even more difficult.

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A Quick Refresher

KEY CHARACTERS

Jean Valjean—French peasant who goes to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and finds redemption
Javert—police inspector who disdains all who overstep the bounds of law and who wants Valjean arrested for his crimes
Fantine—young mother of Cosette who is mistreated by society and tragically dies
Cosette—innocent daughter of Fantine who is raised and loved by Valjean and who marries Marius
Marius—young son of Georges Pontmercy who falls in love with Cosette and joins the uprising of 1832

PLOT SUMMARY

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo tells the story of the transformation of Jean Valjean from hardened criminal capable of impetuous evil into loving benefactor of a vulnerable child whose mother dies as a result of unjust actions. This historical novel, first published in 1862, is set in France from 1789 to 1833 and focuses on the June 5–6, 1832, uprising in Paris in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Matt Rawle, The Grace of Les Miserables (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019).

Introduction

Les Misérables invites us to see what happens when grace and justice collide. Can mercy and the law exist in the same place at the same time? Are grace and justice mutually exclusive, or might these ideas be one and the same? Hugo also wants the reader to understand that our lives are intimately connected with each other. Our actions are never as independent as we might imagine. One person’s decision affects someone else’s life, sometimes in grand and dramatic ways. Through politics and love, revolution and forgiveness, Les Misérables is a story that continues to capture our imagination!