Victor Hugo’s Re-Telling of the Gospel
Just in advance of Christmas, the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit appeared. As I and many other commentators have pointed out, Tolkien’s great story, like its more substantive successor The Lord of the Rings, is replete with Catholic themes. On Christmas day itself, another film adaptation of a well-known book debuted, namely Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Though Hugo had a less than perfectly benign view of the Catholic Church, his masterpiece is, from beginning to end, conditioned by a profoundly Christian worldview. It is most important that, amidst all of the “Les Miz” hoopla, the spiritual heart of Hugo’s narrative not be lost.
The story revolves around the figure of Jean Valjean, a man who, in his youth, had been convicted of the crime of robbing a loaf of bread to feed his starving child. For this eminently excusable offense, he had been imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor for 19 years. The experience made him, understandably enough, embittered and deeply distrustful of both individuals and societal institutions. Having escaped from prison and fallen into desperate straits, he was taken in by a kindly bishop, who fed him and gave him a place to sleep. But Valjean answered this kindness by stealing two silver candlesticks from his benefactor. Apprehended by the police, the criminal was brought back to the bishop. Instead of accusing and condemning Valjean, the prelate blithely told the constables that the candlesticks were a gift and even gave the thief more valuables. To the uncomprehending criminal, the bishop then explained that this grace is meant to awaken a similar graciousness in Valjean.
In this simple and deeply affecting episode, one of the most fundamental principles of the spiritual life is displayed. God is love. God is nothing but gracious self-gift. And what God wants, first and last, is that his human creatures participate in the love that he is, thereby becoming conduits of the divine grace to the world. What Jean Valjean received through the bishop was precisely this divine life and the mission that accompanies and flows from it. If the bishop’s gesture had been, in any sense, self-interested, it would not have conveyed God’s manner of being. But in its utter gratuity, it became a sacrament and instrument of uncreated grace.
The bulk of Les Misérables then unfolds as the story of Valjean’s sharing of this divine life with others. He becomes the mayor of a town, and in that capacity proves a benefactor to the poor and destitute. Most notably, he reaches out to Fantine, a woman who had been forced into a life of prostitution in order to feed her child. (Anne Hathaway’s performance of Fantine’s desperate song “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the most moving moments in the film). Upon Fantine’s death, Valjean takes in her daughter, Cosette, and becomes a father to her. At the climactic moment of the film, when Valjean has the opportunity to kill the chief constable Javert, a man who had been mercilessly pursuing Valjean for decades, he relents and lets his persecutor go. Time and again, we see that unmerited love (the bishop’s forgiveness many years before) gives rise to unmerited love.
Let me say a further word about the relentless Javert, portrayed in the film by Russell Crowe. The constable seems to appear at every key moment of Valjean’s life, judging exactly how and whether Valjean lives up to the demands of the law. Even the slightest offense fills him with righteous indignation. Victor Hugo seems to have been using this tortured and torturing character as the embodiment of law in the absolute sense, law unchecked by mercy. Whereas Valjean had been touched by grace, Javert remained locked in by legality and moral demand. Throughout the film, Crowe’s expression is as severe and unchanging as his uniform. After the moment I described above, Javert repairs to a height overlooking the Seine and, after singing a final lament, hurls himself to his death. What became clear in his swan song is that Javert simply could not fathom what Valjean had done. There was no room for grace in his uncompromisingly legalistic worldview, and therefore the breakthrough of mercy broke him. I can’t think of a better image, by the way, for what the Church means by damnation and the suffering of the damned. The tension between Valjean and Javert should not be overstated in a dualistic way, as though mercy simply eliminates justice. Pope Benedict XVI has argued that no society could survive, even in the most rudimentary way, without justice, that is to say, without law, structure, order, moral demand, legitimate punishment, etc. But at the same time, the Pope insists that a society characterized simply by justice will become, in the long run, dysfunctional—as frozen, resentful, and lifeless as Javert.
At the close of the film, as Valjean nears death, he is visited by two heavenly figures: the bishop who had shown him such kindness and Fantine, the mother of the child that he raised. The appearance of these long-dead figures speaks the important truth that grace is properly eternal, precisely because it is identical to the divine life. Since God is love, love is more powerful even than death.
Isn’t it curious that at a time when an aggressive secularism is, with increasing vehemence, announcing the death of religion, the two most popular films of the Christmas season are filled with the Gospel spirit?