“Victor Hugo Made Me Cry”: Why We Still Need to Read Les Miserables

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Earlier this year, David Denby wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled “There’s Still Hope for People Who Love Les Mis.” In it he suggested that “even if you were deeply moved by ‘Les Mis,’ you can still save your soul. I don’t think you are damned forever. Salvation awaits.” I assume he means to be playful, but he spends a good deal of energy pointing out what he sees as shortcomings of the musical and film, and thus what he sees as shortcomings in those who are moved by it. He claims “This movie is not just bad…It’s terrible; it’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive.” He accuses it further of sentimentality, and accuses those who are moved to tears by it as “emotion[al]…about emotion.”

The purpose of this piece is not to argue with Denby. I agree with some of what he says. Similar to him, I went into the movie with no knowledge of the music whatsoever. Yet, in the end, despite not really loving the music, I found myself with tears in my eyes during the final scene as Jean Valjean dies. And yet, I agree with many, if not all, of Denby’s critiques of the film.

I credit Victor Hugo with those tears. The week before I saw the movie, I finished Hugo’s 1862 novel on which the musical and the movie were based. Les Miserables is an amazing book, telling an profound story—a story that, when fully understood and experienced, lends a weight and power to the musical that I might not otherwise have experienced.

Some of his complaints about the movie are easier to ignore if one is familiar with the original details of the 1,500 page novel. For example, Denby says “Revolution breaks out in ‘Les Mis.’ What revolution? Against whom? In favor of what? It’s just revolution—the noble sacrifice of handsome, ardent boys taking on merciless power. The French military, those canaille, gun down the beautiful boys. It’s all so generic. The vagueness is insulting.” But readers of the book know full well what Marius and his friends are revolting against, because Hugo gives so many pages to describing the political landscape of France and all that is at stake.

Javert’s character is described by Denby as “daft…and a melodramatic contrivance.” But in the book, Javert is given room to be fleshed out, and his suicidal response to Valjean’s act of forgiveness is both believable and moving.

But I want to focus primarily on one of the most potent complaints Denby has about the film: Jean Valjean’s character. “Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another…The implications of Jean Valjean’s complete innocence are dismaying. Suppose he had actually committed some sort of crime as a young man. Are we to infer that he wouldn’t be worth our tears if—like the rest of us—he were even slightly culpable? Saints do not make interesting heroes.”

The novel opens, unlike the film, in the hills of France. The first 60 pages in no way concern Jean Valjean, but focus on Monsieur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel, Bishop of Digne. Hugo spends those intial pages illustrating the humility and faithfulness of the Bishop with anecdote after anecdote. We learn that he lived within his means, helped the poor, and regularly put his life in harm’s way to ensure that all around him heard about the love of God, even traveling dangerous roads to visit men and women on their deathbeds. Bishop Myriel is featured briefly in the film, but not for long. And while all the background readers have on his character makes him that much more inspirational, it does not necessarily change the power of the famous scene early in the movie. The bishop welcomes the recently released convict Valjean into his home when no one else would, and Valjean absconds in the middle of the night, having stolen the bishop’s silver, only to be caught and returned to the Bishop by the authorities. Most of us would have immediately had Valjean returned to prison, but not the Bishop, who in the novel exclaims “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!” The Bishop even lets Valjean take two silver candle holders with him.

Only the coldest of hearts would not be moved by a man foregoing rightful vengeance to give his enemy another chance at redemption. But if this is all we know of Valjean, other than that he spent a life in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, Denby is right: to see him live a moral life is gratifying, but not much more than a good man doing good things.

However, in the novel, Victor Hugo takes readers into the darkness of Valjean’s psyche after he is released from prison, and depicts a man whose redemption seems impossible.

Valjean spends the majority of his life “Under the whip, under the chain, in the cell, in fatigue, under the searing sun of the galleys, on the convict’s plank bed.” Imprisoned since he was a young man, “No man had ever touched him except to bruise him. All his contact with men had been by blows. Never since infancy…had he been greeted with a friendly word or a kind look.” Valjean tries multiple times to escape from prison. In the novel, his initial sentence for stealing bread is “only” four years. But he tries repeatedly to escape and is, without fail, caught and returned under an even longer sentence.

After 19 years of misery, Valjean “condemned society and sentenced it. He sentenced it to his hatred. He made it responsible for his fate, and promised himself that he perhaps would not hesitate someday to call it to account. He declared to himself that there was no equity between the injury he had committed and the injury committed on him; he concluded, in short, that his punishment was not merely an injustice, but beyond all, a gross injustice.” Most would agree, he is not wrong in his conclusion. Stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child is a crime, but not one deserving of a life in prison.

And yet that is what he endured. And it took a toll. “Through suffering he gradually came to the conclusion that life is war and that in that war he was the vanquished. He had no weapon but his hatred. He resolved to sharpen it in the chain gang and take it with him when he left…Jean Valjean was not, we have seen, born evil. He was still good when he arrived at the prison. There, he condemned society and felt himself becoming wicked; he condemned Providence and felt himself becoming impious.”

This wickedness is seen in the movie as he robs the man that offered him a bed and a meal. But this wickedness is seen on a less dramatic, yet more disturbing scale in the novel immediately after he is set free by the Bishop. Valjean wanders the countryside of France where he meets a poor young boy who works as a chimney sweep. The boy drops the coin he earned after a day’s work and it rolls towards Valjean, who places his boot over the coin when it comes to rest beneath him. The boy cries and begs that Valjean give him the coin back, but Valjean just stares at him, acting as if he has never seen the coin. The boy eventually runs away terrified, seeing the evil in the man before him, who would steal and lie to the most innocent boy without batting an eye.

We see in this scene the level of depravity to which Valjean had fallen as a result of forces beyond his control (as they came to interact with his own selfishness). Our intuition tells us that it is one thing to steal significant wealth from a grown man with hopes of starting a new life, but it that it is an entirely other thing to steal a coin from a poor child. After the boy is gone, Valjean looks at the coin beneath his boot and thinks back to the Bishop, who had given his soul to God, and feels immense conviction. “[The Bishop] filled the whole of this miserable man with a magnificent radiance. Jean Valjean wept for a long time. He shed hot tears, he wept bitterly, more terrified than a child.”

While Jean Valjean did not commit a crime worthy of the punishment he received, he emerged from prison a broken, vengeful man, hellbent on making someone pay for what had happened to him. And yet, through the kindness of an old Bishop who had dedicated his life to reflecting the radical grace of Christ, the terrible trajectory of Valjean’s life is altered. The novel, by dedicating so many pages to this Bishop, makes a strong case for Myriel as the hero of Les Miserables. He is a hero because he displays the unnecessary, extravagant, self-giving love that we are only familiar with because we have seen it in Christ. He is an inspiration and challenge because he demands that our charity and “good deeds” do more than address immediate felt needs. Bishop Myriel’s character is a call to self-sacrificing, Christ-reflecting service to those who are unworthy, unqualified, and seemingly blind to grace.

I think Denby is somewhat correct, if a little snarkier than necessary. The film doesn’t quite give us enough of a reason to feel that Valjean’s life of sacrifice is so different from any other “good” man or woman’s. But in the novel, we see more clearly the darkness to which his life had at one time been resigned. And it is against this backdrop that we are able to see the beauty of God’s love capturing not only Valjean, but the numerous people toward whom Valjean extends the same self-sacrificing love which he has received.

Read Les Miserables. Even if you’ve already seen the film (and whether you loved or hated it), the breadth and depth of Hugo’s narrative will give you new insight into and appreciation for the characters and the beautiful narrative of redemption toward which they point. Then, next time you see the movie, don’t be surprised when you tear up as Fantine returns to escort Valjean to heaven. And don’t be surprised when there is a new significance to the fact that Bishop Myriel is waiting for him.