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Mercy beats justice in Les Misérables

2013 February 8
by Paul Vallely

We were still talking theology over dinner on Monday. The prompt was not the over-long sermon we had heard on Sunday morning but the film we had gone to see in the cinema in the afternoon. I confess I had not been keen to see Les Misérables, whose music has always seemed to me to be mawkish and contrived, but the trailer for the film had looked a spectacular piece of historical fiction. And so it proved.

The stunning cinematic realism in this account of Victor Hugo’s novel is a most effective counterpoint to the heightened sentiments of its musical score. And where most Hollywood films centre on conflict between good and bad, Les Misérables is about salvation and damnation, which is a lot more interesting.

The two characters at the centre, the policeman Javert and the convict Valjean, have different understandings of what “good” means – and they respond very differently to the gift of grace and their sense of God’s presence in the world.  Javert is a man of the law, pharisaical in his commitment to it and enslaved by the fear of transgression. Valjean, the man outside the law, is born again into a life of compassion and love through the freedom brought by forgiveness.  This is not good versus evil, but mercy v justice. It is a story about, as our 12-year-old aptly put it, what happens when humanity collides with the law.

For a man who was politically progressive Victor Hugo’s theology is surprisingly conservative. Though in later life he styled himself a freethinker Hugo began as a Catholic and his notion of redemption rests on a sense that a price must be paid for salvation. So the opening heroine, Fantine, whose exploitation and tragedy make her the archetypal misérable, pays heavily for the sin of bearing a child out of wedlock and must offer up her life to God in exchange for life for her child. No new beginning for her; she is the victim of the need for justice as Javert would see it. Other characters, like the unrequited Eponine, the artful dodger Gavroche and the naïve idealistic revolutionaries on the lonely barricade can find redemption only through death. All the dead, sentimentally – apart from Javert – appear in the chorus of the redeemed as the film closes.

There is something unpalatably quiescent about all that. But the potency of its theology comes across in Valjean’s dilemma: “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!”. For the notion of damnation internalised moral choice in a way which has been lost to our contemporary world in which, as the Chris Huhne case shows, shame is replacing guilt as our moral spur – and tensions between the letter of the law and its spirit tend to be resolved by ‘what you can get way with’.
We have come a long way from Javert’s insistence people cannot change – once a thief, always a thief – and that the law, God’s or man’s, is the source of order in the world. But we have lost something too of what Valjean’s understands when he tells Javert: “You’ve done your duty, nothing more” with its implicit reminder that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. For Javert mercy just messes up the rules; for Valjean mercy is the greatest rule. Those who judge, die; those who show mercy, live, and “to love another person is to see the face of God”.

What is also striking is the unalloyed goodness of the bishop who lies to the police to say that he gave Valjean the silver which the former convict actually stole. In a metaphor for the extravagance of grace he then gives Valjean his silver candlesticks – a symbol of light. “I have bought your soul for God,” he says afterwards.  Victor Hugo was not praising the priesthood here; he was holding up the standard from which he saw so many priests fall short. That message is not outdated either.

The Church Times

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