Let’s Talk About Les Misérables
Grace as a Destructive Force
For as long as I can remember I’ve loved Les Mis. My parents saw it when I was young and bought the recording. I’m not sure when I first heard the music, but that was my first exposure to Les Misérables. As I’ve grown older I’ve sought out more tellings of the story. I’ve seen multiple movies (musical and not) listened to and watched different performances of the music (live and recorded), and a year or two ago I finished the unabridged, albeit translated book by Victor Hugo himself. It is a work of art.
And like all art there’s always more to be enjoyed. But I want to just focus on one point, Valjean and his foil Javert. A foil relationship is where an antagonist is crafted in such a way that his traits highlight specific traits of the protagonist. In this instance (especially in the musical version) I think the foil is actually set up to highlight a third actor in play, Grace.
These are two men who are shown grace and respond in very different ways. Jean Valjean is a hardened convict who hates humanity because hate is the only thing he’s known. When the Bishop shows him grace even though he’s never been faced with it before, he accepts it. It upends his worldview and he becomes a new man. Javert is a strict keeper of the law, he believes that through the structures of law and society we ought to, and do, get what we deserve. He also recognizes the grace shown to him, but it does not fit into his rigid meritocratic worldview and it kills him.
From this we see something about grace. Grace is a destructive force. When we recognize grace it will destroy either our warped sense of self-deservedness or it will destroy us. Which will you let it destroy?
What do you see in the story?