Law and grace in Les Miserables

I am a huge fan of the musical Les Miserables. I saw it on Broadway when I was 11, and I thought it was just about the most amazing thing ever. 

I’ve always been struck by the relationship between Jean Valjean and Javert. Valjean, the protagonist, spends several years of his life in prison, caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But for Javert, the local police officer, Valjean’s decision isn’t justified and he is nothing more than a thief. After he’s freed from prison, Valjean doesn’t have much of a chance because society isn’t willing to forgive him either. So Valjean acquires forged documents and starts his life over again, as an honest man. The musical flashes foward several years, and he has become successful. But Javert steps back into his life. He eventually realizes that Valjean has taken an alias and he goes on the run.

And as the musical progresses, we see that Javert is incapable of ever seeing Valjean as more than that. Javert is entirely focused on the law. A person is good or bad based on if they can adhere to the law.

Javert doesn’t grasp that people can change.

In an important scene towards the end of the musical, there has been an uprising against the French government. Javert is captured in the insurrection. Valjean is in a position to kill Javert. the man who has pursued him for most of his adult life. Instead of doing what might be expected, Valjean saves his life, he lets Javert go. Not only does he let go, he tells Javert he will turn himself in and let Javert arrest him.

From Javert’s perspective, the bad man has done something good, he has spared him.

Does Javert gain a newfound respect for Jean Valjean? No. Javert’s world is shattered. His whole life, he has put his faith in the law and in obedience. It was that which made a person good or bad. And when he discovers that it is actually Valjean who is righteous, everything Javert has ever believed in has been destroyed. People can change. People who have done bad things can have transformed lives, but it’s too much for Javert. He takes his own life.

I know it’s just a story, but Les Mis shows us powerful insights into people and the world. It deals with redemption, grace, love, and sacrifice. People can change. A person’s past does not have to be their future.

Originally published October 8, 2015 as “Les Miserables: a Change of the Heart.”

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