Sunday, January 20, 2013

Confessions of a Les Miserables Enthusiast

Well, I have *finally* found some time on this quiet Sunday afternoon, to jot down some of my thoughts regarding the greatest novel (in my opinion) ever written!  A novel turned into brilliant stage musical, turned into a brilliant film.  

What I find so amazing, is the controversy this film has stirred among conservative Christian homes.  Honestly, I am torn between laughing and sobbing!  When I was about 7 or 8, I was digging through some old things in the house my dad grew up in.  In the process of my searching for something interesting to do, I stumbled upon a very old comic book...

Now this was my *very* first taste of Les Mis -- and I was smitten!!  Literally, I instantly was in engulfed in deep admiration for this story!  Now mind you, I was only 8 or so and when I attempted to read the book, I failed miserably because I really couldn't wrap my brain around it!  My mom got a hold of the Radio Theater version (which at the time I loved and now can't stand!), and we tried a couple of film adaptations. 

And then!  THEN!  I met one of my best friends!  Molly, who is probably the only soul (outside of some of my own family members) to share my deep love for Les Mis.  But Molly was privy to a world of Les Mis that I didn't know existed!  Molly introduced me to the musical, and I fell in love all over again!  The musical adaptation of Les Miserables is probably the most accurate portrayal of Victor Hugo's original story, that I have ever come across.  

So rather than use this post to release my massive frustration with those who would seek to hate on this film constantly,  I am going to expound on the basic stream of the story and take a positive approach to repelling the criticism that has ensued Les Mis.  And while I have only read about half the book, half was enough to bring me to tears more often than not.  

Les Miserables is set between 18th and 19th century France.  France is (and already has been) experiencing some major political shifts and one of the first characters (in the book) that we are introduced to, is the bishop.  The bishop is a die hard monarchist (as all Catholics were) and while a compassionate man, he seems to have very little tolerance for revolutionaries.  He sees revolutionaries as vindictive, violent men, who seem to have no conscience.

But, being the man of compassion that he is, he feels obligated to visit an old revolutionary who is dying and lonely.  As the bishop tries as hard as he can to visit this man, you can tell that he is irritated and bitter towards this dying revolutionary.  And then a conversation takes place in which all of this changes.  The bishop and the revolutionary are discussing monarchy and martyrs.  As I mentioned above, the bishop sympathizes with the monarchy and has disdain for the revolutionary whom he is bitter towards.  Here is a portion of the conversation that can be taken as the start of a change of mind for the bishop:

"'I repeat,' {the revolutionary} continued, 'you've {the bishop} mentioned Louis XVII.  I agree, let's weep together for all the innocent, all the martyrs, all the children, humble as well as mighty.  I'm for that.  But then, as I said, we must go further back than '93, and our tears must start before Louis XVII.  I will weep for the children of kings with you, if you will weep with me for the children of the people.'
'I will weep for them all,' the bishop said. 
'Equally,' the revolutionary exclaimed, 'and if the balance tips, let it be on the side of the people: They have suffered longer.'
There was silence again, broken at last by the old revolutionary.  He raised himself up on one elbow, pinched one of his cheeks, as one does unconsciously in examining and forming an opinion, then he addressed the bishop with a look full of all the energies of dying.  It was like an explosion. 
'Yes, Monsieur, the people have been suffering for a long time.  And then, sir, that's not all; why do you come to question me and to speak to me of Louis XVII?  I don't know you.  Since I have been in this region I have lived within these walls all alone, never going beyond them, seeing no one but this child who helps me.  Your name has, it is true, reached me confusedly, and I must say not without respect, but no matter.  Clever men have so many ways of impressing the good and simple people... Monsieur, monsieur, I mourn Marie Antoinette, archduchess and queen, but I also mourn that poor Huguenot woman who, in 1685, under Louis le Grand, monsieur, while nursing her child, was stripped to the waist and tied to a post, while her child was held before her; her breast swelled with milk and her heart with anguish; the baby, weak and famished, seeing the breast, cried in agony; and the executioner said to the nursing mother, 'Recant!' giving her the choice between the death of her child and the death of her conscience.  What do you say to this Tantalus torture inflicted on a mother?  Monsieur, remember this: The French revolution had its reason.  Its anger will be pardoned by the future; its result is a better world.  Its most terrible blows are a caress for the human race.  I must be brief.  I must stop.  I have too good a cause; and I am dying.'"

After this, the bishop is moved with immense emotion and experiences a change of heart towards the people.  In a sense, this moment to me, marks the beginning of his pulling away from Catholic traditions.  Catholic bishops were wealthy and extravagant and this precious bishop was humble, lived a seemingly poor life, and seemed to be the very opposite of what his Catholic religion would desire him to be.  In many, many ways, he pulled away from his Catholic faith.  

This is a good place for me to address a concern that many have expressed with Les Mis... Catholicism.  Victor Hugo, did indeed, start out a Catholic.  But as time went on, he became convicted and actually expressed many concerns he saw within the Catholic Church.  Les Miserables, was actually, part of his protest against the Catholic religion.  Victor Hugo was eventually excommunicated from the Catholic Church and actually died in exile.  Knowing this history of the author, makes it easier for me to identify that Javert can be a representative of the Catholic Church, and Jean Valjean represents a truly converted soul.  The film does at one point, show Jean Valjean hand Javert a rosary.  While I was not too thrilled about this little symbol at first, what I do deeply appreciate, is that Hollywood was trying to make sure that you knew Jean Valjean was different *because* of his religious conversion.  I mean honestly, it is not something to be picked on in the least!  

Before you all look Victor Hugo up on Wikipedia, let me dispel another myth that has gone around about him.  Some have said that he later became a deist, but deism is the belief that God is not involved in the running of the world and cannot protect or intervene in anyway at all.  Here is a quote from Victor Hugo himself, which disproves this assumption:  

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.

This among several other things, has convinced me that Victor Hugo believed in the Providence of God and so deism was clearly not something that he practiced.  

Now *ahem* let's get back to business here...

We are very soon introduced to Jean Valjean. 

 Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread to save his sister's starving son.  He was caught and sentenced to prison.  Part of what made his punishment in prison so long and harsh, was that he kept trying to escape.  Valjean is verrrrry bitter against the world and cannot even find a place to stay because his papers reveal he is a convict and so nobody trusts him.  He is finally taken in by the kind hearted bishop and given some food and a comfortable place to sleep.  He is treated like a normal man and is not looked down upon because he is a convict.  Valjean cannot sleep and so he gets up and steals the bishop's silver.  When the bishop's maid discovers that the silver has been stolen, he tells her that it wasn't their silver in the first place, and reassures her that there is no need to go off the deep end.  Later, Valjean is caught by the police and taken back to the bishop's home, where the police tell the bishop that Valjean claims to have been given the silver by him.  The bishop does not deny it.  Here is a portion of the lyrics from the song in the musical:
{Bishop to Valjean} "But my friend, you left so early, surely something slipped your mind, you forgot I gave these also (picking up silver candlesticks) would you leave the best behind?" 

(Jean Valjean and the bishop)

Valjean took the bishop's tunic and the bishop gave him his cloak also (Matthew 5:40).  This act of kindness seems to overwhelm Valjean, who is on his way to another place.  He is resting on the side of the road, when a little chimney sweep boy passes him by.  The young boy drops his money on the road, and Valjean, out of instinct puts his foot on top of it to keep it from the little boy.  The boy begs for him to give it back and Valjean eventually screams at him to scare him away.  Then Valjean falls asleep.  When he awakes, he stands up and begins to go on his way.  When his foot moves, he sees the coin that he stole from the boy and realizes what he has done after the amazing mercy that he has just been shown by the bishop.  He runs around frantically, screaming for the boy, so that he can give him back his money.  He finally feels overwhelmed with what he has just done and falls to his knees.  This is the moment that Jean Valjean becomes a new man and is born again.  Here is a quote from the book:

“Why had he done so? {stole from the chimney sweep} Assuredly he could not have answered the question. Had it been a last stirring of the evil generated in him by prison? In simple terms, it was not the man who had stolen; it was the animal which, from habit and instinct, had brutally set its foot on the coin while the man’s intelligence wrestled with the new and dumbfounding thoughts that preoccupied it. When the man saw what the animal had done, Jean Valjean recoiled with a cry of horror. The fact is -- a strange phenomenon, only conceivable in the situation which he found himself -- that in robbing the boy he had committed an act of which he was no longer capable… Excess of suffering, as we have seen, had made him in some sort a visionary. This was a vision. He truly saw that Jean Valjean, that evil countenance confronting him. At that moment he was near to asking who the man was, and he was appalled… Jean Valjean wept for a long time, sobbing convulsively with more than a woman’s abandon, more than the anguish of a child. And as he wept, a new day dawned in his spirit, a day both wonderful and terrible. He saw all things with a clarity that he had never known before -- his past life, his first offence and long expiation, his outward coarsening and inward hardening, his release enriched with so many plans for revenge, the incident at the bishop’s house, and this last abominable act, the robbing of a child, rendered the more shameful by the fact that it followed the bishop’s forgiveness. He saw all this, the picture of his life, which was horrible, and of his own soul, hideous in its ugliness. Yet a new day had now dawned for that life and soul…”

My word!  That just gives me goosebumps!  Jean Valjean recognizes his sin and his depravity and experiences a conversion which results in a beautiful life!  Hugh Jackman, who plays Valjean in the film, does a magnificent job!  He truly became Jean Valjaen and I was in tears many times during the movie!!  Here are the lyrics from the song from the musical, which represents this portion of the story:

"What have I done sweet Jesus? What have I done?
Become a thief in the night? Become a dog on the run?
Have I fallen so far and is the hour so late?
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate?
The cries in the dark that nobody hears?
Here where I stand at the turning of the years
If there's another way to go, I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number, murdered Valjean
When the chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread
Yet why did I allow that man, to touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust, he called me "brother"
My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world, this world that always hated me
Take an eye for an eye, turn your heart into stone
This is all I have lived for, this is all I have known
One word from him and I'd be back, beneath the lash upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul. How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?
I am reaching but I fall, and the night is closing in
As I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!!!
" {Valjean's Soliloquy}

I love that the musical so accurately portrays the conversion that is taking place in Valjean's soul!  

Now Valjean breaks his parole in the process of starting a new life and changes his identity.  He is now known as Mayor Madeleine.  He is generous beyond belief and has a workhouse which he runs above reproach.  He is beloved and treasured and has become a gracious man, who knows the depths that he was in and the slums that God has brought him out of.  But, because he broke his parole, he is a wanted man.  Javert, is an officer who is strict and forceful.  He is an emotionless creature, who believes in living your life in total accordance with "the law".  Many religions (including Christians) embrace a works mindset and totally forget grace.  Javert represents those who think they are doing the Lord's work by living such a graceless life.  The contrast between Valjean and Javert is stunning really.  I know that Russel Crowe was picked on like crazy, but he did in fact, portray Javert according to Victor Hugo, to perfection!!  

Fantine, who was played by Anne Hathaway in the film, was once a blooming, youthful young woman who came to love a scoundrel of a man.  (Anne Hathaway did a *brilliant* job!  She was a perfect Fantine!)

The man whom Fantine loved ended up getting her pregnant and then abandoned her for good.  After Fantine has had the child, she doesn't know how to care for her and make money to support the both of them.  As she passes through a town and sees a mother with her children, she is touched by the gentility and care that this mother is showing.  She approaches the woman and asks if she can pay her to take care of her child.  The woman agrees and Fantine's daughter, Cosette, is now in the care of this family... the Thenardiers.  This is where we are first introduced to these wretched people.  What Fantine didn't know, is that they were just putting on an act for her.  They planned the entire thing to convince Fantine to give them care of her child.  Fantine fell prey to the artwork of master cons.  


So Fantine gets a job in Valjean's workhouse to send money to the Thenardiers.  The Thenardiers mistreat Cosette horribly and lie in their letters to Fantine about Cosette being sick and so on, all in efforts to get more money out of her.  

When it is discovered that Fantine has a child, she is dubbed an immoral woman and loses her job.  She sells her teeth and her hair all in effort to take care of her daughter.  Finally, after she has done all of this and sold everything she owns, she resorts to prostitution.  Now the scene in the movie where this part is being depicted, has caused quite an uproar among conservative Christians!!  It is the scene where the "lovely ladies" are trying to entangle Fantine in their prostitution ring.  They are dressed immodestly, as prostitutes dress!  The Bible even says that a harlot is known by her attire!  It would be a travesty to convey them as modestly dressed women.  Fantine then proceeds to take her first customer and she hits the depths of despair.  

Now the film conveys the "lovely ladies" as disgusting and gross.  They are dirty and repulsive!!  Anyone who is aroused at seeing this scene, is a troubled person.  The Bible doesn't shy away from the gritty details.  Such as when Esther went into the King to spend the night with him before she was Queen... or when Onan spilled his seed on the ground... or when Job is weeping in despair and says the following...

"Then let my wife grind for another, And let others bow down over her." -Job 31:10

You see, the Bible doesn't disguise sin and the horrors that can result from sin.  It calls a spade a spade and oftentimes shocks us with its graphic honesty.  

Now after Fantine has become a prostitute, a potential customer harasses her and she reacts in self-defense.  Javert takes her into custody and threatens to throw her into prison.  Jean Valjean then looks into the matter and at first, Fantine spits on him because she blames him for her losing her job.  Valjean is horrified at what has happened to poor Fantine, and he then overrules Javert and takes Fantine to a hospital and cares for her.  He promises to retrieve Cosette and bring her back to Fantine.

While this is taking place, Javert apologizes to Valjean (whom he thinks is Mayor Madeleine) for thinking that he was Jean Valjean (which he really is) the con who broke his parole.  He confesses that he thought he was Valjean and found out he was wrong when another man confesses that he was the con.  Valjean is shocked that another man has taken on his former identity and goes to the court to confess that he is in fact, Jean Valjean.  When Javert gets word of this, the manhunt begins.  

Fantine has now died and Valjean has gone and gotten the poor and horribly abused Cosette.  When Valjean and Cosette escape Javert, Javert sings the following song in the musical:

"There, out in the darkness
A fugitive running
Fallen from God
Fallen from grace
God be my witness
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face
Till we come face to face
He knows his way in the dark Mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword!
And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!
Lord let me find him
That I may see him
Safe behind bars
I will never rest

Till then
This I swear
This I swear by the stars!" {Stars}

So as you see, Javert truly believes that he is on the side of the Lord and is doing His work.  He is a professing believer who is living his life according to works and the law.  He is a PERFECT pharisee!!  

As time goes on, Cosette grows up, meets Marius (a revolutionary) and the two fall in love.  Javert is still after Valjean and revolution is brewing fiercely in France.  Numerous other characters who are so important to the story are introduced.  One being Enjolras, a somewhat misguided revolutionary who is passionately driven about the people's freedom, or Eponine, Gavroche, Fauchelevent, Courfeyrac, and many others. 

The small battle that takes place between French soldiers and young revolutionaries and results in a horrible massacre of young, passionate driven, freedom fighters, can appear a little confusing.  But it is important for two reasons:

1) The bishop in the beginning hated revolutionaries!  But his heart was softened.  He showed kindness to Valjean, who becomes a new man.  Valjean in turn, joins the revolutionaries when he finds out that Marius is in love with his beloved Cosette and in turn, saves Marius, who is a revolutionary!  Make sense? 


2) The poor and horrible people are oppressed by the monarchy and are fighting for freedom!  To me, this represents the spiritual battle that we all fight against legalism, for our freedom in Jesus Christ!  Valjean was fleeing from Javert, who was seeing to bind him again; and the revolutionaries were fighting against the monarchy that was seeking to bind them.  

 It is all such a beautiful picture on a ginormous scale!!  Les Mis is a massive book and honestly, it doesn't do well to just know the story and know nothing of the spirituality that Hugo was trying to impute.  The Catholic church *hated* Les Miserables because they saw themselves in Javert!  And Javert was the villain.  He was trying to earn his salvation.  

At one point in Les Miserables, Valjean is supposed to kill Javert, but he instead, grants him his freedom.  Javert, in the end, is so overwhelmed, that he cannot hardly go on knowing that Valjean was gracious to him.  Here is what he sings just before his suicide:

"Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!
Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I'll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live... but live in hell.
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on...." 
{Javert's Suicide}

 There are two things that I want to point out here.  Valjean's Soliloquy and Javert's Suicide are both set to the same tune.  In Valjean's Soliliquoy, where he becomes a Christian, this is what he says at one point: 

"Yet why did I allow that man, to touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust, he called me "brother"
My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world, this world that always hated me
Take an eye for an eye, turn your heart into stone
This is all I have lived for, this is all I have known"
Contrast it with what Javert says in his suicide:

"How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live... but live in hell." 

Again, here are Valjean's words as his song ends:

"I am reaching but I fall, and the night is closing in
As I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!!!"
And here are Javert's words right before he falls to his death:

"I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!"

 As you can see, these two songs demonstrate perfectly how an act of kindness led Jean Valjean to redemption and a very similar act of kindness led to Javert's damnation.  

Finally at the very end (of the film), when Jean Valjean is dying, Fantine and the bishop (both dead) are there to take him to heaven.  As his last breath leaves his body, he hears a faint singing... it is the voices of hundreds of dead saints who died in pursuit of freedom joined together as they sing the following words:

"Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise. They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare, the will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes
Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? Say do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!
Tomorrow comes!!" {Epilogue}

 It is amazing and stunningly beautiful!  I was sobbing... sobbing I tell you!  And I have cried every time I have seen it since... all four times!!  

I want you to keep in mind this scripture as I close:

"Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them."  -Ephesians 5:11

The scripture above is telling us not to participate in works of darkness.  Don't play with ouija boards, don't practice witchcraft, don't be drunk, don't be sexually immoral, etc., etc.  It is also telling us to expose these acts of darkness!!!  Les Miserables is not participating in darkness, it is exposing it!  You can't expose something if you just close your eyes and pretend it isn't there!  Now, how in heaven's name, do we expect to minister to prostitutes if we can't even see them without stumbling sexually?  I will be the first to agree that lust is an issue among Christians today... but I will also be the first to stand to my feet and declare that it seems it may be the result of making everything "unmentionable".   

Les Miserables is a story of redemption that no other work of fiction has ever equaled.  It is brilliant, touching, sometimes funny, and deeply moving!  If you are contemplating going to see it, or if you are wrestling with your own legalism and have decided not to go see this film, keep in mind the following quote from Victor Hugo himself:

“...But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred just men.” -Victor Hugo