‘Les Misérables’ tells story with deeper meaning
Published: Monday, January 14, 2013
Updated: Monday, January 14, 2013 21:01
Patrons poured out of theaters with red eyes and mascara-stained cheeks. Facebook exploded with post after post exclaiming, “Oh my gosh, you HAVE to go see Les Mis! It was amazing! I cried the whole time!”
And I know exactly why “Les Misérables” makes everyone cry. I’ve figured it out. I had an epiphany after I saw it for a second time in theaters.
First of all, “Les Misérables” makes a swift stab at your heartstrings with the music. Forget the lyrics for now; the music alone has the power stir your soul; to make you hurt, to make you feel, to make you cry.
“Les Mis” wouldn’t pack the punch it does without such a powerful score. But the music simply sets the stage for a beautiful story to be told.
It’s a story most people have heard of, yet few understand.
Let’s take a look at Jean Valjean. (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with the plot, stop here, see the movie/musical, then start reading again.)
Valjean spent a good chunk of his life serving a prison sentence for a crime done out of mercy to save his starving sister’s child. He stole a loaf of bread—big deal, right? Did Valjean deserve prison for stealing bread?
According to the law, yes. After 19 years, he is allowed parole.
After 19 years of abuse, he is free from prison but not from its implications.
He cannot find work because he bears papers declaring he’s dangerous — his sin is still in chains around him.
Valjean is taken in by a kind Bishop and ends up stealing his silver — but the Bishop shows him mercy by not only getting him out of trouble with the law, but also by giving him all of his precious silver. Did Valjean deserve the Bishop’s generosity?
No. Of course not. He actually stole from the man — not to feed his starving nephew — after the good Bishop took him in and cared for him. Valjean deserves punishment but is given mercy.
The Bishop gives Valjean something Inspector Javert doesn’t understand: grace. Yes, Valjean gets a second chance as a new man. Several songs and plot twists later, Javert discovers Valjean’s new identity and vows to bring him to justice for breaking the law because Javert lives by the law: “On the doorway to paradise / That those who falter and those who fall / Must pay the price!” Javert doesn’t understand grace because it doesn’t make sense to him.
In his eyes, Valjean is a criminal, and his job is to bring him to justice. Javert doesn’t see the good in Valjean; he doesn’t see the truth in Fantine’s situation (a women forced into prostitution to feed her daughter); no, Javert is blinded by the law.
Flash forward a few more songs, and the audience views the encounter we’ve all been hoping for: Javert’s hands are tied, with a rope around his neck, and Valjean gazes over him with not only a pistol in hand but a knife as well.
Valjean has the chance to end Javert’s relentless pursuit of him — he and Cosette (Fantine’s daughter he raised after her death) can live in peace, all he has to do is pull the trigger. But what does Valjean do? He shows grace.
Not only does he set Javert free, he also tells him he’s done his job and he understands Javert will still pursue him.
Every fiber of our human nature tell us, “Valjean! Kill him! Make it easy on yourself!” Why on earth would he set the inspector free? Why the grace?
What is grace?
Merriam-Webster tells us grace is “unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” but I like to define grace as something wonderful given to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Grace isn’t something you earn or work for; grace is a gift. And the thing about grace is, we don’t understand it. It doesn’t make sense. It counteracts our instinct.
“Les Misérables” tells the story of grace. It is a story of revolution and rebellion, but ultimately one of how a single act of kindness can change someone’s life forever. A single act of kindness: grace.
In the last few minutes of the film, we see a dying Valjean pass away to join the ones who died before him, singing a familiar song with new words:
“Do you hear the people sing? / Lost in the valley of the night / It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light / For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies / Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise / They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord / They will walk behind the ploughshed, the will put away the sword / The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!”
The wretched of the earth — the sinners, thieves, adulterers — will live in freedom one day. Their chains will be broken.
Grace is given to the ones who don’t deserve it.
There is another story with similar themes of “Les Misérables” — unlike “Les Mis,” it’s one I believe to be true. It’s about a man who gave his life and took my place — our place — for the punishment of sin.
He gave me something I couldn’t possibly earn and do not deserve.