In this series of posts (Part 1), guest writer Dan Miller reflects on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables from a distinctly Christian perspective.
Aching for God
Saint Augustine famously argued that every human heart aches for God, whether the person knows it or not. In Confessions he writes, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (1.1). While not everyone satisfies this longing through a relationship with God, the longing itself exists universally. Separation from God—in all its senses, and with all the misery that attends it—is the result of God’s curse because of sin. Nevertheless, a longing for God persists in each of us, manifesting itself in different ways. This is true of many of the world’s greatest writers, whose literary works betray their need to write some version of the curse and the biblical gospel into their stories. When this is done well, discerning readers will apprehend echoes of the misery of sin and the universal longing for ultimate salvation. When a story has these elements, we call it great.
Illustrating the Curse
Note: In writing about Les Miserables, I will reveal parts of its plot. So take this as a SPOILER ALERT.
As one would expect given the title, every character in Les Miserables in some way serves to illustrate the misery of our lives under the curse. But many characters also depict the joy of grace in relief from the curse. In the story, Jean Valjean, one of the central characters, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and nephew. After 19 years, he is finally released, leaving prison an embittered man. Eventually, Jean Valjean’s hatred for his fellow man leads him to rob a local bishop. Upon getting caught, Jean Valjean is amazed by the bishop’s willingness to forgive him and even cover for him with the police. Jean leaves the bishop’s house in a daze, totally baffled by the man’s kindness and grace. For 19 years, Jean had been treated like a thief with no hope of redemption. But in the words of the bishop Jean heard something new: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” The narrator continues:
[Jean Valjean] was indistinctly conscious that the pardon of this priest was the greatest assault and the most formidable attack which had moved him yet; that his obduracy was finally settled if he resisted this clemency; that if he yielded, he should be obliged to renounce that hatred with which the actions of other men had filled his soul through so many years, and which pleased him; that this time it was necessary to conquer or to be conquered; and that a struggle, a colossal and final struggle, had been begun between his viciousness and the goodness of that man.
Here we see the hardness of Jean’s heart. Filled with hate and bitterness, Jean’s pride held him back from accepting the bishop’s kindness. His pride told him to reject the forgiveness graciously offered to him, a forgiveness that would require that he yield to God and “renounce that hatred … which pleased him.” Anyone who has felt bitterness and the temptation to hold on to hatred will understand why Hugo calls this a “colossal and final struggle.” What incites bitterness and hatred within us will likely seem trivial compared with being condemned to 19 years of hard labors for the theft of bread to feed a starving family. Yet, our struggle is essentially the same.
In a stupor, Jean goes on to commit another crime: stealing 40 cents from a little boy. The narrator recounts what immediately follows:
When intelligence re-awakened and beheld that action of the brute, Jean Valjean recoiled with anguish and uttered a cry of terror. It was because—strange phenomenon, and one which was possible only in the situation in which he found himself—in stealing the money from that child, he had done a thing of which he was no longer capable.
In that moment, Jean was transformed. He was now aware “that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him.”
One might struggle with the question of whether or not Hugo presents the real gospel to Jean and, secondarily, to his readers. Did Hugo believe in crucial elements of the biblical “good news,” like, for example, penal substitution? Perhaps not. What is important, however, is how Jean’s conversion illustrates the crisis of our depravity and our desperate need for a savior. The salvation Hugo depicts (and which affects us so strongly) is this type of salvation. Jean is forced to face the crucial question, “Who am I?” The answer, which he has no choice but to accept, is that he is a wretch, a vile thief, and a beast who is even willing to steal from helpless children. He comes to see that the salvation he needs is not a salvation from others, but from the hatred, bitterness, and pride rooted deep within his own soul.
Jean Valjean wept for a long time. He wept burning tears, he sobbed with more weakness than a woman, with more fright than a child. As he wept, daylight penetrated more and more clearly into his soul; an extraordinary light; a light at once ravishing and terrible. His past life, his first fault, his long [punishment], his external brutishness, his internal hardness, his dismissal to liberty, rejoicing in manifold plans of vengeance, what had happened to him at the Bishop’s, the last thing that he had done, that theft of forty sous from a child, a crime all the more cowardly, and all the more monstrous since it had come after the Bishop’s pardon,—all this recurred to his mind and appeared clearly to him, but with a clearness which he had never hitherto witnessed. He examined his life, and it seemed horrible to him; his soul, and it seemed frightful to him. In the meantime a gentle light rested over this life and this soul. It seemed to him that he beheld Satan by the light of Paradise.
Did Jean Valjean make a choice in his awakening? Yes, and he struggled mightily with that choice. But in another, more important sense, he was converted by means of the kindness and gospel-charge of the bishop. Light was shown into his heart, freeing him from the hatred and bitterness within his own soul. Upon receiving this light, Jean began to think and act according to his new nature. This is the salvation that we crave. As the Apostle Paul writes,
For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)
In salvation, God, who created all things, performs another creative act in our hearts. Contrary to what we may assume, we don’t simply need the option to choose between good and evil; that choice is before us each and every day. Rather, we need to have the light turned on in our souls, enabling us to finally love what is good and hate what is evil.
Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist and active member of Cedar Heights Baptist Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa.