In this series of posts, guest writer Dan Miller reflects on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables from a distinctly Christian perspective.
Most unabridged English copies of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables weigh in at over 1,000 pages. The title translates into something like The Miserable People. There are long sections like the 60 pages on the Battle of Waterloo that are excruciatingly sad and horrible to read. Then there are sections that are just long and boring like the chapters on the history of the sewers of Paris, which include the routes, names, methods, and opinions on the quality of work of the various men who worked on the sewers over five centuries.
Yet you must read this book – and if you won’t then I at least want to tell you some things about it. In the preface, Hugo says, “So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which… creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine… [I]n other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Far from useless, this book echoes the Gospel again and again. The good news of the Gospel can only come after the bad news of the fall and the curse. Hugo depicts the misery of life under the curse masterfully. Hugo’s description, “hells on earth,” is a rich description of the curse. He writes of the ravages of war, child abuse, the abuse of women, harsh punishment, and mistreatment of the poor by the rich, along with the desperate attempts by the abused to survive their shattered lives. It is clear that individual instances of the curse are brought on by the selfish, sinful, and proud choices of fellow men and women.
This story has recently been made a popular topic of discussion since the release of the musical adaptation which appeared in movie theaters this past Christmas. A warning for parents and other viewers: judging from the preview, the film will depict the stark horrors of the curse, which may make it unsuitable for younger viewers. Sex, prostitution, war violence, and abuse of children are all depicted. A young teenage boy and a young woman are shot and die. One character, desperate to have money to provide for her daughter, sells her hair, teeth, and then her body, which leads to the song Lovely Ladies, about prostitution.
I do not believe that these are reasons for those old enough to not see this movie. We can’t read the Bible without seeing murder, prostitution, incest, and war. It is important when we see things like this to view them as evil. Hugo’s Les Miserables consistently frames these offenses as horrible choices that we are to detest, though that is not always preserved in the musical version. When Fantine’s lover uncaringly deserts her, we weep over the ruin he pours on her and her daughter.
The Revelation to John warns us of more severe judgment to come, including the bitterness caused by the scroll of judgment. But the curse for sin also includes today’s misery. “Can we present the Gospel without talking about judgment for sin?” No, and this movie will help our friends to talk about it. “When we speak about the judgment of God, we do it with tears in our eyes.” This classic story will help us do just that.
Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist and active member of Cedar Heights Baptist Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa.