Hannah Smith | On 07, Jan 2013
Les Misérables, the acclaimed novel turned musical and now theatrical release, details the life of convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who, after having stolen bread for his starving sister and her child, is imprisoned for twenty years in the galleys. He is freed and left an angry and bitter man until he is absolved from attempted thievery by a compassionate bishop. Changed by this encounter, Valjean is determined to live the life of a righteous and honorable man, and spends the rest of his time seeking to do good deeds. Despite this, Valjean is never quite able to escape his past, and remains on the run from the bloodthirsty officer Javert (Russel Crowe), who swears to find Valjean and return him to prison at all costs.
Valjean’s experience with the bishop near the start of the film begins a series of actions that alter Valjean’s course and identity. Resentful and overcome by a deep inner fury, Valjean is not a man above doing what he must to survive, and he cleans out the church’s store of silver, hoping to quietly steal out of town. He is caught and immediately returned to the bishop by abusive policemen. Against all explanation, the bishop claims the silver was his gift to Valjean so that the ex-convict might begin his life anew as an honest man. Promptly sweeping the large silver candle sticks from the table and handing them to Valjean, the bishop reminds him that he left the best behind in his hurry to leave town.
It would have been so easy for the bishop to sentence Valjean back to a life of imprisonment and slavery– it was no less than Valjean deserved. Yet, in an immense display of grace, the bishop not only excuses Valjean’s behavior, but he also offers him the very best he has. No requital, no expectations, no bargains or ill intentions. Is this not what the Father did for us?
Valjean does not leave this encounter the same man. He, in response, pursues a life of righteousness and kindness. He never forgets the darkness of his past, and endeavors to compensate for it by living above reproach through bestowing the same grace to others as the bishop showed him. After having experienced the love of Christ, is this not who we should become?
Because more often than not, the truth is we are the angry, bitter Valjean. We are the unsympathetic, merciless Javert. And after our own meeting with the Bishop, we are given a choice.
Valjean’s choice comes when he can end Javert’s life, guaranteeing his own freedom, or spare it, knowing that this display of mercy will not dissolve Javert’s relentless manhunt for him. It is at this moment when Valjean’s transformation has reached its peak, when he has become a strikingly clear picture of the relationship between Christ and sinner: Christ willingly paid the price for the undeserving, fully aware of the way we often refuse to acknowledge the greatest good anyone has ever done for us.
When Valjean makes this choice, it is tempting to cast him as the ultimate savior figure. But I don’t think that’s accurate– I think Valjean remains a reflection of exactly who we are meant be after the impact of grace has hit us hard in the gut. There’s something about Valjean’s humanity that seems far more relevant to the story of a follower than the divinity of a savior. He is not meant to be Christ, dying for sins and reconciling the world, but in his humanity he is the most unfailing representation of one who has known the love of the God and cannot help but give it away– regardless of obstacles, in spite of consequences.
At its heart (and perhaps on its sleeve), Les Misérables is a story of redemption, forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice, and love. It is the story of a man changed by an encounter with grace. It is, simply stated, our story. Like Valjean, we are no longer subject to condemnation for the act of stealing a piece of bread. Through the grace of a benevolent high priest, we are supplied with the very best– a daily bread that we cannot go on refusing to share after we’ve tasted it.
To sum it up with the film’s best line: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”