Jean Valjean and the Forgiving Heart

24601by Glenn Fairman   11/13/13
Nearly a year ago, on that chilly time after Christmas, I strolled into our local theatre in the expectation of being entertained by an established well-loved musical that had just been rendered to film. I had no idea I would emerge from the darkness three hours later a scarlet-eyed blubbering wreck. Having bargained for diversion, I instead reaped a bounty of cinematic moral lessons wherein intense human ugliness runs headlong into the arms of sublime beauty and breaks our aching hearts in a fair exchange. Welcome to the spectacle of Les Miserables.

In retrospect, one could not ask for a more philosophical-moral biscuit to chew upon. Its sweeping themes of: justice and injustice, the law, mercy, forgiveness, courage, hopeless cruelty and redemption all congeal into that rare and breathtaking aesthetic wherein we travel beyond ourselves and hopefully examine our own stories against the adamantine First Principles of transcendence. While it is impossible to fully plumb the depths here of this masterpiece’s grand totality, with your indulgence I will clumsily attempt to examine a few of its gems.

In the figure of Jean Valjean, we witness a man nearly broken by the untempered blade of justice. Having spent half his life serving penance in the galleys for the crimes of stealing a loaf of bread and his subsequent escape attempts, the harsh exactness of the law administered in the personification of the relentless Javert has stripped Valjean of much of his human veneer. Answering for so long to the number 24601, Valjean, when eventually released, is only hardened in his hatred for what he has incurred at the hands of justice. His salvation, however, comes from a priest whom Valjean robs of a fortune in silver following the former’s show of Christian charity. Quickly apprehended after his theft and returned to the abbey, the Bishop, in a show of divine forgiveness, admits to giving the fortune to the incredulous thief while extending the caveat that Jean must now use the silver for Good, now that “I have saved your soul for God.”[pullquote]It is this quality of mercy and forgiveness that disarms Valjean, as it does us when we encounter it in its purest concentration. The law, which of its own is a civilizing and uplifting thing of beauty, nevertheless can become an instrument of harsh cruelty when applied without prudence or wisdom. [/pullquote]

It is this quality of mercy and forgiveness that disarms Valjean, as it does us when we encounter it in its purest concentration. The law, which of its own is a civilizing and uplifting thing of beauty, nevertheless can become an instrument of harsh cruelty when applied without prudence or wisdom. We find then that in spiritual terms, although the letter of the law provokes judgment and provides the standard in which we therein strive to attain, it is in tempering the law’s nature in mercy that we begin the transformation through grace in our souls. Javert, who has rose alongside Valjean from the gutters, has found a type of beauty in the Law, but has gleaned only the harsh obedience to a graven image and has not learned the Spirit animating the Law which allows for an internal chrysalis through the vehicle of the Cross. Forever the Pharisee, Javert’s unwavering pursuit of Valjean is for the capture of a felon who no longer lives–one who has been changed by divine kindness into a being that routinely dispenses such charity freely and without regard to the wretchedness of its recipients’ human station.

In internalizing and transmuting forgiveness, Jean Valjean has become a Christian in the truest sense. Set free from the hatreds built up over years of abuse and torment, he becomes a new man with an equally new identity who not only obeys the laws but whose actions speak far more of a metamorphosis than what the letter of the law can deliver.

There are actions that humans undertake in life that we do not expect others to do, but are necessarily praiseworthy and take on the character of the heroic when we experience them: such as a soldier leaping atop a live grenade as a sacrificial act. I dare say that these actions ennoble man and arise from a spirit of goodness that goes far beyond what we should expect of moral duty or obligation. J.P. Moreland calls these supererogatory acts and indeed these doings send profound ripples out into life affecting others. Through the course of Valjean’s redeemed life, he has been purposed for these acts. Becoming an employer and mayor of a small town, he employs many hundreds of people. In adopting Cosette and taking her away from the vicious clutches of the Inn Keepers, he ransoms a life that would no doubt have fallen into depravity. Moreover, Valjean reveals the true character of his renewal when Javert informs him that the “real 24601” has been apprehended and will stand trial for a return to the hellish galleys.

In a stunning soliloquy, the fugitive contemplates the implications of his impending dilemma. On one hand, he reasons that if he reveals himself to the authorities, those he has employed in the town will be cast adrift and the tremors of his revelation will impoverish many thousands. Additionally, the wretch who has been mistakenly cast as Valjean is diminished mentally and his condemnation to this hell would be as insignificant as a tear in the ocean. And yet, Valjean understands that if he weighs morality in this utilitarian fashion-the greatest good for the greatest many- his soul is damned. That he chooses moral virtue, against all human standards of prudence, and must flee for his freedom once again marks Jean Valjean as a haunting figure who has been thoroughly re-made in the pincers of tragedy.

This theme of heroic self-denial follows the protagonist to the end of the tale, when his adopted Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary who is certain to be killed by soldiers at the barricades. Valjean initially reasons that if he does nothing, the young girl will stay and care for him in his dotage. But learning of their deep affection, he makes his way behind the lines and faces great peril in not only rescuing and saving a wounded Marius from certain death, but in freeing a captured Javert who will soon be executed. As a tribute to selfless courage, one is astounded by the spectacle of Valjean carrying Marius over his head as he is submerged in human excrement in the sewers of Paris–all in the knowledge that a freed Javert will be awaiting to arrest him upon his return home.

Perhaps the stunning fate of Javert, who cannot reconcile mercy and his charge to uphold the law, is the most anguished. While Valjean, having been unshackled from his brutalized self many years before in that church abbey, has become something new, Javert is quite constitutionally incapable of either dispensing mercy or in receiving it from his nemesis. The cognitive dissonance that causes him to doubt what he had never before called into question becomes too large a burden for his hardened psyche to bear any longer and he therein plunges into the depths.[pullquote]As a tribute to selfless courage, one is astounded by the spectacle of Valjean carrying Marius over his head as he is submerged in human excrement in the sewers of Paris–all in the knowledge that a freed Javert will be awaiting to arrest him upon his return home.[/pullquote]

In this tale of two men, one finds in microcosm the dilemma we face in a world of pain and transgression. In a sense more real than we at times can fathom, we are both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Not one of us has ever escaped either the charge of hurting another or has failed to suffer at the hands of humankind. We bear and pay out both serious evils and those of the cursory thoughtless variety more often than we would care to admit. Our inability to forgive or to accept the mercies of forgiveness, both in the Houses of the Christian or in the prevailing world, has deepened the sorrow of mankind exponentially, beginning between man and woman and extending on out into the sphere of nations. Perhaps, in our character as fallen beings, this is our default state of apprehending existence.

But there is something divine in saying, “I forgive you, let us remember this no more,” or in offering, “Have mercy on me, I have done you evil and I repent of it.” It never ceases to be shocking and disarming to us to hear these confessions, and how quickly our heart changes when they are uttered or heard in all sincerity. Of all the monumentally beautiful things that Jesus Christ speaks of, repentance and forgiveness to God and to one another is foremost. I dare say we must all move on that continuum from Javert to Jean Valjean in the matters that ultimately bind and shape our hearts. Lashed to a rough hewn cross, He who was without transgression saw fit in a final earthly plea to forgive those who did not know what they were doing. Following His example, shall we not do likewise and accept that sublime transformation? In loving another human being in the richest and fullest divine sense, do we not indeed “…See the Face of God?”
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be reached at • (2115 views)

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4 Responses to Jean Valjean and the Forgiving Heart

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That’s a pretty good description of the story and the Christ motif.

    Having read the book and viewd the spectacular 10th Anniversary “in concert” all-star performance, the movie with Hugh Jackman was definitely second tier material, particularly with Russell Crowe pretending to be a singer. Oy vey. You must catch Philip Quast in that role, as I bet most of you Les Miz fans have. Nothing against Crowe. But he shouldn’t have been in that movie.

    But Jackman certainly did give an interesting interpretation of Jean Valjean. At times it was inspired.

    But the story itself shines through almost no matter who is performing it.

    I read the unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s novel. It’s about 1400 pages. That’s not a brag. It’s a fact. And it’s the first book I ever read that I didn’t read. This was about far more than about just scanning text on a page. The novel itself is a journey. You can’t help being transformed by reading it, and I was somewhat.

    The Bishop is monumental in the life of Valjean. And yet, at least in the novel (where things are spelled out in detail), he did not quite change so fast. But that began his attack of conscience. It was just a little down the road from his interlude with the benevolent Bishop that Valjean self-consciously tried to reject the goodness that was threatening to erase who he was. And make no mistake, whoever anyone might be, an attack of goodness will threaten to wipe out one’s identity and existence, and thus that transformation will be resisted. It will feel threatening.

    And Valjean did. I seem to remember that he soon after met some child on the road who wanted something from him. Instead, Valjean either took something from the child or was otherwise quite mean. And at that point, he could have gone either way. And Victor Hugo is masterful in not turning this story into a predictable one full of treacled sentiment.

    Inspector Javert is an interesting case as well. You have described well the down side of adhering too harshly to the law. But Javert wasn’t a bad guy. There were some really scum-of-the-earth people back then and somebody had to protect the innocent. But it is true that Javert became too attached to the letter of the law and lost a good part of his humanity. The error we would not want to make (as many Leftist and liberal Christians do) is to take away all blame and all application of the law out of a misplaced sense of “compassion.”

    It should be pointed out at every turn that when Jean Valjean turned to the good, he also turned to the law. It was, of course, a gradual shift from fugitive to good. But he did make that transformation. And he was completely serious when he told Javert where he could find him after he let Javert go at the barricade.

    This is a novel, in my opinion, for developing beyond the hardness or ridiculousness of either extreme. In the guise of Jean Valjean is a model for a good man, particularly a good Christian man. And such examples, at least at large in the public, are slim these days.

    • Kurt NY says:

      Have to agree, Brad, when I first saw the 10th anniversary performance at Royal Albert Hall with Colm Wilkinson, Ruthie Henshall, Philip Quast, Lea Salonga, Judy Kuhn, etal, I was transfixed. Simply an amazing, transcendent performance. But the recent movie was also an amazing experience. Folks started crying in the movie theater when Ann Hathaway started singing (who knew she was that good, or Amanda Siegfried, for that matter) and didn’t stop throughout. I agree Russell Crowe was the weak link and I’m not sure that Hugh Jackman’s singing was up to snuff, but the rest of the cast was uniformly good.

      You might also note that the movie was made differently than other Hollywood musicals. Most others record the songs in a studio then have the actors act out and lip synch, giving a polished studio sound. Les Miz recorded each song live as it was being acted. The result was less polished musical quality (which was probably why Jackman seemed a bit off) but far better emotional impact. A superior result overall.

      Gotta agree with you about the book. Full of the usual 19th Century contrivances and coincidences (Thenardier killing Marius’ wounded father on the field of Waterloo, etc), and what the Hades was with the elephant statue that Gavroche (Thernadier’s son and Eponine’s brother) lived in? One interesting tidbit from it though. The revolutionary students called themselves “Friends of the A-B-C”, which always seemed an awkward moniker to me. Turns out, when the initials “A-B-C’ are pronounced in French “Ah-Bay-Say” it is a homonym for the word “Abased” – a French pun which simply doesn’t translate into English.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I’ve never read the novel, but we did have an excerpt (Les Chandeliers de l”Eveque; sorry I don’t know how to put in accents) in a French reader. In that one, the bishop gives the silver candelsticks to Valjean; I have no idea if that’s in the original (they didn’t precisely replicate Hugo’s writing according to the introduction). Another excerpt in one of those readers (L”Evasion du Duc de Beaufort) came from Twenty Years After, the second volulme of the D’Artagnan trilogy (the third volume is usually divided into 3 books), which I have read (I’ve also read The Count of Monte Cristo0.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    For my money, the best part of Victor Hugo’s novel is when Jean Valjean is deciding whether or not to make his way to court in another town to turn himself in where the trial is going on for the man that Javert mistakenly thinks is Valjean. It’s a fairly long journey and he starts the journey via horse cart. But the cart breaks down. “Oh, well. I guess it then wasn’t God’s plan for me to turn myself in.” And he starts to head back.

    And then he’d get another attack of conscience and after much internal struggle moves forward again. He trades the cart in for just a horse and travels on for some time. Then, if memory serves, the horse goes lame. “Ahh….proof indeed that I am too valuable as mayor of the town and all the people that I employ to rot away in jail.” He turns around again….and again gets hit by another attack of conscience. This is so much more effective in the novel than I’ve written it because of Hugo’s superb writing. Jean Valjean does eventually go on, of course, to turn himself in and show his “24601” tattoo in court to prove he is the real Valjean and thus letting the innocent man (innocent of the charge of being Valjean, anyway) off the hook.

    This scene continues exquisitely with him then racing back to his town, where he is mayor, to quickly put his affairs in order and to escape again. His most binding promise is to take care of Cossette and he can’t do that from jail. Valjean returns to his house to collect some valuables. And built up through this story is the picture of his housekeeper (literally, the keeper of his house) who was incorruptible according to Hugo. She was a reflection of Javert in female form. There were several examples given by Hugo to show her absolute incorruptibility, possibly even including turning in one of her own children, although I don’t remember the specifics.

    Well, it comes to pass that although Valjean had hightailed it back to his house rather fast to put his affairs in order before going on the lamb again, Javert wasn’t far behind. While Valjean was upstairs in his study collecting his valuables and such, Javert comes knocking on his door. And Javert was well acquainted with Valjean’s house keeper and her reputation for integrity. There is no way out for Valjean. He’s trapped. And Javert, being frugal with his time and needing to stay as quickly on Valjean’s tail as he can, simply asks this incorruptible house keeper if Valjean is at home rather than searching the entire house himself.

    And this all plays out with the suspense of a good Hitchcock thriller. Hugo is the master, time and again, of painting a rich story (and also the master of run-on chapters, but that’s another story). There is no doubt that the gig is up for Valjean. This house servant knows Valjean is at home and it is inevitable that she will turn him in. Of that there is no doubt as you’ve been shown time after time that this is who she is. The law is the law and cannot be mocked or be at the discretion of common people to interpret.

    Well….I’ll leave that hanging there for you to read. What will she do?

    There are similar incidents to this in Hugo’s novel wherein Valjean’s sheer goodness effects the people around him. Valjean spends some time right after his initial escape from prison in a convent. Valjean had a rare talent of being able to climb up a wall where the corners met at right angles, a feat that requires tremendous strength which Valjean had. He scampers up the wall and then plops over to the other side….in a nunnery. And rather than turning him in, the nuns (and the head priest there) warm to him and his story and put him to work. The streets are so hot with the police looking for him that he dare not step outside the walls. And he’s there for several years, I believe. Until one day the death of the old Bishop there presents an odd and daring plan for an escape.

    And if you know the character of Marius only by the musical, you don’t know Marius at all. He actually is a very selfish, somewhat shallow man. But he is in love with Cossette. And, more importantly, Cossette is in love with him which makes Marius — despite his shortcomings — more than worthy in the eyes of Jean Valjean. And what is hinted at in the ending to the musical plays out brilliantly as it transpires that the man who Marius has despised for so long turns out to be a saint, the man who rescued him from the barricade.

    He is torn asunder by this to some degree (for the better), just as Javert was. But Javert couldn’t cope with the new reality he found exposed by the goodness of Valjean and ended up throwing himself into the Sein. There was a light that shined on and in Valjean that shined onto the people he touched. And it makes you supposed this can happen in reverse. Think of all the poor kids who are forced to read the poison of Howard Zinn, for example.

    We need all the Valjeans we can get. And in this world, they will be mocked, disregarded, and certainly persecuted to some extent. The one thing people do not like to be faced with is their own evil, their own severe shortcomings.

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