The Glorious Counter-Revolutionary Les Mis

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My grandmother was raised Roman Catholic in the 1930s. One of the first things she did when she married my grandfather, an Episcopalian, was to read, for the first time, Victor Hugo’s great love-letter to Paris, Les Misérables. During her childhood it had been on the list of books good Catholics were supposed to avoid. Today it is hard to imagine what the Catholic Church found so wrong in Hugo’s expansive novel of social injustice. The movie version of the musical has reminded us again of this great story, and it is the movie musical which I refer to in this essay. A number of insightful critics (cf. hereherehere, and here) have referred to the figure of Javert, the police inspector, as representing along with the protagonist Jean Valjean the contrast and conflict between Law and Grace. Law pursues with punishment; Grace redeems and forgives. Javert—rather like Mrs. Clennam in Dickens’ Little Dorrit—is driven by his idea of what is right, what is properly speaking legal, in conformity with the code. Everyone is defined in his mind by their relation to this law. People do not change. There are good people and lawbreakers; there can be no forgiveness, no reconciliation, no rehabilitation. Indeed, this seems at first to be the case with Jean Valjean, who at the beginning of the movie is a sullen convict, wishing to escape further punishment but without any real opportunity to become a better man.

Image of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

After this, of course, Valjean experiences a transformative act of grace when instead of turning him in as a thief, the hospitable Bishop gives him the means to establish a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine. (Madeleine is a form of Magdalene, the name of the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven devils.) As the story plays out, Javert, as Law, continues to perversely pursue the redeemed Valjean, almost thwarting his efforts to bring grace to others. Ultimately, grace wins and spreads to others through Valjean’s acts of personal sacrifice, and Javert is driven to suicide by his own obsession with the law. That is a wonderful theological point to bring out of Les Miserables, but while watching the movie I realized that there is an idea that is even more fully embraced by this story, and in particular by Tom Hooper’s cinematic staging of the musical. It is the idea of hope, which is best explained with referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical letter Spe Salvi, which is based on Romans 8:24, “For we are saved by hope.”

Hope in Spe Salvi

Hope is one of the three great Christian virtues: Faith (fides), Hope (spes), and Love (caritas). Benedict immediately moves to understand what differentiates Hope from Faith, when Paul writes that “we are saved by hope.” It is also said that faith saves us, so what is the difference between faith and hope? In many contexts, hope is identified with faith; i.e., it is through faith in Christ that we have hope. Hope is entered into by entering into faith in Christ, as Paul exhorts the Colossians to  “…continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel…” (Col. 1:23). Faith and hope are not the same thing. Faith is an act, a disposition, an entering in, a taking hold of. Through faith, we enter into hope. Hope is something outside of a person that is in some way both anticipated in the future and taken hold of now. “Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well” (Spe Salvi §2). An extremely important characteristic of this hope is that it is not merely a belief in future happiness which in some way allows us to change our outlook on life. It is more real than that. Benedict explains this with reference to Hebrews 11 (the “By faith…” chapter) in which faith is associated with the hope of the saints. The key verse for Benedict is verse 1:

In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v. 1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope. Ever since the Reformation there has been a dispute among exegetes over the central word of this phrase, but today a way towards a common interpretation seems to be opening up once more. For the time being I shall leave this central word untranslated. The sentence therefore reads as follows: “Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen”. For the Fathers and for the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was clear that the Greek word hypostasis was to be rendered in Latin with the term substantia. (§7)

This sense is lost in many modern translations but is preserved in the KJV, which for some reason is always the translation of this verse that has stuck in my mind: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Other renderings of this verse significantly alter the sense, as in the NIV—”. . . being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”—or the ESV—”. . . the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” These modern translations subjectify hypostasis so that it becomes only a conviction of the individual. Benedict argues that faith is more than mere belief, because hope (what faith is the substance of) is more than a confident expectation. So what is it? Benedict expands by way of Thomas Aquinas:

[F]aith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence. (§7)

In other words, we not only look forward to the coming of the kingdom of God, the seed of it is already planted in our hearts through faith. This seed is hope, and it grows and bears fruit in us.

Hope in Les Mis

The characters in Hooper’s Les Mis can be divided into two groups: Those who have hope, and those who reject the gift of hope. In the first number, “Look Down,” we see Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Neither of them have hope, or are even aware that there is such a thing. Javert in fact seeks self-salvation through the law, which is a false hope. Valjean and his fellow convicts wish, vainly, for compassion from society.

After his release, however, Valjean is arrested by hope through the kindness of the Bishop. With this hope living in his heart, he takes a new name—a baptismal name, if you will—and begins to live a new life marked by the reality of this hope. We next see him as the mayor of M— sur M—, where he offers hope to the women of his town in the form of honest work. In the movie, however, these women benefit from his benevolence but are not transformed, as in the sequence when, on learning that their co-worker Fantine has a child, they chase her out of the factory.

The lecherous overseer also plays a part in Fantine’s humiliation, driving her out into the street. Sin, in this way, pursues and catches hold of Fantine through the exploitation and hatred of those who are “without hope and without God in the world” (1 Thess. 2:12). In despair (lack of hope) she sells herself on the streets to support her daughter and is dying of pneumonia. In “I Dreamed a Dream” Fantine laments the loss of her hope of a happy life. As she is about to be arrested for prostitution, Valjean appears, takes her to a hospital, and promises to bring her daughter. Fantine dies, but her despair has been replaced by the hope of seeing her daughter in heaven, activated by Valjean’s promise. When Javert discovers his new identity, Valjean is forced to flee, but he is able to locate Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, who is living with the fraudster Thenardiers. They extort a large sum for her supposed keep, but Valjean manages to get away with Cosette, with Javert on his heels. The two seek refuge in a convent.

Throughout the movie, we see two recurring images: The hardness and mercilessness of society at every level, and the literally liberating and healing character of the Church. Valjean is rescued from the clutch of the law by a Bishop. When Fantine is dying, nuns care for her. Nuns, again, welcome Valjean and Cosette into their convent, as a place of refuge which even the strength of the law cannot violate. The Church is thus shown to be, almost universally, the source of true hope and redemption.

There seems to be an exception to this tendency, however, in the group of young revolutionaries we meet in the next act. Mostly from prosperous homes, they are humanitarians appalled by the destitution of the poor and the callousness of the rich and powerful. They also believe that by sparking a new French Revolution they can usher in a more just society. Marius, one of the young revolutionaries, has renounced his wealthy but cold-hearted grandfather to make common cause with the revolutionaries. Cosette, now a young woman, passes Marius in the street and they instantly fall in love. This is another instance of the mysterious advent of hope in the world, but the revolutionaries see love as a threat to their serious humanitarian endeavor, and fear it will distract Marius from his single-minded commitment to their plan. The revolutionary leader Enjolras invokes their “higher call” against which “our little lives don’t count at all.” This platitude contrasts strikingly with the nature of the story itself, which is driven by characters, not mass movements or even ideas. Each little life is a dynamic universe; each soul has a towering significance.

The Revolutionary Society
The Revolutionary Society

Valjean, on hearing of Marius and Cosette’s love, is torn between his desire for Cosette’s happiness and his fear of danger and change. However, he remains true to hope, and ventures out at personal risk to find Marius. The new French Revolution fails. In the end, the little band of revolutionaries is never reinforced by the hordes of sympathetic Parisians they hoped would join them, and they are slaughtered by the regulars. Marius alone escapes, rescued by Valjean just as Javert and the army are closing in.

Marius and Cosette marry, and Marius is reconciled to his grandfather, who is also transformed by hope when he sees their love. Valjean, however, unaware that Javert has committed suicide, fears exposure and flees once again to the convent, where at the point of death he is consoled by the shade of Fantine. As the distinction between Heaven and earth becomes blurry, Valjean takes leave of Marius and Cosette and, greeted once again by the Bishop, enters paradise.

In the finale, we see a kind of typological double-exposure. Paris, the city of lights, has become the City of God, and the larger-than-life barricade evokes the Mountain of God—both images referring to the New Jerusalem. Atop the great barricade we see once again the revolutionaries, who failed to change the political order. But with them we see also a huge crowd representing all the people of Paris who did not come to the revolutionaries’ aid, and even perhaps the soldiers with whom they fought. This is an image, not of the triumph of the revolution, but the true kingdom of triumphant hope—the kingdom of God. With this in mind, it is instructive to consider who fails to appear on the final barricade. It is all those who rejected or defiled hope on earth. The Thénardiers (except for their daughter Éponine, who is with the revolutionaries), the textile workers, the pimps and prostitutes, and Javert do not appear. The closing song describes, not a post-revolutionary state, but the eternal blessedness of the children of hope.

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword

Revolution does not beget peace and justice, but perpetuates the cycle of violence. Valjean’s story, though, shows how grace, mercy, and sacrifice can lift people up in a way that revolutionary violence cannot. The Bishop, then, who opens and closes the story of Valjean’s redemption, is the true revolutionary. His church is the permanent revolution, always opposed to the spirit of the age, whether that be Javert’s cold tyrannical legalism or the sanguine revolutionary spirit. This is why I call Hooper’s Les Misérables a “counter-revolutionary” film. It is a story of despair and hopelessness conquered by the one true hope through one man’s life.

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Holgrave

THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

One thought on “The Glorious Counter-Revolutionary Les Mis”

  1. Today it is hard to imagine what the Catholic Church found so wrong in Hugo’s expansive novel of social injustice.

    Reading the unabridged novel cured me of that same impression. Abridged versions take out so much of the book that Hugo’s vitriolic, anti-Catholic tirades, which typically go on tediously for pages and pages, is bound to go with it. These aren’t even placed on the lips of characters; this is Hugo speaking directly to the reader, which he does all too often, and all too condescendingly. I can’t recall reading an author more pompous or enraptured by his own vanity.

    If Hugo’s screeds on why the monasteries were doomed, or why the nuns labored in service of a miserable cause, don’t convince you that the Catholic Church had cause to detest the novel, then look away from what Hugo says about the Church, and consider his curious deification, or at least canonization, of the emperor Bonaparte, despite an ostensible anti-monarchism. That erection of a new saint and god, superior to and more enlightened than those preached by the Church’s clergy, would alone explain it.

    I had other reasons to dislike the unabridged novel. Hugo’s optimism that reason and secular charity would solve all human problems led to a number of predictions in the book, all of which turned out absolutely wrong, and few of them enlightening. At least, all the ones I remember. To be fair, the long, boring chapter on the cloaca of Paris may yet turn out true, but his intense hatred of Britain, so instrumental in sabotaging the Corsican would-be Messiah, led him to the risible prediction that England would fall. In reality, England remains inviolate, while France fell shortly thereafter — twice, in fact: one, an outright revolt after losing the Franco-Prussian war, and two,the dark days of Vichy. Again, these predictions weren’t on the lips of characters: they were Hugo’s own mini-essays, included in the novel.

    Admittedly, I’m odd, so maybe most people would read the same passages and value them very differently. For example, when I read the book, I found the most interesting character to be Javert. Not the most compelling or the most sympathetic, but the most interesting. The other characters are incredibly boring and one-dimensional. (Yes, I said it.)

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