Les Miserables: Grace versus Law

The cast of the Les Miserables BBC series
Les Miserables is famous for being the longest running West End Musical of all time. Many people know at least one of the songs from the show after Susan Boyle famously sang “I dreamed a dream” on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. The musical is based on Victor Hugo’s 19th Century novel and I was excited to hear that the BBC have produced a new drama series of Les Miserables, airing on BBC1 at 9pm on Sundays, now in its 3rd week. I was also surprised to learn that it contained “less songs, more plot” but having never read the novel, it has been great to get more detail on the characters and the story.

In writing his story, Victor Hugo draws on many ideas found in the teachings of Jesus, and foundational to Christian belief, in particular the idea that God’s “grace” can transform us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. The story follows two men and their contrasting perspectives on life. One is former prisoner Jean Valjean and the other is his former guard Inspector Javert. The question is: can lavish, unmerited generosity change a person, even a prisoner? (Spoiler alert: yes, it can!)

Early on in the story, Jean Valjean, now free but destitute, is given food and lodging by a Catholic bishop. Perplexed by the bishop’s gentle kindness, he nevertheless leaves at night, stealing the valuable silverware. The next day Jean Valjean is caught and the soldiers bring him back to the bishop with the sack full of stolen silver, expecting the bishop to press charges against the thief. 

Unexpectedly, the bishop says to the soldiers, “Thank you for doing your job, but there has been a misunderstanding. This man was my friend and guest and the silver was my gift to him. And what’s more, he forgot to take the most important items – the candlesticks!” The bishop then takes two expensive candlesticks and adds them to the sack of stolen goods. The bemused soldiers leave, and Jean Valjean is sent on his way, not just a free man, but with far more treasure in his possession than he could ever have imagined. The grace and mercy Valjean receives leads to a shift in his own life as he in turn responds to those around him with grace and mercy – but Inspector Javert, whose life is determined by justice and law, cannot understand it.

This week’s homework for the parishioners: watch Les Mis!

Dave Maclure