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Les Miserables

Why does this passionate musical enthral so much? Les Miserables...Why its success? Answer: because of three loves. Also, because of the anti-love it depicts. First, the love of a mother for her child, i.e. Fantine’s love for Cosette. To keep little Cosette fed, clothed and looked after, Fantine sacrifices her hair, her front teeth (the movie cowardly glosses that over), and finally embraces the shame of prostitution. All for her child’s sake. A mother’s love: what is there more beautiful, more natural but also more sublime than that? Call it hokum, sentimental, tear-jerking stuff. It is, yet it is real. And people know it and love it. Me, too. I wept. The priest is like that. A sucker for maternal love.

Next is young Marius’ love for the adult Cosette. Ultra-romantic story. Love at first sight. Coup de foudre. Cupid shoots the fatal arrow. But only eunuchs are ignorant of that very human love. An imperious, perilous affair. A love that commands. But here it does not command unlawfully. The boy and the girl are single, free and decent so...nothing is untoward. Theirs is a love crowned by marriage, eventually many kids and much family happiness. Damned bourgeois, yes, but...why not?

Marius is also hopelessly desired by wretched Eponine. Another spurned girl might have sought awful revenge but not Eponine. Her love is self-sacrificial. A little implausible, perhaps, but human love can be like that, also.

The third love is the greatest love than you can conceive. Such is God’s love for man. Man symbolised by the hero’s sorrowful figure, Jean Valjean. The ordinary man sentenced to years of inhuman hard labour for stealing loaves of bread. To feed little children. Out on parole, Valjean is shunned and chased away by all, like a rabid dog. Until a kind old bishop gives him shelter. Alas, suffering has hardened the ex-convict’s heart – Valjean by night steals some household silver and flees. Arrested by gendarmes, he is dragged back in chains, only to be stunned: ‘My friend’, the bishop says, ‘I gave you what you took but you forgot to take the rest of the silver. Have it.’ Valjean is transfixed. The cops depart and the man of God speaks: ‘Jean Valjean, today I have bought your soul from the devil and given to God. Promise you’ll become an honest man.’

The bishop stands for God. For a gracious and merciful deity whose love and forgiveness are unmerited and unconditional. (Although the silver ‘transaction’ has atonement theology implications too complex to tackle here.) A God who is willing to take risks. Valjean could have grabbed the loot, sniggered at the old man’s naivety and persisted in wrongdoing. Sin implies a choice and man is free to choose either good or evil. Freedom is the tremendous, risky gift the Eternal has granted his creatures. Still, the infinite gift is well worth such divine risk.

And anti-love? Some might opine that is acted out by the vile Thenardier couple, husband and wife. They are indeed an infamous duo but in the musical, unlike in Victor Hugo’s novel, they are reduced to pantomime villains, grotesque figures of fun. You laugh at them more than hate them. The true negation of love is the police inspector, Javert.

In hinting at some personal grudge against Valjean, the movie trivialises Javert’s figure. Javert has no personal animus against Jean Valjean. This policeman is a servant of the State, totally devoted to his duty. The law of the state for him is absolute, supreme. Personal feelings have nothing to do with it. He is a mastiff after his prey because that is what he is. His whole being, his essence is that of an officer of the law. Valjean in his eyes is an outlaw, an impostor, a parole-breaker so he must be hunted out and sent back to prison and that’s that.

The reason why Javert lets Valjean go in the end and then commits suicide is not really compassion towards his prey but awareness that he has fallen short of his office. His failure is that of an instrument which realises it does not function as its nature demands. The purpose of a knife is to cut and that of a cop to arrest criminals. A knife that does not cut is useless and so is a cop that cannot do his duty. Javert knows he has become useless. Hence he feels he has no choice but to self-destruct.

Note that the State the implacable policeman serves is the France of liberty, equality and fraternity. It is not a fascist or communist totalitarian country or a monarchical absolutist regime. The France that degrades and hunts Jean Valjean is the child of the French revolution. The embodiment of that Napoleonic Code that swept away the remnants of Christianity in the law of France. Not quite a democratic, constitutional State, run by a parliament but well on the way to it...So what? A democratic State can still pervert, trample and destroy its citizens. Present-day proud democracies like the British appear far removed from the harshness of that remote French system but, in much greater and subtler ways, they can nonetheless twist and corrupt the soul of man...

What about revolutionary love, I wonder? Revolution thrills in Les Miserables. Radical students like Marius and handsome, fiery Enjolras – the latter my favourite, I was like him once – are in love with an idea. In a way, these young ideologues are Platonists, as Plato taught ideas are the true reality. You can fall in love with an idea, fight and even die for it. Freedom, justice, patriotism, Marxism-Leninism, sharia’...you name it. The priest hesitates to judge here. Ideas can be beautiful, too.

The problem is about means, not just ends. Killing in the name of a beautiful idea, is that good? Would the compassionate, loving God who desires not the death of a sinner but that he may repent and live really approve of that?
I think not.

Revd Frank J. Gelli

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 February 2013 13:27

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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