Les Miserables is one of those “love it” or “hate it” musicals. People have very strong opinions about it either way. On one hand, it is glorious storytelling in every way possible. On the other, it is a 3 hour juggernaut in which actors spit notes at the rate of a machine gun.
When I was home a few weeks ago helping my parents clean out a few boxes, I found a scrapbook that I had made from when we did Les Mis my senior year of high school. Naturally, I was led down a rabbit trail of listening to the soundtrack again. Then I had to go root through a box and find the video of our production. Then I watched it, cringed and regretted the whole thing.
For a high school, it was a big show to put on, and as one of those geeky high school theatre nerd archetypes, I thought I had the whole thing sorted out:
Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Enjolras, Gavroche, and Marius: Good guys.
Eponine: Morally ambiguous.
Javert and the Thenardiers: Bad guys.
Listening to it now for the first time in a while, those lines are so incredibly blurry.
One element that struck me differently this time around is the interesting cat and mouse chase between Javert and Valjean.
(A brief synopsis: Valjean begins the show as a convict who escapes and gets his life together, all the while Javert has committed to bringing Valjean to justice. Valjean takes in Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, and later saves Marius, the love interest of Cosette. Also, everyone dies.)
Javert spends the entire musical on a manhunt, something that he truly believes God has called him to do. It drives him so mad that he cannot bring Valjean to justice that he eventually takes his own life.
When I was in high school, I disliked Javert like one dislikes an archetypal villain. I’m not sure that I had much pity for the man. Now, I feel a bit differently. I honestly feel badly for him; it seems as though he cannot get out of his own way.
There is a nuanced difference between obedience and faithfulness. Obedience is part of faithfulness, but it isn’t the whole. If that were the case, then we would get a figure like Javert, so driven by their sense of righteous duty that they cannot see the world in any other way. Javert cannot see Valjean’s compassion as virtuous because there just isn’t space for it. Javert knows what is right and what is wrong (and mostly, he has decent ideas), but the rigidity he carries with him is problematic.
Something that struck me was the scene at the very beginning of the musical. Fantine has been let go from her factory job and has resorted to sex work to make ends meet so that she can pay the Thenardiers for keeping Cosette. Javert shows up on the scene as the embodiment of the law. Valjean (who has become the Mayor at this point and is unrecognized by Javert) is the embodiment of grace. Both men are technically “right,” but which one actually acts morally?
The church often feels like a loose confederacy of Valjeans and Javerts duking it out Sunday in and Sunday out. Both are within the bounds of Christian thought and ethics, but often, one group feels as though obedience is the only means to a faithful end. Perhaps we need both in our communities, but I have often wondered what would have happened had Javert experienced a change of heart. I wonder if he had just stopped to breathe and think for a moment if he would not have become so consumed, if he would have been able to see Christ in Valjean and to truly forgive and move on.
While rules and guardrails are helpful and necessary elements of faithfulness, as the musical states so poignantly, “to love another person is to see the face of God.”