Les Miserables is one of my favorite books. It’s definitely in my top 10, maybe even in the top 5. I love the musical, too. While it fails to encompass the depth and breadth of the novel, I think it does justice in capturing its spirit. And it’s exciting and the music is fantastic!
I’m sure innumerable essays have been written by college English majors on symbolism in Les Mis, so I don’t expect to be breaking any fresh ground with this, but I was thinking about Jean Valjean’s character earlier as I blasted the Les Mis soundtrack on my way to work.
I thought, he isn’t a Christ character, he’s an us character. He’s arrested for crime – he committed it for the sake of his sister’s family, so we think, hey, he’s not that bad. But after he’s released from prison, he’s so embittered and corrupted by his time in the galleys and society’s refusal to reintegrate him that he takes advantage of the only people who’ve shown him kindness and steals their only items of value (their state of relative poverty isn’t really known in the musical/movie but it is in the book). When Valjean is caught with the stolen silver, the priest from whom he stole it lies to the police and gives Valjean the silver in order to save him from returning the galleys.
He tells Valjean to use the silver to establish himself honestly. In the musical, he says, “I have bought your soul for God.”
Valjean is dumbfounded in the face of such love, for him, a convict, who stole from the man! Again, in the musical he sings, “He said I had a soul – how did he know?” (I’d make references from the book except I don’t know where my copy is…the musical will have to do.)
As we know, Valjean takes the priest’s gift, gives up his old identity and begins living his life in the service of others. In the book, he begins to uphold the priest in his mind as his standard of love and goodness, a standard he wants to emulate.
The priest is the Christ-figure, and Valjean, like us, becomes Christlike when someone makes the sacrifice to redeem him. He even goes so far as to turn himself into the authorities when they arrest a man they think is Valjean, sacrificing himself in order to save the wrongly accused. Valjean still has some selfish patterns, but he repeatedly shows sacrificial love and grows more selfless. He cares for the people cast aside, the prostitutes, the orphans, the poor, he even spares the life of the man who’s hunted him for years.
Just some hastily written thoughts. If you like reading, and you’re a determined reader, not to be put off by 30-page descriptions of the battle of Waterloo (I skimmed that part), you should definitely read Les Miserables.