When my wife learned that the musical theatre production of Les Miserables was coming to Little Rock, we made plans to attend. We had attended a production of the show around twenty years ago and had enjoyed it very much. We asked my Mom if she would like to go with us and she was excited to be able to attend. She had studied Les Miserables in French class when she was a girl.
The December day that we traveled to Little Rock to see the production was a warm 75-degree day. After some Christmas shopping, a great meal at Cantina Laredo, and seeing an awesome sunset, we headed to The Robinson Center in downtown Little Rock. As we were driving, we watched the dramatic supermoon rise over downtown. The state capitol was striking with Christmas lights outlining the building.
The musical Les Miserables is based on a French historical novel by Victor Hugo that was first published in 1862. It is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. The novel tells a story of broken dreams, sacrifice, and redemption. It is an examination of law and grace, and a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.
Victor Hugo wrote in the preface; “So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
To me, the most intriguing part the story of Les Miserables is the different way the main characters deal with law and mercy. The story starts when Jean Valjean is released after 19 years in jail. Valjean is rejected in every place he seeks refuge until he finds a priest who gives him food and a place to sleep.
Jean Valjean steals all the finest silver from the priest. He is caught and brought back and made to admit his sin in front of the priest. The police are ready to put Jean Valjean in jail when the priest stops them. He explains that he did give all of the silver to the man and, in fact, the man forgot to take the most precious silver. As the priest hands over his valuable candlesticks, it is clear that his grace is greater than Jean Valjean could have ever imagined. Having experienced such forgiveness, he spends the rest of his life trying to replicate the grace that was given to him.
The mercy shown to him by Valjean sends Javert, the legalist, into a tailspin from which he cannot recover. For him, mercy proves to be an unsolvable problem. He sings, “I am the law, and the law is not mocked! I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!” And then continues, “my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved? Does he know that granting me my life today, this man has killed me even so.” After experiencing unmerited mercy, Javert the legalist jumps off a bridge and kills himself.
The power of Les Miserables is the way it contrasts the life of the merciful with the life of the merciless. The merciful have faced their guilt and been broken. The merciless have faced their guilt and hardened themselves like steel.