A Timely Old Lesson

Les Miserables.jpg

Last Thursday night, my wife and I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas. 

I was blown away. 

I’ve seen the musical on Broadway and in Houston, but I’ve never seen a production like this one.  The performers were fantastic, the orchestra was exquisite, and the large venue was packed.

As I sat there enjoying the beauty of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s masterful score, I was struck again by the profound message of Victor Hugo’s original story:  love and mercy are transformational.  It is a message as old as the Gospel. 

The first example comes when the benevolent Bishop Myriel gives Jean Valjean food and shelter, a kindness which Valjean returns by stealing some silverware.  When the police later capture Valjean, the bishop pretends that he gave Valjean the silverware and offers him two silver candlesticks, which he “forgot” to take.  That explanation spares Valjean from life imprisonment as a repeat offender.  Bishop Myriel then tells Valjean that his life has been spared for God and that he should use the money from the silver candlesticks to make a new life for himself.  And that he does, becoming a successful businessman and mayor of a town, although in the process also breaking the terms of his parole, which could send him to prison for life.

Years later, Valjean (now living under the pseudonym Madeleine) intervenes when his old nemesis, Inspector Javert, arrests a young woman named Fantine for striking a dandy who has harassed her in the street.  Although he risks being discovered by Javert, Valjean orders Javert to take Fantine to the hospital and later promises her that he will bring her daughter Cosette to her.    

Valjean again shows compassion when he learns that an innocent man will be tried as the Valjean who broke his parole.  He goes to court and reveals his identity, knowing that it could mean his arrest and imprisonment for life.  He returns to the hospital and promises Fantine that he will find Cosette and care for her.  Javert arrives to take Valjean into custody, but he overpowers the inspector and escapes.

The plot unfolds as Valjean rescues Cosette from her unscrupulous caretakers, takes her to Paris, and gives her a new life.  She grows up and meets and falls in love with a young revolutionary named Marius.  After the revolutionaries take to the streets, Javert infiltrates a group that has erected one of the barricades around the city.  When Javert is recognized by one of the revolutionaries and doomed to be executed, Valjean asks to be the one to execute him.  But as soon as they are alone, Valjean releases him.  Javert tells Valjean that he will never stop pursuing him and that he has made no bargain with him.  Valjean responds that he is releasing him unconditionally. 

Valjean returns to the barricades and rescues the seriously wounded Marius by carrying him to safety through the Paris sewers.  But when he emerges from the sewer, he finds Javert waiting for him.  Valjean begs Javert to allow him to take Marius to a doctor, and Javert reluctantly agrees.  Javert can’t reconcile Valjean’s selfless behavior with Javert’s belief that he is an inveterate criminal.  Unable to compromise his principles but no longer able to hold them sacred, Javert commits suicide by jumping into the Seine.

I don’t know whether Victor Hugo intended for Valjean to be a Christ figure, but he certainly describes a man who was transformed by love and mercy to become a noble and generous soul.  And then there’s Javert, who seems to be a hopeless Pharisee, living a life that brings joy to no one, including himself.

In the current age there is far too much acrimony and hate—far too many Javerts—and not nearly enough love and mercy.  I hope that those who watched the marvelous performance of Les Misérables will reflect on the transformational power of love and mercy in our troubled world and put the lesson into practice.