Victor Hugo’s monumental novel Les Misérables, first published in 1862, has been compared to a gothic cathedral — and justly so. One comes away from the work with the alternating images of grotesque gargoyles and chipped, mildewed saints, cobwebbed shadows and illuminating shafts of light lingering in the memory. Structurally, the book contains all the intricate, and oft-dizzying, architecture of the late medieval period, along with dark crypts and cold corridors.
While one may easily get lost in this literary labyrinth — literally, too, as Jean Valjean, the novel ’s hero, scurries about the streets of Paris with Javert the police inspector hot in pursuit — the artistic genius is evident at every turn. Virtually every major scene, for example, is doubled, finding a poetic and often ironic parallel. We will consider three of these twice-told vignettes to see how they develop the drama of Valjean’s redemption, of his struggle between the equally pressing demands of law and grace.
Stumbling into Grace: Two Hallowed Havens
The action of Les Mis begin s at dusk on a cold October evening, precisely one hour before the inevitable darkness of sunset, with Valjean, the recently released convict, seeking refuge in the small town of Digne. His yellow passport brands him as a criminal, and so he is rejected from inn after inn. In a tragic parody of Christ’s birth, innkeepers, having an abundance both of available rooms and of steamy, delicious-smelling suppers, turn Valjean away. “Put me up in the stable,” he finally cries, to no avail — even the local prison ward refuses him a cell, saying, “Do something to get arrested first” (a not-so subtle critique of the social system).
Having knocked on every door but the church’s, before which he had merely shaken a defiant fist, Valjean prepares to sleep on a stone bench through the starless, dark, and bitterly frigid Alp-air night. Then, the church door opens. An elderly woman emerges, bidding him to knock at one more door, that of a small house. Having done so, Valjean is warmly invited to supper and a bed fitted with clean sheets. “You mean, you’re not chasing me away?” he says, overjoyed with surprise. “I’m going to have supper! And a bed with a mattress and sheets — I haven’t slept in a bed for nineteen years! . . . Pardon me, what’s your name? . . . You are an innkeeper, aren’t you?” His host, the bishop of Digne, introduces himself. “This is not my house,” Bishop Myriel declares, “it’s the house of Jesus Christ,” a refuge for the outcast. Within this unassuming refuge, there are silver candlesticks, a kind of menorah symbolizing the presence of God in this kind-of holy place. When Valjean is later brought back to the bishop for having stolen his silverware, the bishop gives him the candlesticks, too, and their light — a token of God’s grace and the debt of love he owes.
On another wintry night many years later, after be coming “Madeline,” the benevolent governor of Montreuil-sur-mer, only to be discovered and imprisoned by Javert, Valjean finds himself on the run in the dimly-lit streets of Paris. He escaped prison in order to fulfill his promise to rescue and tend the orphaned girl Cosette, now at his side. They hide away in a lonely, enclosed garden as the sound of Javert and his troops, like a storm, breaks and rushes on. Then, out of the stillness, a hauntingly awe-filled scene unfolds, a mystery better experienced than explained: sudden singing; voices of an angelic choir fading in and out of the night air; a cruciform shape spied through a dim glass (dead, or alive?); the sound of a little bell. Like Jacob of old, Valjean discovers “the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. . . . How awesome is this place!” (Gen 28:16–17). He and Cosette, the penitent and the innocent, fall to their knees. The garden complex, a dilapidated convent for women, becomes a refuge for Valjean: “I must remain here,” he says, and becomes its gardener. Cosette, the illegitimate orphan, receives schooling from the women. It is an unexpected refuge in Christ — thus is grace portrayed.
Pursued by Law: Two Poignant Pleas
The novel’s literary shadows are deepened by the ever-lurking presence of the law’s condemnation, by the tension between who we are and who we were. Within this context, Javert represents that inescapable, shameful past that ever haunts and pursues one’s conscience — the “Devil’s advocate,” as it were — so that Valjean winds up disguising himself in order to make a clean start. Javert is called “the man of the law,” and indeed, represents the strict and merciless application of law, blind to and befuddled by the possibility and hope of redemption. Early in the story, Valjean, captured by Javert, pleads for release in order to rescue the soon-to-be-orphaned Cosette, but Javert refuses — as expected. There are no surprises with law. The principle of retribution is simple and monotonous, like Euclidean logic — it’s a system closed to alternatives, shut-up against intervention.
Near the end of the story, captured once more by Javert, Valjean begs to be released in order to rescue Cosette’s suitor, Marius. The inspector, having been saved recently — and surprisingly — from execution by Valjean, now yields. Perplexed that Valjean spared him, and even more petrif ied by his own sparing of Valjean, Javert mentally gores himself on the horns of the paradox. Caught between his debt of mercy to Valjean and his debt of justice to duty, agonizing between grace and law, Javert finally flings himself into the River Seine and drowns (a scene that itself ironically mirrors Valjean’s mock-drowning escape in order to rescue Cosette after Javert’s original refusal). He is unable to integrate the shock of grace into his legal system, and, perhaps more to the point, unable to bow before his own need of grace — his release of Valjean had been merely an act of retribution, not a debt of love. Javert’s demise is a penetrating reminder that to escape its grip, one must die to the law.
Love’s Fulfillment: Two Cross-bearing Confessions
Woven into the warp and woof of Les Mis is the theme of appearances. The story is filled with disguises so that the question of true identity, even of reality, repeatedly surfaces like a bubble — yet only to pop. The treacherous Thénardiers (the cruel caretakers of young Cosette), for example, assume a new name but remain substantially the same, plotting to rob Valjean. But Valjean’s “changes” seem to reflect true transformations, somewhat akin to the name changes found in the Bible (Gen. 17:5; 32:28). Within this narrative drama, the law’s vision is shown to be flat, literally judging by appearances and focusing on who and what a character inescapably was or has done, while the eyes of grace penetrate to the soul and to truth, ever hopeful of who a character may become and what he or she may finally do. While the law looks for justice, grace sees to redemption, and the tightrope walker betwixt is love.
There are two key points in the novel where Valjean sacrificially casts off his disguise in confession. The first is when he discovers that another man, Champmathieu (but thought to be Valjean), has been captured and is being tried in his place. All the evidence of “Euclidian logic” is against this poor man: he has been identified as Valjean by three fellow convicts, Javert himself denying the need for “moral assumptions or material proofs, for I recognize him perfectly.” But worst of all, his appearance is that of a criminal: “I’d send him to the galleys on the strength of his face alone,” a lawyer remarks. The innocent Champmathieu indeed faces a life term in the galleys upon conviction. The real Valjean is thrown into turmoil by the dilemma: should he enjoy his own paradise at another’s expense (thereby becoming a demon) or should he reenter the fires of suffering (and become an angel)? Disrupting the legal proceedings, he confesses: “Let the accused go . . . arrest me. I am Valjean.” Ironically, the judge, lawyers, and witnesses think he has gone mad — they cannot see how the upstanding gentleman Madeline could ever be the infamous convict Jean Valjean. And he’s not, of course — but he was. Thus, the apparent scoundrel is innocent, and the respectable benefactor of society is guilty. “I am the only one who can see clearly here,” Valjean says, “and I am telling you the truth.” The spectators are stunned, frozen by the illuminating event of a man submitting himself under the law so that another will not be condemned in his place.
At the end of the novel, and moving from the courtroom to the home, Valjean risks sharing his criminal past with his new son-in-law. Marius, angered, cuts him off from seeing Cosette. Deeply distraught and ill over this isolation, Valjean prepares to die wretchedly alone. Marius, however, eventually discovers the deeper truth: “You save people’s lives, and you hide it from them! You do more than that, you slander yourself while you’re pretending to unmask yourself.” In the happy reunion of his family, reconciled in love, Valjean dies, peacefully anticipating his eternal refuge.
The story that began at dusk before the inevitable darkness now ends in the starless dark of night (before the inevitable dawn) — with the light of the silver candlesticks, recently bequeathed to Cosette, shining brightly upon Valjean’s still, heavenward face.