A well-loved cassette that resides in my car is the original Broadway cast soundtrack of Les Miserables (oh, dear, I’m showing my age). I have no idea what I’m going to do when the tape finally breaks… it seems like every other cassette I play is that one. And during the long car-trips, I have opportunity to think in varying degrees of detail about the musical. One thought is particularly persistent, though… the religious aspects of Hugo’s magnificent octopus.
When I watched Cinema Sins for the new Les Mis movie, the narrator complained about the movie’s Christ imagery for Valjean (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KETiiptWKM). I hadn’t noticed, honestly, but once he pointed it out, I agree with it as a quibble… but only because I see Valjean as a different early Christian figure. To go into this further, I’ll go into Holy Week (out of season though it is).
Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday) features a lot of different characters in its story. Two notable figures, besides Jesus, are Saint Peter and Judas Iscariot. Both feature very prominently. And the both betray Jesus. Judas betrayed Jesus to the soldiers with a kiss (NRSV Matt. 26:14-16 and 47-56). Peter not only ran away with the other disciples, but denied Jesus three times before the cock crew twice (NRSV Matt. 26:69-75). They’re both pretty major mistakes, but the big difference comes in their reactions.
Poor old Judas gives in to despair and hangs himself (NRSV Matt. 27:3-10). Peter, however, only weeps, and lives to be forgiven by Jesus after the Resurrection. It can then be argued that the major difference between the two of them was that Simon Peter, the rock on which the church would be built, had hope. Judas, in the end, only had despair.
Now look at Les Mis… or more specifically Valjean and Javert. It is established that both of them are devout Christians, probably both Catholic, since they are French. They both have very strong ideas of right and wrong, and will defend them to the nth degree. However, it becomes apparent just as early on that Valjean’s theology is that love and forgiveness, while Javert’s is that of condemnation and flames. Their mistakes even illustrate this difference.
Valjean stole the bread to feed his family, and tried to escape from prison whenever he could. He also tried to steal from the Bishop, who, like Christ did so often for Peter, forgave him and gave him another chance to do better (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elp47TSQZVc). Valjean kept his hope and took that chance.
Javert on the other hand, had only his obsession, which is a huge mistake. He’s an inspector throughout most of the play, which is a pretty low-rank. His vendetta against Valjean hurt his career. And he later betrays the man who saved him (Valjean), by trying to arrest him in the sewers. When he realizes that he is wrong, he gives in to despair and throws himself into the Seine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFQvGJGpM1s).
It’s all debatable, of course, but worth giving the musical another look or listen to. Poor Javert… won’t he be surprised to see who’s holding the keys to the kingdom!