Recently 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.
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.
In 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.
However, 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.
Enjolras 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.
Another 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. When 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.
I 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.
In 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.
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