Leonard Browning: The Gospel according to Victor Hugo
“Les Miserables” is one of my favorite stories.
I thought I fell in love with “Les Mis” (forget the full name, no one can pronounce it anyway) after watching the 1998 film production starring Liam Neeson, but only after reading the print version of the time-honored classic did I experience my true love affair with the story.
While the Neeson film does justice to the book and story, so much more is revealed in each character, story line and plot in the pages of the book itself.
The epic story preaches the Gospel in a number of creative, subtle and beautiful ways.
Convict Jean Valjean is released from a French prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and nephew and for subsequent attempts to escape from prison. When Valjean arrives at the town of Digne, no one is willing to give him shelter or employment because he is an ex-convict.
Desperate, Valjean knocks on the door of M. Myriel, the kindly bishop of Digne. Myriel treats Valjean with kindness and respect in spite of Valjean’s past.
Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silverware. When the police arrest Valjean Myriel covers for him, claiming the silverware was a gift and also gives Valjean two large silver candleholders that Valjean did not steal.
The authorities release Valjean and Myriel makes him promise to become an honest man.
Valjean experiences the primary elements of the good news found in Jesus Christ — grace, mercy and forgiveness.
The next stage of the story reveals the wonderful reality of the Gospel in one’s life — purpose through serving. It’s not so much that Christians “owe” God for their salvation, rather it is the reality of Christ living his life in and through his followers. We call this transformation and sanctification.
Valjean masks his identity and enters the town of Montreuil-sur-mer. Under the assumed name of Madeleine, Valjean invents an ingenious manufacturing process that brings the town prosperity, employing and providing opportunity for many otherwise unemployed men and, in particular, women. Valjean eventually becomes the town’s mayor.
More of the Gospel revealed:
Through a sordid course of events, Valjean unknowingly releases from his employ a struggling single mother named Fantine. She is being extorted by a miserable couple that owns an inn in another town and has taken in her illegitimate daughter, Cosette.
The other employees find out about Cosette and expose Fantine’s secret. Fantine ultimately is reduced to prostitution, having sold her hair, front teeth and all her earthly possessions.
Valjean enters the scene again to rescue a very ill Fantine from arrest for prostitution and assault by Valjean’s nemesis, Inspector Javert. Javert is a constant character in story revealing the battle between living under the law (Javert) or living in grace (Valjean).
Valjean realizes Fantine’s plight and his own oversight in her firing and cares for Fantine until her death, pledging to find, rescue and care for Cosette.
Valjean, having been redeemed earlier, is now a “type” of Christ in Fantine’s life, rescuing her from her own sin, the scorn of others and the pain of life. In a poignant scene, Valjean tells a repentant, pathetic, near death Fantine: “God has always only seen you as a beautiful princess.”
The story continues to the rescue of Cosette from the monsters that are “caring” for her — the Thénardiers. In a most beautiful and humorous way, Cosette is purchased by Valjean from the greedy and abusive couple.
More Gospel revealed.
Time and space do not permit doing justice to enumerating the other ways author Victor Hugo weaves the heart of God and the depravity of man into the story that continues through Cosette’s journey to womanhood and the French Revolution. You can experience the Gospel according to Hugo for yourself in the newest musical screen version of “Les Mis,” or if that is not your genre, revisit the 1998 movie masterpiece. Or, if you are truly interested and hearty, read the 1,400-plus page masterpiece in print.