Sunday, May 29, 2011
Les Misérables. It is Victor Hugo’s classic story with themes that cover every range of human emotion—from bitterness to bliss, from hope to despair, from hate to love, from dejectedness to triumph. But the one theme that underlies all of these is that of redemption.
Redemption comes to different characters in different ways throughout Les Misérables. Fantine is redeemed through her sacrifice for her daughter. Marius and Cosette are redeemed through their love for each other. Enjolras is redeemed through his fight for freedom, even though he dies in the act. What about the main character, then? How is Jean Valjean—an ex-convict who suffers more than he ever deserves; a person who is so embittered by his life that he makes even more mistakes; a sinner who comes to the realization that he needs grace; a father to a child that is not his own; a soul who wants love, peace, and no remembrance of his past life; a passionate man who is constantly in the throes of conflict and strong emotion despite his quiet exterior—how is this man redeemed?
There is only one way to answer the question: he is redeemed by God.
Jean Valjean is perhaps one of the most intense characters to ever appear in classical fiction. He can be related to on every level because of his struggles. He is humble and hard-working, but most of all, he strives to be good. When Valjean has served his time in the galleys for nineteen years, he comes out at war with himself and with the world. He is hardened and bitter, and the last thing he wants to do is forgive and put his past behind him. But when the bishop of Digne, Monseigneur Beinvenu, shows Valjean kindness by sparing him despite his theft, Valjean’s world is turned upside down. He realizes where he is at fault and determines to become a better man. And despite years of hardship, the fear of being hunted down and caught, and obstacles thrown in this path, Jean Valjean does just that.
Jean Valjean soon rises to become the mayor of a town where a woman named Fantine is working. Fantine has gone through much pain for the sake of supporting her child, Cosette, and is now dangerously ill. In her broken innocence, she wants nothing more than good care for Cosette. Valjean promises to look after the girl when Fantine dies. He raises Cosette; she looks to him as a father, and Valjean looks to her as a daughter. She is the only one that has ever loved, trusted, and stayed beside him. Valjean learns from the bishop the meaning of virtue; he learns from Cosette the meaning of love.
Throughout all Valjean’s attempts to redeem his life from his past, there is one man who refuses to forgive and forget Valjean’s past misdeeds. Javert is the gendarme who has known nothing his whole life but severe justice, strict law, and relentless duty. His sole goal in life is to be irreproachable in the eyes of the law. In this mindset, arresting Jean Valjean is a necessity. He tirelessly hunts the trail of Valjean for years in the hopes of bringing this criminal to court.
Toward the novel’s end, a situation occurs where Valjean holds Javert’s life in his hands, but chooses to let him go free. Javert is utterly shocked. This time, his world is turned upside down. Not long after, Javert finally catches up to Valjean and is able to perform the act that has been consuming his thoughts for years—arrest this supposedly dangerous man. Instead, he too, almost beside himself, frees Valjean. Afterwards, he has an intense inward battle. He has, for the first time in his life, done something unlawful—for the sake of doing something good. But despite the fact that he knows he cannot arrest Jean Valjean in the future, he also knows that he cannot live with himself after committing such an act. All that Javert has lived for crumbles away before Valjean, this criminal whom Javert finds himself admiring. Unable to find a solution, Javert jumps into the Seine River, ending his own life.
The redemption of Valjean comes slowly. Until he learns of Javert’s suicide, he is never truly free from the fear that his past life will catch up to him. Even then, he still faces turmoil and trials against his old self. He struggles with letting Cosette grow up because he is afraid to lose her love. He struggles with telling the truth because he is afraid of his past identity.
Javert, on the other hand, is completely unable to accept the redemption that Valjean learns to embrace. Even though he strives for virtue, he does it out of a need to satisfy some standard that he can never reach. He has absolutely no concept of love. Without a strict sense of authority and perfection, his life is cold and void. When he realizes that there is no definite way to achieve perfection, Javert is at a loss for what to do.
This comes down to a comparison of these two equally intense characters. Jean Valjean has made mistakes and continues to make them. He knows he is not perfect; he knows he cannot get by on this own. Javert, on the other hand, does not acknowledge his need for something outside of himself. He thinks he can remain irreproachable by his own strength. Jean Valjean, when he realizes he is wrong, learns and changes because of the bishop and Cosette. Javert cannot comprehend anything other than what he has known his whole life, so he finds change impossible. Jean Valjean humbles himself enough to know he needs grace. Javert is too busy looking for fulfillment and perfection inside of himself.
In the end, Valjean embraces God. He understands that he will only fail on his own. He gathers strength to carry on, but not alone. Javert, whose only master is the law, is unable to grasp the reality of this almighty Master. Because of this, he is desperate. He has to take his own life. Only with this extreme ending is the stark comparison between Jean Valjean and Javert truly significant. If Javert does not commit suicide, the message that there is something and Someone larger than the law—outside of human institutions—is much less powerful, because redemption is unnecessary. But redemption is indeed necessary, and Javert cannot accept that.
This story is enduring because of the way it relates to everyone, whether despairing like Javert or clinging to God’s grace like Valjean. Les Misérables shows the power of God’s redemption by drawing a line between these two characters who both strive for good in such different ways. One achieves it and his life is fulfilled; the other does not and he finds his life empty. This prevailing theme is as essential and beautiful as it is life-changing.