Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Les Miserables - When It's Good It's Very, Very Good - Part 2

Warning: Absolutely packed with spoilers. Though I know this is 100+ years after it was published, most of the major plots twists in this book were ruined for me through the internet. So. I'm warning you.

In the first half of this post, I reviewed the story and more practical elements of Les Mis - in this follow-up, I get into the philosophy. That's code for: this will be boring to everyone but Hannah Long. Also, I am writing this from a Christian perspective, and am critiquing ideas by comparing them to theology, so Prepare Yourself.


Victor Hugo wasn't a Christian, at least by orthodox standards. According to Wikipedia, he changed his ideas many times over the years, starting as a devoted Catholic, dabbling in Spiritualism, espousing Rational Deism, and finally settling into a very anti-Catholic old age. Les Miserables took seventeen years to write, and considering his drastic changes in thought, it's doubtful that his ideological premise was consistent. 

His god appears throughout the story as a far-off force which he calls the infinite. The infinite never takes direct part in the action (excepting the conversion of Jean Valjean, if such it was), however, the hand of this god is running great events. Writing of Waterloo:

“Was it possible that Napoleon should have won that battle? We answer No. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Because of God."

This is likely Hugo’s equation of God with Progress.

“The general life of the human race is called Progress, the collective stride of the human race is called Progress. Progress advances; it makes the great human and terrestrial journey towards the celestial and the divine…it is one of the poignant anxieties of the thinker that he sees the shadow resting on the human soul, and that he gropes in darkness without being able to awaken that slumbering Progress.”

But Progress is a cold god. There is an element of distance, of uncaring, of immunity to mankind’s cries. Hugo's deism rules.

“The greatest favorites of destiny make mistakes. Our joys are composed of shadow. The supreme smile is God's alone.”

A direct revelation seems to be a bit beyond Hugo’s reach:

“God delivers over to men his visible will in events, an obscure text written in a mysterious tongue. Men immediately make translations of it; translations hasty, incorrect, full of errors, of gaps, and of nonsense (my emphasis)."

All the same, he rejects mere materialism. There must to be something more or it is “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
“The negation of the infinite leads straight to nihilism. Everything becomes 'a mental conception.'…Nihilism has no point. There is no such thing as nothingness. Zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing.”

Despite his lack of sound theology, some of his conclusions are highly profound. Perhaps there is a way of discerning the infinite, he muses.

“God is behind everything, but everything hides God. Things are black, creatures are opaque. To love a being is to render that being transparent.”

As paraphrased in the musical: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Les Miserables Isabelle Allen Hugh Jackman foto dal film 2While it’s not at all orthodox to say God is other people (which is possibly what Hugo was trying to get at—a form of pantheism), when we love others, it becomes easier to see the image of God in them, and perceive more clearly who God is. “If you do unto the least of these…”
Jesus himself knew he had to take on flesh to fully connect with us. Hugo seems to sense our longing for that human touch.

Jean Valjean in particular represents this view that to love others brings one into very close contact with God. He (and perhaps the quirky bishop) come closest to orthodox Christian faith. All throughout the story Valjean is the stand-in for God, relieving the misery of others, often at great personal cost. Nevertheless, Valjean’s God is variously personified, sometimes as his conscience, sometimes as Bishop Myriel, sometimes as Christ. 

With knowledge of Hugo’s deism in my mind, I wonder what faith he described in Valjean, but reading with my modern evangelical conceptions, I always find it easy to believe Valjean had a sincere conversion to Christianity and the good works are just the result of that. Hugo probably meant another of those instances of progress, worked out in the human mind. For once, though, progress is so closely aligned, so similar to a rejuvenation of the Holy Spirit, that it’s easy to fill in those dots with a spiritual solution. It can be read both ways, and I know the one I prefer.

While Valjean becomes very loving through this conversion, he has a debilitating sense of guilt that hounds him. He can forgive everyone but himself. To not forgive is a sin—even not to forgive oneself. I can, however, accept this as a byproduct of the prevailing social mindset that criminals were irredeemable. Even Valjean believes it, and so has to endure a whole lot more misery than he really needed to. (I’ve had problems with that, believing that if I feel guilty long enough God owes me something. Valjean takes it somewhat to an extreme. Of course, he has been known to somewhat overdo things.)

So that's faith in God. What other faiths are there? Most notably, the faith in politics. Marius is the example of Faith in Democracy. Hugo was a disciple of Progress and seemed to see education as salvation. The antagonists are portrayed as ignorant and unthinking, adhering blindly to a stiff creed.

“They jeered at the age, which released them from the necessity of understanding it.”

Education is seen as a great liberating force, even salvation. It is notable, however, that the most major change in the book - Valjean's - is brought about not by education, but by kindness. And yet, the bishop himself says:

"Teach those who are ignorant as many things as possible; society is culpable, in that it does not afford instruction gratis; it is responsible for the night which it produces. This soul is full of shadow; sin is therein committed. The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow."
It will be perceived that he had a peculiar manner of his own of judging things: I suspect that he obtained it from the Gospel.

On the one hand, Valjean toils to better his mind, while Javert, the antagonist, seldom reads.

In the book, Javert is merely indifferent to religion, though he has a great respect for the church, as an institution. However, the musical actively connects him with Pharisee-ism. This shifts the conflict. Instead of a clash between blind allegiance to authority and the individual autonomy of democracy we have them connected, respectively, to Old Testament Justice and New Testament Grace. While it’s not entirely true to the book, the plot and climax perfectly lend themselves to the change.

Ultimately the main theme, which connects both Faith in God/the Infinite and Faith in Democracy, is the concept that ideals trump laws.

“Make as many laws as you please, men; but keep them for yourselves. The tribute to Caesar is never anything but the remnants of the tribute to God. A prince is nothing in the presence of a principle.”

This is, of course, deeply in keeping with Jesus’ idea of a higher law. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because they keep the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it. Paul does the same in Romans 2:29. Spirit, not Law, has become my motto.

In what may possibly be the most magnificent chapter in the book, Javert (via an internal “revolution…in the depths of his being”) is forced to acknowledge this, that there may be a higher power than mere earthly authority, a greater truth than mindless adherence to rote laws. To deny this is to be “simple.” Hugo might say Progress had got a hold of him; I say God did. Either way.

That might be the last word. It's hard to tell if the hope I found in the story is hope I found, or hope I brought with me. The one last idea I want to examine is that Valjean's life may be a metaphor for the Christian journey. Taken as an example of a real life, it's on the melodramatic side (of course it is! This is LES MIS!), but to make the point that we must continually surrender to God, it is a beautiful lesson. The song Who Am I is very powerful, but it somewhat underrates the huge ordeal Valjean goes through in order to make his decision. In fact, Hugo himself rather overdoes it, including a complex courtroom scene that completely defuses the emotional time-bomb he's been building through the previous chapters.

There is a second upheaval in Valjean's life comes when realizes he must leave Cosette. The musical barely mentions the anguish this causes. In the book, it's even worse than the first time. Hugo poses the question as choosing between God and happiness (for reasons mysterious and rather unsatisfactory, but fine, Vic, whatever you say).

Then, one is never done with conscience. Make your choice, Brutus; make your choice, Cato. It is fathomless, since it is God. One flings into that well the labor of one's whole life, one flings in one's fortune, one flings in one's riches, one flings in one's success, one flings in one's liberty or fatherland, one flings in one's well-being, one flings in one's repose, one flings in one's joy! More! more! more! Empty the vase! tip the urn! One must finish by flinging in one's heart.

In the end, Valjean with very un-21st-Century lack of bitterness, says, among (as usual, too many) other things: 

Of Cosette: "The proof that God is good is that she is here."

"Death is a good arrangement. God knows better than we what we need."

"Because things are not agreeable...that is no reason for being unjust towards God."

"It is nothing to die; it is dreadful not to live."

The portress had come upstairs and was gazing in at the half-open door. The doctor dismissed her.
But he could not prevent this zealous woman from exclaiming to the dying man before she disappeared: "Would you like a priest?"

"I have had one," replied Jean Valjean.



  1. Don't worry, I don't think your posts are boring. ;)
    I don't know much about Victor Hugo, though it doesn't surprise me that he constantly changed his mind about religion. After reading a couple of his books I got the feeling that his views about God and the Church were a bit unusual.

    1. It really seems to vary. At times, he's very religious, at others, very humanistic.


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