Victor Hugo’s monumental tale of an ex-prison convict, Jean Valjean, who metamorphoses into a saint, through the redemptive, loving forgiveness of someone who literally holds his embattled life in his hands, is as revelatory as it is transformational. That it was transmuted into the world’s longest running musical (a through-sung operetta) with glorious music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil, with a gorgeous English rendering by Herb Kretzmer, and has been sung in languages as far flung as Japanese to Polish, spanning the globe ongoingly since it first appeared so improbably in 1985 at the Barbican in London, has ensured this extraordinary tale having renewed life and fresh vitality.
It is magisterial on so many levels, whether you experience it in its towering, monumental, literary original format; or are swept away by this most remarkable of musicals, that despite initial widespread critical disdain for its length and often melancholy themes, has had audiences lining up, enlarged, moved, enticed, and enchanted. What was first panned as sub-Dickensian sentimentality has been overwhelmingly appreciated as an affirmation of human salvation, and the healing nature of self-transcending goodness.
“Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine; indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and fan into a glorious flame, and which evil can never quite extinguish?”
This is the gauntlet Victor Hugo throws down through his unlikely protagonist.
It is a period of sheer desperation in France when Valjean falls from grace, roughly 1796, some decades after the start of the flamboyantly unsuccessful French Revolution and just after Napoleon’s glorious rise. By the time we meet Valjean, it is just after Napoleon’s cataclysmic defeat. By the time the action begins, a now defeated French nation is dealing with economic strife, famine, and disease.
And in the midst of this, we meet a desperate man, Jean Valjean, who had earlier stolen some bread to save his sister’s son. He was caught and sentenced to 19 years of hard time. He is finally freed on extended parole. Wandering, he now seeks simple survival. Awash in the inescapable bitterness that comes from having his life destroyed over such a petty theft, he finds he cannot be paid a living wage as an ex-convict, he is often deprived of even the ability to take shelter as patrons refuse to accept his custom, and literally at the end of his wits, is invited in by the Bishop of Digne to restore himself with a meal and a bed.
That night, he steals the silver he spies in the Bishop’s home and seeks to escape with it. He is caught and desperately claims the Bishop made a gift of it to him. He is dragged back, and his life is literally in the Bishop’s hands. One word, and he goes back, all hope is virtually extinguished. Shockingly though, the Bishop not only confirms the silver was a gift, but also publicly gives him the rest of the silver he left behind. When they are once more alone, the Bishop tells him to take the silver and become an honest man. He says, in the words of the musical, “I have bought your soul for God.”
The sheer illogical loving compassion showered upon him, after betraying his host’s hospitality, Valjean cannot fathom. The bitterness spills out of him, and he “surrenders”, literally “shocked” by love and forgiveness, into the arms of what he has to concede is divine grace. He dedicates his entire life thereafter to giving that gift back however he can and to whomever he can.
Though Valjean then through a series of experiences, with a changed identity, grows into prominence, becomes a factory owner and a Mayor, he has still technically “broken his parole,” having “disappeared.” And he is implacably hunted by Inspector Javert, the personification of society’s most unflinching rules and rectitude.
Two Visions of Virtue
The two visions are “blind justice” and “encompassing mercy.” To Javert, for example, Valjean will always be a thief. To him, a fallen woman, Fantine, thrown out of the factory for having a child out of wedlock and for not submitting to the advances of the factory manager, who is now a prostitute who has had to sell her hair to keep her child fed, is just human dross, a failure, detritus. Any of us who have ever faced seeming hopelessness are of course inspired by Fantine’s searing song from the musical, “I dreamed a dream,” which was to more recently thrill a planet and also transform Susan Boyle’s life lo these many centuries later with her magnificent rendition of it. To Valjean, Fantine was someone whose plight he ignored in his factory being too busy to pay attention. And he is right back to his own moment of utter vulnerability, and he decides God is calling him to offer her healing companionship and he lovingly chooses to become her child’s savior.
For Javert, justice is retribution in the interest of preserving it. For Valjean, it is solidarity with human suffering, it is sharing the experience of love.
As we see today with the George Floyd murder and the outpouring of grief and anger flowing from it, retribution begets retribution and “equity” is NOT medicinal. It is just a guard-rail for social order. It is only unilateral, unconditional mercy that interrupts the mad, crazy, violence-fostering cycle of “judging” and “being judged.” As Gandhi pointed out, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
What Edification for Us?
Hugo gives us ravishing characters, bemusing finaglers; the extraordinary if misplaced valor of students wanting to take a stand for justice and then finding the people they seek to represent do not in fact flock to their cause; hopeless loves, lives thrown away, the despair of the miserable wondering if there is any meaning anywhere in the midst of the sheer wrecking ball of reality when societies are convulsing or just corroding.
Being swept away by these currents with Victor Hugo, we delve and dive into different ‘takes’ on life, from privileged virtuosity, to cynical legalism, to sheer desperation, to our character being a convenience and a chameleon, to the challenge of wholeness and holiness and transcending the lose-lose programming the world seeks to inflict upon us and afflict us with.
As in life, in this masterpiece, the characters give rise to the plot, not the other way around. It is an essay on the infinite through the particular. Life is either the particular in search of the infinite, or if spiritual guides are to be believed, it is reconnecting with the infinite first, and then from that vantage point, seeking to re-experience the particular.
In Les Miserables, life and infinity are the leads, the temporal is more of a bit player, truly “strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage,” as Shakespeare so deftly and poignantly put it. The length of the novel, the multiple digressions, the at times meandering tempo, all pulse with life’s flow, its currents, but also its eddies and backwaters.
The novel showcases both life’s randomness and yet its ongoing flirtation with destiny. Hugo writes, “We chip away as best we can at the mysterious block of marble our lives are made of – in vain; the black vein of destiny always reappears.” And yet, the novel miraculously exalts the microcosmic and the everyday and yet lets it radiate a larger metaphor and hum with eternal music.
The Music Carries Us
The events captured in what is now affectionately known worldwide as “Les Mis” thanks to the glorious musical/operetta which has stormed the barricades literally around the world, via Hugo’s genius, offers an opportunity to extract history from the local politics of the unknown, the forgotten, the provincial, rendering both our common human “tragedy” and “comedy” truly philosophical.
We encounter everything here: the argot of the criminal underworld, songs of dialect, scraps of revolutionary fervor, existential despair, cocooned romantic promise, and the central overarching reality: vengeance coming up against compassion, mercy and love. Which is real? Which truly survives?
You could do little better than to revisit this gem. I suggest either streaming the 10th anniversary concert with the original dream cast, or the 25th anniversary performance at “the O2” in London, which my wife and I traveled there for, 30,000 people in attendance, live streamed to cinemas around the world, presenting a new generation of “Les Mis” whisperers.
Stop everything for a bit. Garner your attention. Get comfortable. Let yourself fully hear the music, imbibe the lyrics, wallow in the grandeur of both the grief and the grace. Give yourself 3 hours to take an odyssey through life. It is an exalting introduction to Victor Hugo’s genius, which channeled through the glorious melodies performed by some of the most remarkable stars of opera and theater, just allows us to embrace it faster.
Among the final words of the musical are, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Blaise Pascal echoed this, and I’ll paraphrase his insight, “Anyone who truly seeks God has in a sense, already found him.”
It is the “loving fully” and the “genuinely seeking” that are truly holy. And what is miserable becomes then not a cul-de-sac but a portal, by which we discover that which we hope to help welcome and augur. Inspired by Valjean, we too may seek to become vessels.
As Hugo both challenges us to and invites us to, and the musical asks of us so hauntingly,
“Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?”
There surely is, and thanks to Victor Hugo, we surely do.