The story of an abused criminal, a loveless teenage girl, and a sweet woman's idyllic romance captured the hearts of period drama lovers by storm. Now, two years after the 25th anniversary Broadway musical and just after the release of the musical-turned-movie on Christmas Day, fans' passion for the story of Les Miserables has erupted at an all-time high. Visit any blog, and you'll be sure to see some reference to Les Mis in posts, comments, pictures, or sidebars.
It would be remiss of me to turn a deaf ear on passionate cries to "join in our crusade".
If you've dreamed the dream, or even if you haven't, welcome to My Lady Bibliophile for my in-depth impressions on the book and the Broadway musical. I'm going to be splitting this into two parts, as each deserves its own post, and if coupled together, might rival the length of Hugo's work itself. Though I would hope not. Affectionately known as "The Brick" amongst its fans, Les Mis maxes out at 1500 pages in it's Signet paperback edition, and that's a lot to write.
Before we begin, I must start with two disclaimers. I was reluctant to write this post only one short year ago. But after the release of the movie, I tried in vain to still the burning in my soul, and I have come to the prayerful conclusion that someone needs to say "the emperor has no clothes". Keep reading; I love fellow Les Mis fans and their passionate reviewing of the tale of the oppressed. Every book should be read with such passion. I'm not bashing the story in its entirety, and I certainly don't want to cause hurt to anyone. I simply want to bring attention to the fact that the book in its original, and the story we fans are loving, are two different things. Les Mis contains themes and worldviews that the average reader isn't being informed of, and we're swallowing the bad along with the good. My purpose is to do Les Miserables justice. Giving it its meed of praise for that which is good, and giving it its meed of rebuke for that which is not, according to Scripture. There is nothing threatening in this. After all, if we are afraid to bring any book to the light of Scriptural evaluation, then that in itself is the indication of a serious problem. So don't be afraid to read on, for my intention is not to be unduly critical. There is certainly material to be admired and excited over in this story.
Secondly, while I try to be discreet with every review I read, the story of Les Miserables is a dark one, full of mature themes. If you are under 14 years old and don't know the story, please check with your parents or another mature adult before reading this series.
To properly evaluate an author's work, one must know the author's worldview. Hugo's mother was a Roman Catholic, and his father was an atheist. After several years of travelling and marital tension, his parents separated, and he and his siblings were brought up by his mother in the Roman Catholic faith. Here's where his beliefs get a bit fuzzy; but there's enough evidence to give rise to concern. In his adulthood, different theories have been postulated. He did dabble in spiritism during his exile from France, possibly participating in seances with Madame Delphine de Girardin. Communicating with spirits is a very dangerous thing; in Scripture the one time we see this is in the account of Saul and the Witch of Endor, shortly before his death, when he was no longer receiving guidance from the Lord.
Hugo left the Roman Catholic Church in his adulthood, and refused to allow his sons or himself the officiations of a priest at their burials. While the Roman Catholic church has many errors, I can find to evidence that Hugo left it for something better. Some say that he espoused Rationalism, which is the belief that the truth is determined by intellect and deduction. Voltaire certainly influenced Hugo's philosophy, and Voltaire's unbiblical Enlightenment ideas promoted a belief in "God" without religious texts (i.e. The Bible) and his embracing of many different religions made that "God" into something quite different than the Christian God. In his Oration on Voltaire Hugo puts Voltaire's work on a level with that of Jesus Christ.
"Gentlemen, between two servants of Humanity, who appeared eighteen hundred years apart, there is a mysterious relation.
To combat Pharisaism; to unmask imposture; to overthrow tyrannies, usurpations, prejudices, falsehoods, superstitions; to demolish the temple in order to rebuild it, that is to say, to replace the false by the true; to attack a ferocious magistracy; to attack a sanguinary priesthood; to take a whip and drive the money-changers from the sanctuary; to reclaim the heritage of the disinherited; to protect the weak, the poor, the suffering, the overwhelmed, to struggle for the persecuted and oppressed--that was the war of Jesus Christ! And who waged that war? It was Voltaire.
The completion of the evangelical work is the philosophical work; the spirit of meekness began, the spirit of tolerance continued. Let us say it with a sentiment of profound respect; JESUS WEPT; VOLTAIRE SMILED. Of that divine tear and of that human smile is composed the sweetness of the present civilization." ~Oration on Voltaire, by Victor Hugo
This in itself should be enough to give rise to concern regarding Victor Hugo, but I continue.
Hugo believed in the combat of good vs. evil. He believed in God and the human soul. He believed in heaven, and he certainly believed in some form of hell (at least on earth) though I do not know his view of hell in the afterlife.
In Victor Hugo's will he wrote: "I refuse the oration of all churches. I ask a prayer of all souls. I believe in God." But to be a Christian requires much more than a belief in God. As James says in 2:19 "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder."
Such is a small portion of the philosophy of Victor Hugo. An author's worldview affects his work, and with Hugo, this should give rise to concern.
But suppose it does not? Suppose Les Miserables was somehow able to avoid the errors of Hugo himself? Then I gently request that you keep reading.
Les Miserables: The Book
Hugo penned Les Miserables to force on the people's awareness the monstrous injustice of penal and societal law at the time. This in itself deserves commendation, for when a people is indifferent, and a justice system is unjust, it often falls to the authors to bring an issue kicking and screaming into the limelight. Certainly as a result of his work, the condition of orphans, women, and criminals has received a necessary share of attention.
Two things, on this section.
First of all, many people point to this reason for reading the book; and I think some are genuine in doing so. Some, after reading Les Mis, are inspired to address the issue of the oppressed.
The majority aren't.
That's okay. It's not a sin to read a book simply for enjoyment. After all, Jean Valjean being buried alive in the cemetery, the battle at the barricades, and Eponine's tragic sacrifice give rise to some pretty nail-biting moments, and it's fun to read a story full of those. But it behooves us to be extremely honest in why we're reading it, and if we're reading it for the story's sake, we shouldn't point to Victor Hugo's original purpose as our defense to read the book.
Secondly, whether or not we are reading it to ignite our passion for the oppressed, Hugo missed something very important in his societal critique. Logicians would call it a "hasty generalization". I wouldn't dare to call it hasty, for Hugo put seventeen years of thought into his work, but a generalization it remains all the same.
The fact is, people aren't righteous simply because they are poor and oppressed. Fantine was not a righteous woman. Valjean, at the beginning, and even later on in the story, was not a righteous man. Cosette was an innocent girl, but in the instance of her relationship with Marius, some of her actions give rise to question. And in spite of this, we love them all for it. Fantine is seen as an abused single mother, Valjean as the epitome of human forgiveness, and Cosette as the sweet idyllic girl madly in love with a young university student. Somehow, what they really are in the light of Scripture has gotten twisted due to the passion of their story.
Because Les Miserables is truth mixed with falsehood, we often excuse the original sin of the characters because they were later sinned against by society. Truth mixed with falsehood tends to be the strongest kind of lie.
But more on that in this next section.
"To be a saint is the exception; to be upright is the rule. Err, falter, sin, but be upright. To commit the least possible sin is the law for man. Sin is a gravitation." ~Victor Hugo
"To commit the least possible sin is the law for man." But not according to the law of God. God doesn't have a "least" sin. Any sin, however small or great, will send a man to hell. Romans 10:3 says "Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." Man's righteousness is "to commit the least possible sin" but God's righteousness is perfection, holiness, obedience. And we all fail that. So that's why we turn to Jesus Christ, who took our sin upon himself, and imputed his righteousness upon us. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." -2 Corinthians 5:21
So let's place the precepts of Jesus Christ in Les Miserables and see how they stack up. Because Hugo did get some things right.
Take Valjean rescuing Fantine, for instance:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Fantine sinned. Javert, like the Pharisees, brought her up to be given justice. And Valjean responded similarly to Jesus' words in John: "Then neither do I condemn you. Go now, and leave your life of sin." Notice that Jesus still judged the woman, and told her that she was living a life of sin. This isn't an excusing of her sin, but a free pardoning of it, and a command to use this grace to begin a better life.
Thus for that particular scene.
How many of you think Jean Valjean was wrong to steal a loaf of bread? How many of you think the law was wrong to give him five years in prison for it, that stretched to nineteen?
The fact is, both Jean Valjean and the law were wrong. Valjean stole the loaf of bread because his sister's children were starving, in direct disobedience to God's command "Thou shalt not steal". He blatantly chose not to believe in God's power to deliver and provide for them, and determined that sin was justified under the circumstances. The God who multiplied the loaves and fishes wasn't powerful enough to overcome an unjust society, according to Jean Valjean. But people excuse him for his theft, firstly because his sister's children were starving, and secondly, because the law was later unjust to him.
The law was wrong. Five years hard labor for a loaf of bread is cruelly excessive according to biblical standards of penal restitution, and stretching that into nineteen years raises it to an agony abuse.
Jean Valjean was rightly punished for his sin. The law system also should have been punished for their excessive cruelty. But the latter's sin does not erase the former's. A theft is still a theft.
Due to the unexpected length of this article, Les Miserables: The Book will continue for another bonus session on Tuesday looking at the romance, the morality of the story in general, and a continuation of the worldviews that Hugo endorses in his novel, followed with a separate post on the Broadway show a week from today.
My desire is not to kill the dream. It is as difficult for me to write this as I am sure it is for some of you to read. Let us trust the grace of God to give us wisdom in how to apply what we are learning here. There is good and hope yet to come. Please return on Tuesday, when I present how I enjoy the story while avoiding its false philosophies.
Press on, fellow bibliophiles. It is a good and beautiful thing to love redemption, and to champion the cause of the oppressed.
But it never hurts to hold a book or its author up to the light of Scripture.
*Please note that I welcome comments and discussion on this post; however, if you choose to comment anonymously, please leave some sort of initials/title to identify yourself. Thank-you!