Les Misérables: Law, Order, and the Potency of Grace

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Ask anyone what they think about Les Misérables and you’re likely to hear strong opinions. We feel strongly about the significance of the unavoidable themes of law and grace in the narrative, and how so often they reign true in everyday life.

Our great protagonist, Jean Valjean, lives a life marked by compassion and grace. Frustratingly sympathetic antagonist, Javert lives a life marked by law and justice.

We all know the moment where Jean Valjean’s life trajectory takes a turn–namely, the bishop’s forgiveness of his thievery–which ultimately leads to him life an impossibly selfless life. But what about Javert? He was shown the same mercy by Valjean, but it doesn’t change him.

brion-gustave-jean-valjean-illustration-from-les-miserables-by-victor-hugo-1862In sort of a climactic-like moment of the film, Valjean and Javert find themselves in an alleyway—alone. Valjean has a gun (which was given to him to kill Javert) and Javert is weaponless. Generally speaking, the conventional narrative says Valjean undoubtedly kills Javert. Protagonist wins, antagonist loses–this is what we expect.

But of course, Jean Valjean lets Javert go. Here’s Valjean’s words to Javert right before he does so:

“I’m a man no worse than any man. You are free, and there are no conditions -
No bargains or petitions. There’s nothing that I blame you for.
You’ve done your duty, nothing more.
No doubt our paths will cross again.”

Let’s get back to Javert. There’s not a flicker of compassion in this guy! The law is the law, in all of its inflexibility. The main reason I described Javert as “frustratingly sympathetic” is because we long for justice. We want order. We can’t deny that the world just ticks better, and more in order with the law in place. Javert’s DNA, as it were, is law and order. His profession, and even his theology, is built on this ideology:

les-miserables-movies-russell

“He knows his way in the dark Mine is the way of the Lord/Those who follow the path of the righteous/Shall have their reward”

Jean Valjean’s compassion toward Javert is the most discomforting thing that could’ve happened to the policeman. Compassion disrupted Javert, stopping him in his tracks. “No conditions, no bargains, or petitions” is utterly contrary to Javert’s makeup. It’s precisely this disorienting grace that leads to Javert’s suicide. Jean Valjean’s mercy had no strings attached to it–something utterly foreign to Javert. The following statement from Javert expresses his discomfort:

“Who is this man?

What sort of devil is he?

To have caught me in a trap

And choose to let me go free? It was his hour at last

To put a seal on my fate

Wipe out the past

And wash me clean off the slate! All it would take

Was a flick of his knife

Vengeance was his

And he gave me back my life!”

Javert doesn’t know what to do with compassion. What’s worse, the agent of grace is the person who should despise Javert more than anyone: “Vengeance was his / And he gave me back my life!”

Javert and Jean Valjean both experienced mercy. The difference is this: Valjean was captivated by grace while Javert remained bound by the law–and their, dare I say, “fruit,” is reflective of such.

Law and grace must co-exist. We can’t deny it. I’m not only referring to just theology, but in society, relationships, training a dog, you get my drift. But observing these amazing characters in this wonderful story, one thing is evident: grace accomplishes what the law demands. Grace not only liberated Jean Valjean, it compelled him to live an amazingly selfless life, something the law could never pull off, just ask Javert.

It’s not a stretch to say that we’ve all experienced the hammer of judgement and the dread of expectations/demands in some form or fashion. It may be the law of God, or the demands of your manipulative family member that continue to hold you hostage–it’s all too familiar. Relationships that are built on law always run out of gas. Grace puts wind in the sails. It’s love that “gives itself no airs” (C.S. Lewis) that has the capability to make a human being humble and compassionate. As the great Reformer, Martin Luther once said: “The commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it…”

This stanza from John Berridge’s hymn, “Law and Gospel” summarize the difference between law and grace in Les Misérables:

“‘Run, run, and work,’ the law commands,

Yet finds me neither feet nor hands;

But sweeter news the gospel brings;

It bids me fly, and lends me wings.”

Thanks for reading,

MP

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