Law and grace in Les Miserables



Les Miserables is a study in the conflicting motivations of law and grace.

Paroled after twelve bitter years of imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his family, Jean Valjean meets people who are pivotal in setting him on the course of grace. First Monseignor Myriel offers him forgiveness and protection even though the desperate Valjean steals from his church. In doing this he reflects redemptive, magnanimous grace that changes the course of Valjean’s life. In his new life Valjean supports the principles of grace and compassion, but has not fully integrated his attitude into his business practices.  He must face the consequences that his negligence has on Fantine.

Valjean’s meeting with Fantine pushes him further in the direction of grace. His compassionate response to Fantine’s need and his promise to care for Cosette moves Fantine from despair and disillusionment into a place of hope and grace. It is a beautiful picture of the mutual benefits that acts of grace carry for both the recipients and the responders.

In my opinion Anne Hathaway’s singing of Fantine’s song in this early scene is the emotional highlight of the movie. Hugh Jackman’s Valjean communicates how transformative this meeting is for Valjean. It was a beautiful piece of theater. I only wish that director Tom Hooper’s decision to record the songs on set had been as effective in every case as it was here. There is, however, a certain vulnerable fallibility that creatures of grace communicate, not unlike the messy realities of live performance vs. a studio-edited, conventions-based performance. Perhaps the impressions about law and grace I walked away from Les Miserables with were enhanced by some of the brokenness of the on set recording process itself.

After Fantine dies Valjean takes responsibility for Cosette, Fantine’s young daughter. He goes and redeems her from indentured servanthood. Her innocence and trust brings yet more grace into his life. He is motivated to protect her and assure her happiness for the remainder of his life. As a recipient of grace, Jean Valjean is bound by grace.

Valjean’s shadow, Javert, is bound to the law. Born into the same prison that once held Valjean, it is the law that allows Javert to become elevated to his position of authority and self-respect. Javert looks to the order of the stars, the order of the law, and the order of military life for salvation and validation. Russell Crowe played Javert not as an evil villain, but as a man of integrity and honor, bound to uphold the law. For Javert this commitment to the law translates into a merciless pursuit of Valjean.

In several scenes Javert is standing on a roof looking down at Notre Dame, drawing conclusions about his responsibilities before God to uphold the law. These scenes made me think of the description of the temptation of Christ in which Satan takes him to a high place to survey what he might control. Javert walks along the very edge of the precipice. He is certain of the moral correctness of the law and certain that he can wield the law as an instrument of control over other people. This is a dangerous precipice.

When Jean Valjean extends the same grace to Javert that Monseignor Myriel extended to him, Javert rejects it. As a recipient of grace, Javert is utterly confused and conflicted about what to do with it. He finds himself bound to uphold the law yet bound by another law that demands repayment for the favor rendered. Javert’s concept of the law does not leave room for Valjean to be both a lawbreaker and a gracious man. Unwilling or unable to embrace the change that free grace offers, Javert throws himself from his high place into the swirling waters of the Sienne. Javert is Jean Valjean’s shadow the way the law is the shadow of grace.

In contrast, in three pivotal scenes Valjean finds refuge, guidance, and solace inside a church. First with the Monseignor, later when he is looking for help in making a home for Cosette, and finally at his death. On their wedding day Cosette and Marius, their lives a legacy to Valjean’s responses to grace, seek out the dying Valjean in church to honor and thank him. Fantine returns to guide Valjean into the deepest experience of grace of all.

Comments are closed.