Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Beyond the Barricades: Les Miserables (Part Two)

Welcome, friends and fellow bibliophiles, to part two of our series on the greatest fad sweeping the literary realm.

Les Miserables.

If you haven't read part one, click here to get caught up. While the last post didn't contain terribly mature themes, this one and the next one will contain much more information. If you are younger than 14, please consult a mature adult before reading this series.

Believe me, I do not challenge lightly the dream sweeping the circles of the blogosphere. Thank-you for listening thus far, even though it has been difficult. You may yet decide to read and watch and enjoy Les Miserables after this series is done; my purpose is simply to dig deeper into its themes and worldviews, so that, if we must read and watch, we do so informed of what we are viewing.

You may be thinking of this series as a party-crasher at this point; that's far from my intention. I, too, heard the people sing and joined with them last year.

There's a reason why my book list doesn't have 62 titles on it instead of 61.

Only a few short years ago when I was fifteen years old, I listened to the story through the Focus on the Family radio drama, and it was the first one that ever moved me to real tears. Later that same year I saved up my money and bought the book, keeping it stashed away until I could find time to read it. After seeing the Broadway musical--not merely sung, but acted--I determined that 2012 would be the year. 900 pages into the book, I couldn't take any more of the sin.

Do you know how hard it is to quit a book after 900 pages? Now every time I read someone saying "I've read The Brick!" I think of those 600 pages between me and the biggest trophy on any bibliophile's reading list. I could have done it, except my conscience stood between. Conscience is a hard thing to listen to sometimes.

To Clarify Before I Begin
In the last post, a couple of points came to mind that I would like to explain before I go any further. First of all, lest my words betray my meaning, I do not believe that books should avoid sin. Portraying sin can have a powerful effect in warning the reader of its consequences. The Bible includes some pretty serious sins--prostitution, rebellion, murder, etc--and with the appropriate means for the appropriate audience, an author can use sin to quicken the reader towards repentance and the grace of God. So it is not the fact that Hugo included sin that I have a problem with, nor the particular sins he included, to a certain extent.
Nor am I saying that non-Christians in stories should not sin. In my last post, I pointed out that Jean Valjean was sinful for stealing a loaf of bread. One of my readers thought that we should not judge Valjean so harshly because he was not a Christian when he sinned, and therefore, did not know of the love and provision of God when he committed the theft. Good question, and we'll be addressing it later on in this post.
In fact, I will take this one step farther and say that even if a non-Christian sins, they do not necessarily have to repent for it to be a biblical story--so long as justice is done and wrong is punished. Cain never repented in Scripture, yet we all know that murder is wrong. Countless kings of Israel and Judah lived and died in rebellion towards God. So in the end, I'm not calling for a sweet-green-pastures story where nobody sins and they all repent in the end anyway.

But I am saying that if a book includes sin, whether or not the character repents, we should not be so emotionally wrapped up in the story that we say sin is excusable. Sin separates us from fellowship with God, for now and for eternity.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. --James 2:10-11

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.--Revelation 21:8

By this, both Jean Valjean and Fantine have their place in the lake that burns with fire, because Valjean is faithless (or unbelieving) and Fantine is sexually immoral.

But the fact is, we all are.

That's a pretty harsh judgement. Keep reading, for grace will come.

On Morality
We've already discussed the main themes of sin in the last post, and the danger of excusing it because of a character being sinned against. Sinned against does not eradicate the character's original sin.

But all that aside, I would like to bring up four obvious sins in the story.

First, let's take language.
Every story has it; I've already talked about how I deal with it in a post entitled "How to Deal With Dirty Words", which you can find on the Articles page. :) Certainly language is not an overcomeable obstacle, and some people are able to look past it altogether without a problem. However, I will warn you that Les Miserables takes language to the whole next level. It's not those two or three words that we've become so used to hearing that we no longer are bothered by them.  Victor Hugo chose to call it The Anguished because he's drawing his characters from the scum of Paris streets. You'll find plenty of mud clinging to them, including every kind of curse with both God and the Devil, and words derogatory towards women.

Next we have sexual immorality.
I'm not going to address Fantine in depth until Friday's post, so this section isn't even meant to talk about her. Iin Les Miserables, most of the characters have or are a mistress. Hugo never addresses this. In fact, the main theme of his story seems to be that if you sin in squalor and poverty than you're abused by law and society, but if everybody can sin with comfort and a good income, then there's no problem. Hugo himself had a mistress, Juliette Drouet, who devoted her life to him. Even though his wife had already died, the fact that he chose to have a woman (that had already borne a child as mistress to another man) shows that he's not going to judge that sin too harshly in his own novel. And he doesn't. The Friends of the ABC discuss women and mistresses like wares at the market; almost all of them have one.

Are these the heroes that we sing with so passionately?

Third, we have serious blasphemy.
To be honest, I had to put and end to Les Miserables (the book at least) due to the blasphemy. I almost didn't make it through the section with the Friends of the ABC after Grantierre's long speech, at the end of which he curses God with all the callous abandon of a man succumbed to alcohol. I would put the sentence here to prove myself, but I'm not going to do it. After dubiously whiting-out Grantierre, I continued on, only to be hit with the Thenardier family in a squalid room of an upstairs apartment. That's when I called it quits.

I can hack through the squalid streets of Paris, I can evaluate unbiblical ideas of democracy and Reason, but when the characters start lifting their fists and cursing God, I can't justify it any further.
And to clarify, I'm not talking about the misuse of His Name. I'm talking about literal curses.

Next, we have tolerance.
We often laud the Bishop Myriel for his redemption of Valjean. Catholic or not, he was the instrument of bringing Valjean back to a life of usefulness, and I would say, Christianity. He is a good man, a loving man, and greatly to be lauded for his compassion and commtiment to his people. The only problem with his theology, is that of his refusal to involve himself with the disputes of the church, and his tendancy to rely on  good works and religious tolerance. 1 Peter 3:15 says that we are always to be ready to give an answer, and Bishop Myriel had a strong vulnerability to those who were wrong, as in the case of Book 1, Chapter 10, when he's listening to the man who sat on the Council during the French Revolution. It's a disturbing chapter, full of wrong theology, and the bishop ends by asking the man's blessing.

Les Miserables has a tolerant view towards Christians/Catholics. They are good in the story, and that's a good thing. But it also has a tolerant view towards Napoleon, Reason, the French Revolution, and the idea that "whatever is truth for you is truth". That's a dangerous thing to expose ourselves to if we're so wrapped up in the drama that we miss out on evaluating the character's worldviews. It's the same as drinking poison because it tastes like lemonade.

On Love
Let's take a look at Cosette and Marius for a moment. The innocent love of a virtuous student and a sweet young girl contains more then can be seen at first glance. Marius leaves his grandfather after the man suggests he make Cosette his mistress, and rightly so perhaps. But Cosette has a guardian and father in the form of Jean Valjean, and she hides both her love and her midnight meetings with Marius from him. It's not right to sit beside a young man in the dead of night for hours on end without having adult accountability. However innocent it seems, Cosette is not the virtuous, feminine young lady she looks on the surface. She's a rebellious girl who's getting what she wants with deceit, and when Valjean finds out, he is crushed utterly.

Bear with me for a little longer. I know that this is a tough article, but we're almost done--and a breath of fresh air is coming.

On Justice

Les Miserables is a novel about social justice, or so I am told. So lets see who recieves justice. *spoilers*

Thenardier, child-abuser, thief, and possible murderer (I know he attempted it, at least) gets paid off by Marius to go to South America, where he becomes a slave trader. That's not justice. And Thenardier doesn't deserve mercy.

Valjean and Fantine recieve mercy, and rightly so, because they ask for it. Justice mixed with mercy, in both their cases. Though neither of them deserve it, this is a clear and accurate picture of the grace of God.

Javert commits suicide when he betrays his sense of legalism and cannot reconcile it in his mind. A form of justice, I suppose.

Marius and Cosette get their happy wedding, and happily-ever-after. Their deceits all turn out for the best, their abuse of Jean Valjean is forgiven, and they go sailing off into their honeymoon. They deserved at least a spanking over that one. But youth had it's way, and sent the wrong message to lovers everywhere--that rebellion turns out for the best in the end.

Love does not excuse all.

It's a novel on social justice. But it's not biblical justice. And a novel on biblical justice would develop both  justice and mercy, and give the law its due.

This post has been a heavy one for many of you, I'm sure. Take the time you need to think about it, to pray about it, and to do some reasearch into the themes of Les Mis for yourself. Let's use discernment in our reading choices, and not blindly follow just because it has select bits of truth, or is the current fad among period drama lovers. Our time is valuable, our minds are to be protected, and we need to be very careful how we use that time and what we allow into our minds. Once it's in, it's not going back out again.

But let's end on a somewhat more agreeable note.

On Valjean and Fantine

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. --Romans 2:6-16, ESV
When a character sins, we must remember that whether or not they are Christians, the law of God is written on their hearts, and they are accountable to it. God doesn't have a seperate law for the Christians and the non-Christians. He judges them both based on one law.
According to that law, Valjean and Fantine are condemned for their sins, whether they are confessing Christians or not.
But praise be to God, that's not where it ends.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!--James 2:12-13
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.--2 Chronicles 7:14
Judgement must be given before mercy can be shown. If Valjean and Fantine did not sin, then from what were they redeemed? But thanks be to God, who does not end with judgement, but who shows mercy to the prostitute and to the thief on the cross. It is by his grace, that even though they have sinned without excuse, they are forgiven.
Next Time
The final post in this series on Les Miserables, we will look at the good and bad songs of the musical, Victor Hugo's writing style, the character of Fantine, the contrast between Valjean and Javert, and the rights and wrongs of the battle at the barricades, as well as touching on the 2012 movie that just released.
I love some of the musical songs. :)
Thank you for coming, and for those of you who listened with open hearts. May God guide you with all wisdom as you decide which books to fill your thoughts and time with.
And may we still dream the dream of justice and peace for all mankind.
Lady Bibliophile


  1. Dear Lady B,
    Excellent post! You are doing a wonderful job dealing with Les Mis. I think your points are wonderful and I especially love the verses from James. :D :D :D
    Keep pressing on! <3 <3 <3
    Love, Carrie-Grace

    1. Thank-you, Junior B! :)

      I think James is a book that very clearly shows God's judgement, but warns us to be careful to give mercy as well. It really fits when dealing with some of Les Mis. <3

      Love and cuddles,

  2. Great post, Lady B! This is an excellent examination of what seems to be a bit of a controversial book.
    I especially enjoyed the section in Part One examining Victor Hugo's worldview; I think that is very important. :)
    "We should not be so emotionally wrapped up in the story that we say sin is excusable." Well said! I'm sure it must have been most difficult for you to lay this book down after 900 pages but that God surely is/will bless you for keeping to His standards.
    Stay faithful to His Word!
    I too enjoyed the Focus on the Family radio drama! ;)

    Kyla <3

    1. Thank-you, Kyla! :) Yes, the book is an emotionally charged subject because it mentions God's grace (which I'll discuss on Friday), and many people excuse some of the other themes due to that. Not all books are good simply because one character finds the grace of God, which I'm sure you've found as well. :)

      It was difficult not to finish Les Mis, as it's one of the biggest classics, and I'm afraid I wanted the feather in my cap. ;) But God gives grace, and I am grateful for it. :) I threw my copy away so I wouldn't be tempted to go back to it.

      The Focus on the Family drama is so good, and really captures the redeeming themes of the story, I think, while even changing some of the worse ones. Cosette and Marius, for instance, are much better in the drama than in the book and musical, and I think they handle Fantine better as well. (Also avoiding some of the detail that isn't good in the book.)

      I'm glad you're enjoying it. :D

      Schuyler <3


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