Reviews of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century classic Les Miserables shouldn’t be too miserable, right? Sadly, I may disappoint you in what follows—I do not provide much insight into the relationship between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, between the ex-con full of grace and the bulldog Law-man. For such discussions, please refer to the recent podcast with Dr. Horton and David Zahl.
Instead, I propose that we look at a somewhat underappreciated but enticing question raised by Hugo’s magnum opus: how do the micro-level interactions of individual characters (Valjean, Javert, the romantic revolutionary Marius, the street urchin Gavroche, etc.) and the macro-level concerns of government, rebellion, and peace coalesce in Les Mis?
So, here’s the de rigueur plot summary (with little to no spoilers): Les Miserables is a sprawling epic of early 19th-century France and the post-Napoleon French monarchy, focusing on the life of Valjean, who is released from a 19-year prison sentence and resolves to reform his life, enriching the life and prosperity of a small French town. Unfortunately, the strong arm of the law pursues him in the form of Javert, a police inspector. Valjean rescues Cosette, a dying widow’s daughter, from servitude and the pair seek shelter in the metropolis of Paris. A decade passes and anti-royalist sentiment grows. Hugo then depicts the rise and fall of the 1832 Revolt—for the rest, you’ll have to read or watch the movie!
How then do these disparate characters come together as a whole? The answer lies in the omnipresence of Hugo as narrator. Hugo’s presence as narrator in Les Mis is more akin to the blatant power of a jackbooted thug than the subtle gossip of a Parisian salon: every other page reveals yet another authorial foray into historical, philosophical, social, or cultural analysis. On one level this is what you and I expect from a 19th century novelist—obvious and passionate social critique, coupled with rigorous descriptions of daily life. Hugo tries with all his detailed research and writing panache to force a revolution in the very hearts and minds of his readers—you and I are brought into the vivid story of Valjean, Marius, Gavroche, Mabeuf, and Cosette. Scene after scene evokes our compassion, breaks our hearts. We are compelled to see Hugo’s vision: the outcasts, sinners, widows and orphans of Paris and of France—along with a dollop of Progress and revolution, will fuse kindness and martyrdom to create a future heaven on earth. In a phrase, Hugo desperately seeks to instill the virtues, values, and mindset of “pure religion” (James 1:27) in his readers.
At another level, however, the Sisyphean efforts of Hugo to cause an internal insurrection evoke not the impassioned cry of disciples, but the sad image of an apocalypse gone bad. A picture of this desperation is found in Hugo’s revolutionaries (Marius et al): they allude constantly to ancient Rome and Greece, to Napoleon and Washington, to the past—yet they also speak of the oh-so-close future era when the July Monarchy will be destroyed and (republican) peace will reign forevermore. In other words, through these characters, Hugo narrows past, present, and future into one apocalyptic moment—the hopes and dreams of all the years. To speak theologically, Hugo is attempting to immanantize the eschaton, to bring about the consummate Utopia in the streets of Paris.
But the bloodstained cobblestones echo ghastly failure. The disappointment of the 1832 revolt ultimately speaks of deferred eschatology—Hugo himself knew that even the great revolutions of 1848 did not bring peace on earth. Yet he details the history of this Parisian riot, I believe, for one crucial reason—to spark not only passion, but also pity and virtue. And here is where the micro and macro levels combine, showing how Les Mis rends hearts asunder. For while Valjean’s grace-soaked success gives internal hope to all who read, the institutional failure of Marius and co. gives external pause. Hugo begs his readers to finish what he has started in their hearts, to complete the insurrection.
How best to respond to Hugo’s evocative plea? As we celebrate this Christmas Day, the answer should be clear. You and I are not les miserables in the story of a pillaging author, a tyrant whose rampaging words plunder our hearts and leave nothing but smoke and fire.
Rather, we are this day in the presence of the author-turned-outcast. The Incarnation resounds like a sonic boom around the world—the Creator has become the creature. Hugo may have eaten zoo animals during the Paris Commune, but he remained a celebrity, never coming near to Cosette’s orphaned state. The Lord Jesus Christ took on flesh in a way that Hugo could only dream, utterly fulfilling the command to love God and love his neighbor, yet cast out from Jerusalem, left to die as a convicted criminal. Neither saintly bishop nor Romantic rebel was there to save him. Is the death of Christ merely another footnote to add to Hugo’s list of failures? If so, where is the vaunted Utopia?
Reflecting upon the nature of rebellions, Hugo places an insightful line in the middle of Les Mis: “An insurrection may become a resurrection”. How right he is in his goal of new creation, yet Hugo’s resurrection would come about through internal swelling of virtue in our happy hearts, when the innate goodness of humanity rebelled against oppressive powers.
In sharp contrast, the insurrection of Christ does not speak of overthrowing political foes by barricades or sheer kindness, but of and by the vicarious death of the author. The revolution of Jesus does not advance through human grasping at heaven, but through the inbreaking of the Word into our sordid and miserable state. As brilliant as the story of Valjean is, we are plunged back into the miserable narratives of our own lives the moment we finish Les Mis. The true story of Christ is far more radical, imaginative, and effective—those who revolt against the Law are gunned down yet reborn by the Gospel. In short, Hugo’s vision is realized not in the Third, Fourth, or Fifth French Republics but ultimately in the church, in the king and citizenry of the New Jerusalem. At the end of the day, we are all royalists.
Paris is worth neither a Mass nor the masses. Paris, like New York or Los Angeles, like all that throbs with power, success, and privilege in our world, pales in comparison to the city whose builder and architect is God, whose king is neither impotent nor tyrannical, but who is gathering and will gather all his people, whether outcast or rebel, no matter their misery.
John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.