Les Misérables and the Church Militant

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les-mizRecently I had the chance to see Les Misérables on Broadway for the second time, and its themes of mercy, redemption, and sacrificial love have been swirling through my mind ever since. It’s no secret that the story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is filled with themes that reflect Catholic spirituality. What struck me most this time was how the characters expressed different attitudes toward the value of human life, and how that affected their own search for meaning and fulfillment.

LES-MIS-AUSTRALIAN-PRODUCTION-2014-Barricade-PHOTO-CREDIT-MATT-MURPHY-300x207(1)The central character, Jean Valjean, seems to be doomed to a life of poverty and ostracism as an ex-convict. But when he is shown undeserved mercy by the kindly bishop, his life is turned around, and he chooses to use the bishop’s gift to become a better man. His bitterness and cynicism fade away and are replaced by an honest, hardworking spirit and compassion toward others. At the very beginning of the play, Valjean cannot see the value of anyone’s life, including his own. He says of the bishop, “He told me that I have a soul. How does he know?” By the end, Valjean is not only deeply aware of his own soul but also of everyone else’s; he saves multiple lives throughout the play, including that of his enemy, Javert. After he is shown love, he learns to love others, too, and in doing so he saves himself. His life is a testament against an every-man-for-himself attitude, even as others declare, “At the end of the day she’ll be nothing but trouble / and there’s trouble for all when there’s trouble for one.” By taking on other people’s troubles, Valjean finds love and redemption.

Les-Miserables-Still-les-miserables-2012-movie-32902250-1280-853In the middle of the first act, we are introduced to a group of students in Paris. Their leader, Enjolras, is filled with revolutionary ideals and is willing to die for his cause. The students meet to discuss equality and democracy, putting plans into motion to resist the monarchy and fight for the rights of the poor and working-class citizens. Where the noblemen look away, turning a blind eye to the injustice in their city and the wretched circumstances among the lower class, these students are attentive to those who are most in need, and they are willing to defend them.

1329662188-2012.barricade.crop.05.lesmiserables.us.fallofrainHowever, for all their focus on the rights of the working people, the students sometimes miss the point of what it really means to value each and every human life, especially Enjolras. His willingness to die for a just cause is noble, but he begins to take this idea too far, seeing the lives of the revolutionaries as merely ammunition to use toward the cause, a means to an end. When his friend Marius begins to question whether he wants to fight and risk his life, Enjolras sings: “Who cares about your lonely soul? / We strive toward a larger goal / Our little lives don’t count at all!” But the fight should be entirely about each individual soul. Isn’t the idea supposed to be that their little lives count for everything, that there is dignity in every human soul, even the poor, lowly ones? Enjolras campaigns for social justice and the dignity of every man (“Every man shall be a king!”), yet he fails to see the dignity of a simple life that does not end in a hero’s death. It is as though he believes that martyrdom alone will make his life worth something. His disregard for his life in service to something greater is noble, but his disregard for his soul is not. We ought to be willing to die for truth and goodness if necessary, but we also ought to guard and defend our lives, as well as those of others. We may have noble ideals that are never achieved in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that our lives aren’t still worth living in this imperfect world.

lesmisstill-013Enjolras and his friends eventually face their death at the barricade, and for all their efforts, no real change results. The women in the neighborhood mourn their loss, singing, “They were schoolboys / never held a gun / fighting for a new world that would rise up like the sun / Where’s that new world now the fighting’s done?” And Marius, the sole survivor of the group, gives a heartbreaking eulogy for his friends: “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me / what your sacrifice was for / Empty chairs at empty tables / where my friends will sit no more.” The true value of their “little” lives is felt fully after their death, through the heaviness of their absence.

LES-MIS-AUSTRALIAN-PRODUCTION-2014-Hayden-Tee-PHOTO-CREDIT-MATT-MURPHY-300x200Another character who struggles to understand the meaning of his own life is Inspector Javert. All his life, he has been committed to upholding the law and serving justice, which has kept him on the hunt for Valjean. To him, Valjean will always be a criminal and a danger to society, and he wants him back behind bars. However, after Valjean saves his life, Javert faces a crisis of conscience. He begins to realize that Valjean might not be entirely evil, and he himself might not be entirely good. When Javert is faced with his own errors and forced to reevaluate his entire perception of the world around him, he is unable to reconcile his current confusion and doubt with the deep-seated sense of clarity and justice that has guided him all his life. He reaches a critical point of decision that echoes Valjean’s in Act One, but where Valjean had chosen to call upon God’s mercy and begin anew, Javert makes the opposite choice. 1329662778-2012.resize.landing.19.lesmiserables.us.barricadeWhen Valjean faced his sins and shortcomings, he made a resolution to transform his life for the good, to turn to God despite his unworthiness. But when Javert sees that his own worldview is flawed, he can’t face the frightening uncertainty of a world he doesn’t understand. When he saw everything in black and white, he knew his role in the world and was confident that he was acting for goodness and justice. Now he can’t be sure that his actions are just, and without that, he doesn’t understand the worth of his life at all. Has he really been working for justice all his life, or has he been doing harm? Is Valjean a monster or a saint? Rather than face the complicated nature of human imperfection, concupiscence, and mercy, Javert simply gives up. Overwhelmed by this inner turmoil, he commits suicide. If only he had understood the concept of mercy, he might have had a transformation to rival Valjean’s; instead, his is a tragic ending.

lm_finale0599I was especially moved by the staging of the finale, in which Valjean dies in the arms of his daughter Cosette. As he leaves this world and passes into the next, Valjean is joined by characters who have preceded him in death, and together they sing a song of victory. Cosette, dressed in her wedding dress, cries in the arms of her groom, Marius, and the song that rises from the group of souls above seems to be directed at the newlywed couple: “Will you join in our crusade? / Who will be strong and stand with me? / Somewhere beyond the barricade / is there a world you long to see?” After death, these characters have reached the ultimate goal—the glory of heaven—and they sing to those still on earth, encouraging them to continue the good fight and join them at the end of their lives. They are the Church Triumphant, singing to the Church Militant. Cosette and Marius are at the beginning of their own journey toward heaven through the vocation of marriage; they are called to be noble and valiant amid the challenges they will surely face along the way.

img_6403In the finale, we see that the students did finally achieve a victory, but their victory did not come on earth. The day before their rebellion, they had sung, “When the beating of your heart / echoes the beating of the drums / there is a life about to start / when tomorrow comes!” They believed that the fulfillment of their hopes and ideals would come “tomorrow,” that in just one day they would achieve an earthly utopia. But in the finale, they sing, “Do you hear the people sing? / Say, do you hear the distant drums? / It is the future that they bring / when tomorrow comes!” This time, they are singing about heaven. They used to think that the “tomorrow” they were working toward was a new era of peace and justice in the world, but in reality their “tomorrow” arrives after their death, when they enter the “world beyond the barricade.” Only then do they realize that what they were really fighting for was heaven itself, for themselves and as many as they could help along the way. Their lives were a journey toward a greater destination. They were, as we are now, part of the Church Militant, fighting for the good amidst a fallen world. May we all strive to reach the Church Triumphant and sing with them of the world beyond the barricade.


Images:
Header: Universal Pictures
1. Universal Pictures
2. Matt Murphy
3. Universal Pictures
4. Deen van Meer
5. Universal Pictures
6. Matt Murphy
7. Deen van Meer
8. Stephen R. Buntrock
9. Come and Go By Bubble

Erin Cain

Erin Cain

Erin Cain is a writer and editor living in New York City, drinking lots of Earl Grey tea, and attempting to grow in virtue and love. She writes at Work in Progress.

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10 thoughts on “Les Misérables and the Church Militant”

  1. Avatar

    I love this! I think it’s neat how you bring up the students and their failing to regard the soul; I’ve never really paid much attention to the students before, honestly (there’s just so much good stuff to look at in this story!). Seeing Les Miserables on Broadway must be such an incredible experience 🙂 Have you read the book before? While I love the musical, the book is incredible (I read the unabridged)-the ending is different, but so, so powerful and an incredible testament to the fatherly love of Jean Valjean.

    1. Avatar

      Thanks AnneMarie! I’ve read the beginning of the book, and I’m slowly moving through the rest of it—it’s amazing, it’s just really long and I keep getting distracted by other books! But I definitely want to finish it 🙂 I tend to read multiple books at a time, but I’m sure I’ll get through Les Mis eventually!

  2. Avatar

    I have not seen the musical; I will have to now. I read the book because my first wife spoke French and was vaguely, I think, familiar with the story. I know she had not read it. It remains one of the longest novels I have read and one of the most challenging. It put me to mind in many ways of the Grapes of Wrath, which also had a tendency to wander off point of the main story for many fascinating pages. I have seen a film version (I do not remember which one) which tried hard to do justice to the novel (nearly impossible for a short novel, not possible at all for longer ones) and was not bad. It is obvious that the musical uses the book as a starting point, but is necessarily not faithful to it. I’m not sure any other work of fiction I’ve read impacted me in the same way as Les Miserable; as a whole, it had the impact of some religious books I’ve read (Fulton Sheen, C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton come to mind). Truly an awesome work — I only wish I’d had a chance to study it in school (considering I did not actually read “To Kill A Mockingbird” until my fifties, although I can think of at least two classes that it was required reading in, maybe I would have wasted that chance!).

    1. Avatar

      Yes, I would recommend it! The musical, like you said, uses the book as a starting point and gives its own interpretation to the story. I know that it leaves some storylines out, as it must given the format, but it also brings new insights and a deep emotional resonance through its music.

  3. Avatar

    Good article, and I felt the same BUT here is the mystery I think you will be surprised to learn: The writers of the stage show (Boublil and Schönberg) are both Jewish, Hugo was an anti-Catholic apostate, and Les Miserables was, until 1959, listed in the Index Liborum Prohibitorum, i.e. Catholics were not allowed to read it.
    As Alice would say, curiouser and curiouser!
    🙂

    1. Avatar

      Yes, I was aware that Hugo was anti-Catholic…it’s interesting that in his attempt to show how the Catholic Church fails to live up to its own ideals (and of course it falls short, because it is made up of imperfect, fallible human beings), he ended up illustrating the Catholic perspective of the world in such a beautiful way. A complicated man, bitter and misguided in many ways, his fiction still conveyed deep truths!

  4. Avatar

    Good article and have seen the musical which did not dwell so much on the religious perspective, except the final scene, as the human condition, good and bad. Don’t know if Hugo would have been satisfied with the film but I like to think that it reflects what Hugo would have wanted had he been a bit more aware of the benefits of a Deity based spirituality. Of course, the French revolution was a series of extreme events so a variety of viewpoints is to be expected.

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    Wow, that is really depressing! Does anyone here really think God wants us to forsake our lives just to get to “Heaven”? I don’t care if you believe this is all one big test, what we do during our lives matters… If not for ourselves, then for the ones we leave behind when we move on to whatever is next!

  6. Avatar

    Thank you for your insightful article. I have seen the play several times and the movie several times as well. My favorite character is Eponine, who I understand is portrayed quite differently in the book.

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