Art and Forgiveness: The 10th Anniversary of Les Miserables

by Fr. John Shimchick 

 Winter 1997

illustration by Carol Morris

On March 12 of this year, Les Miserables, one of the most celebrated musicals in the history of theater, celebrated its tenth year on the American stage. The tenth year of its opening in London (1985) was marked by a televised concert performance which is now available on videocassette. Depicting life in France during the early 1800's particularly the 1832 uprising in Paris, Les Miserables, based on the book by Victor Hugo, offers something for everyone. There is the beauty and vitality of its musical score (which received a Tony award in 1987 for Best Musical). There are characters about whom one can care and support: Jean Valjean -- one of the noblest figures in all of literature -- and Cosette -- the forlorn child of the desperate, Fantine. After the death of her mother she is raised by Valjean and maturing into a beautiful woman, she forms a romantic triangle with Marius and Eponine. There is Javert -- the tragic, though well-intentioned but joyless guardian of the law and authority. There are the heroic, yet naive students who seek to initiate a rebellion in support of the poor against the Government. Then there are the Thenadiers, husband and wife, who while providing a dark comic relief are perversely evil - the word "slime" comes immediately to mind. It is interesting to hear as well how such words as "Christian," "God," and the "blood of the martyrs" are used throughout. The struggle for dignity, the students’ idealistic defiance and pursuit of freedom, the search for love and to be loved -- all of these themes are apparent.

   But leaving the Palace Theatre in London, there was one scene beyond any other that characterized for me the essential theme behind this musical -- that is forgiveness and the willingness to be forgiven. It happened in the beginning of the show when after being in prison for 19 years (for stealing a loaf of bread and for unsuccessful attempts at escape) the released convict Jean Valjean, having been rejected by everyone else and taken in by the bishop of a small town, given a meal and a place to sleep, decides to leave in the middle of the night taking the bishop’s silverware. When caught the police bring him back to the bishop’s residence, telling the bishop that Valjean had maintained that he had received the silver as a gift from him. Jean Valjean, expecting the worst, hears to his amazement these words from the bishop: "That is right. But my friend you left so early / Surely something slipped your mind / [giving him two silver candlesticks] / You forgot I gave these also / Would you leave the best behind?" Then as the police release him the bishop adds, "But remember this, my brother / See in this some higher plan / You must use this precious silver / To become an honest man / By the witness of the martyrs / By the Passion and the Blood / God has raised you out of darkness / I have bought your soul for God!"

   It is helpful in appreciating this quickly presented, though powerful moment to return back to Victor Hugo’s original text. While in the musical one never even learns the bishop’s name, Hugo begins the book and spends the first fifty pages describing Bishop Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel, calling the opening chapter, "An Upright Man." As he started his episcopacy the bishop exchanged his residence with that of a local hospital, so that more patients could be served in the larger dwelling. The next few chapters are also intriguing: "Good Bishop - Difficult Diocese" and "Works to Match Words." The silverware and candlesticks mentioned earlier were significantly the only luxuries he allowed himself, they being handed-down family items. He loved flowers and when it was suggested that he would be better served by using the space occupied by a flower garden for vegetables he replied to the person, "You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful. Perhaps more so." When told about the need to fear robbers and murderers he stated, "Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. Why worry about what threatens our heads or our purses? Let us think instead of what threatens our souls." Apparently this character was based on a real bishop, Monsignor Miollis, who himself must have been quite remarkable for he was, as Andre Maurois notes, "all, and more than all, that Monsignore Myriel is in the book."

   While portraying the bishop as the model not just of a Church hierarch but of a Christian believer, patterned after the image of Christ himself, Hugo describes the spiritual condition of Jean Valjean and of his conversion with equal precision, beauty, and power and in a style that rivals almost any similar account found throughout Christian literature. After years of imprisonment, "Jean Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and trembling: he left hardened. He entered in despair: he left sullen. What had happened within his soul?"

   After the moment of his forgiveness by the bishop Valjean is suddenly confronted by a incident in which he takes or rather refuses to give back some money to a young child. This incident placed in the context of everything else brings Valjean to a crisis point, a time of judgment and decision which enables a real change of mind and heart. Here is how Victor Hugo described the moment:

He [the bishop] filled the whole soul of this miserable man with a magnificent radiance.

Jean Valjean wept for a long time. He shed hot tears, he wept bitterly, more powerless than a woman, more terrified than a child.

While he wept, the light grew brighter and brighter in his mind -- an extraordinary light, a light at once entrancing and terrible. His past life, his first offence, his long expiation, his exterior degradation, his interior hardening, his release made sweet by so many schemes of vengeance, what had happened to him at the bishop’s, his recent act, this theft of forty sous from a child, a crime all the meaner and more monstrous in that it came after the bishop’s pardon -- all this returned and appeared to him, clearly, but in a light he had never seen before. He could see his life, and it seemed horrible; his soul, and it seemed frightful. There was, however, a gentler light shining on that life and soul. It seemed to him that he was looking at Satan by the light of Paradise.

How long did he weep? What did he do after weeping? Where did he go? Nobody ever knew. It was simply established that, that very night, the stage driver who at the hour rode the Grenoble route and arrived at Digne about three in the morning, on his way through the bishop’s street saw a man kneeling in prayer, on the pavement in the dark, before the door of Monseigneur Bienvenu.

   The rest of Les Miserables, all 1,400 pages of it describes the life and deeds of the forgiven and repentant Jean Valjean. He needs to assume other identities at times in order to stay free, but his life is dedicated to raising Cosette, to showing mercy, to saving life, and to providing a sense of being forgiven to others. It is the mercy and forgiveness shown to him by Valjean that Inspector Javert (who has committed his own life to recapturing Valjean) cannot understand or accept - - that leads this driven, sad man to suicide.

   Throughout the story this forgiveness is marked by the reoccurance and relighting of the bishop’s candlesticks which Valjean has always kept with him. On his deathbed in the chapter called, "Night Behind Which is Dawn," he bequeaths the candlesticks to Cosette saying, "They are silver; but to me they are gold, they are diamonds; they change the candles that are put in them into consecrated tapers. I do not know whether the one who gave them to me is satisfied with me in heaven. I have done what I could." A little earlier when asked if he wanted a priest, Valjean replies, "‘I have one’... And, with his finger, he seemed to designate a point above his head, where, you would have said, he saw someone. It is probable that the bishop was indeed a witness of his death."

   Is it possible to be changed or healed by literature or by music -- in this case, by literature and music brought together? I believe so, for from the moment Jean Valjean receives the forgiveness and candlesticks of Bishop Bienvenu both he and probably many a theater-goer are never the same again.

   Perhaps it is this "miracle" which helps to explain why Les Miserables, as a novel and musical, has achieved its success and continues to nourish, strengthen, and be celebrated by audiences throughout the world.

Fr. John Shimchick is the pastor of Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ and editor of Jacob's Well, the Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Orthodox Church in America.

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