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Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, and the Catholic Imagination
by Addison H. Hart
In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables opened to less than enthusiastic critical acclaim. The majority of critics were dismissive of the production. “There is a string of impressive sights over the three-and-a-quarter hours,” wrote John Hiley, “but little to grip the ear and still less to trouble the mind.”1 Susie Mackenzie chimed in: “[O]ur admiration is solicited not on the grounds of something truthful and profound, not on the grounds of something intelligent and stimulating, but on the grounds of melodrama, contrivance and artifice.”2 Lynn Gardner called the production a “load of sentimental old tosh,”3 and Christopher Edwards wrote it off as simply “sentimental and melodramatic.”4
The rest, of course, is theatrical history. Les Miz, as this contemporary opera has come to be affectionately nicknamed, was an instant and resounding popular success, pace the critics. It has gone on from the original “French concept” of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg to become, under producer Cameron Mackintosh, an international phenomenon, playing to enrapt audiences in numerous translations worldwide. Needless to say, this came as a surprise to those critics who initially doubted it could last a season.
What is it about this story that has so captivated so many? What is the secret of this “melodramatic” and “sentimental old tosh,” which made those abject critics of the professional aesthetic elite cringe, and the people love it?
But then, this all happened once before. It happened when Victor Hugo’s massive novel first appeared in 1862. Critics lambasted it, the public loved it. Once again, despite the critics, it went on to become an international best-seller.
In America, the critics from New England seem to have had a particular distaste for Les Misérables. The New Englander ran a review that stated: “[We look in vain] for any powerful dominant idea, pervading the whole and resolving itself into a determinate form.”5 Boston’s Atlantic Monthly showed nervous reaction to the perceived message of the book in its review: “[I]ts morbid elements are so combined with sentiments abstractly Christian that it is calculated to wield a more pernicious influence than Byron ever exerted. Its tendency is to weaken that abhorrence of crime which society possesses, and it does this by attempting to prove that society itself is responsible for crimes it cannot prevent, but can only punish.”6
Again, why was it that the popular response to Les Misérables was one of enthusiasm? If those critics from New England were to be believed, with all their concern for public morality, how could the general public be so led astray by “sentiments abstractly Christian” as to come under the spell of the novel’s “pernicious influence”?
I believe that the Atlantic Monthly critic stumbled on the truth of the matter and inadvertently provided us with at least one key for understanding the perennial appeal of Les Misérables, whether in its novel, stage, or numerous film versions. That key is simply the phrase “sentiments abstractly Christian.” Intended to suggest a deceptive veneer, a mask of hypocrisy, concealing the book’s more sinister tendencies, this phrase may actually unlock for us the real appeal of the work. If by “sentiment” we mean “a thought prompted by feeling,” then “sentiments abstractly Christian” are a positive good; and it should be encouraging to those of us who are Christians that such “sentiments” are seen to hold appeal for men and women everywhere. In fact, we Christians might well be instructed from the popularity of Les Misérables about precisely those “Christian sentiments” for which many hearts yearn.
A Blemished Writer, A Christian Work
This is not to say that, for orthodox Christians, blithely embracing Victor Hugo does not present its difficulties. We should not assume more than the biographical facts warrant. Hugo was not a Christian, and there is reason even to doubt that he was baptized. Religiously, as the foremost French Romantic figure of his age, he was a deist of sorts (his poetry, for example, indicates that he held to the concept of God that has since been termed “panentheism,” a belief that God both transcends and permeates all creation7). During his fifteen-year exile on Guernsey he developed an interest in the occult, attending séances in an attempt to contact his beloved daughter, Leopoldine, who had died tragically with her husband in a boating accident in 1843. His poetry further reveals the religious influence of Swedenborg, Reynaud, and Cheneau, and he frequently made use of theosophical metaphors in his writings. He was a dabbler in heterodoxy, to say the very least.
For anyone in search of a “Christian role model,” his personal life fares no better under scrutiny. His vanity was legendary; he is even said to have thought that Paris should be renamed in his honor. G. K. Chesterton comes to Hugo’s aid here, when he writes: “The truth is that Hugo represents all the ultimate and fundamental things—love, fury, pity, worship, hatred, and consequently, among other things, vanity.”8
Nevertheless, Hugo’s sexual conquests and his fifty-year adulterous relationship with Juliette Drouet are not so easily excused. They present us with further reservations about his moral character. It should be noted, however, that this particular aspect of his life was not something he was proud of, and it only began after the shattering revelation of his wife’s infidelity with his closest friend, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, in 1831.
So we have before us a man of blemished religious and moral character by basic Christian standards. To be fair, we must also point out that Hugo possessed a generous and good spirit, a deep compassion for the sufferings of individuals and mankind in general, and an abiding trust in God’s love. But we cannot call him a Christian any more than we can Dickens. Thomas Merton, on the other hand, in a brief discussion of Faulkner’s novels, wrote what might be applied equally well to Victor Hugo: “We have by now become wise enough to realize that a writer can be profoundly biblical in his work without being a churchgoer or a conventional believer, and we are also aware of the fact that in our time it is often the isolated and lonely artist, facing the problems of life without the routine consolations of conventional religion, who really experiences in their depth the existential dimensions of those problems.”9
In this sense Les Misérables is a profoundly “Christian” work. Victor Hugo, with all his Romanticism, panentheism, theosophical musings, spiritualism, and moral struggles, still managed to come closer to the practical heart of Christ’s gospel than many authors of a more orthodox faith. To step across the threshold into the world of this vast novel is immediately to encounter the three greatest themes in all literature: God, mankind, and the human soul. More to the point, it is to encounter those themes, within the context of a sprawling and enthralling epic narrative of nineteenth-century France, in terms we recognize from, say, Luke’s Gospel.
The God of Hugo, Melville & Moby Dick
I am tempted to compare Les Misérables at this point with another nineteenth-century masterpiece of Romantic literature, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. If I were designing a course for serious postgraduates, I would assign a back-to-back reading of Moby Dick and Les Misérables, for Les Misérables is a sort of “anti-Moby Dick.” Both the similarities and antitheses between these two great novels are striking, if not at first apparent. “This is a leviathan I am about to ship to sea,” said Hugo before the publication of Les Misérables, reminding one of Melville all the more. To focus just on the more salient aspects, Melville and Hugo stand in stark contrast to each other in their respective views of God, mankind, and the soul.
Melville’s “God” is so absolutely deterministic as to be downright malevolent where man is concerned. His view of mankind’s situation is one of helplessness before relentless and crushing exterior forces. His view of the soul is best imaged by Ishmael adrift in the vast expanse of ocean, alone, tiny, and clinging to a coffin. Moby Dick has echoes of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Jonah. The last of these, The Book of Jonah, is in fact used by Melville in an inverted fashion, in direct opposition to that biblical book’s ultimate intention of revealing God’s mercifulness.
In contrast, Hugo sees God as loving, knowable, present, and merciful. Mankind’s situation is, ideally, “the march from evil to good . . . from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God.”10 His view of the human soul is anything but insignificant. Whereas Melville depicts the exterior forces overwhelming the lone soul in oceanic terms, Hugo uses the sea and sky to image the infinite depths of the soul made for God: “There is one spectacle greater than the sea: That is the sky; there is one spectacle greater than the sky: That is the interior of the soul.” He continues, looking into those depths of the individual soul:
There, beneath the external silence, giants are doing battle as in Homer, melées of dragons and hydras, and clouds of phantoms as in Milton, ghostly spirals as in Dante. Such gloom enfolds that infinity which each man bears within himself and by which he measures in despair the desires of his will and the actions of his life!11
These ruminations, significantly, appear in the midst of a description of an internal moral struggle by the protagonist, Jean Valjean, who consequently makes the hard choice to sacrifice himself, his wealth, and his freedom for the sake of another man.
For Hugo, man’s soul is free to be responsible in the face of exterior forces that threaten to overwhelm it—the infinite psychological depths within each of us do not preclude our moral freedom, as long as we do not deny God. This last point is crucial, because God is indispensable if the soul is to act in freedom and love, according to Hugo. As Baudelaire commented: “Victor Hugo is for Man, and yet he is not against God. He trusts in God, and yet he is not against Man.”12 The contrast with the outlook of Melville could not be more pronounced. While it is true that Hugo renounced the Catholic Church, it is equally true that he retained the Catholic imagination, especially as he delineated the relationship of God to the human soul.
Now, it could be the case that someone (a critic, perhaps) might fault Hugo for holding far too high a valuation of the individual human soul; and it is a frequent mark of Romanticism, to be sure. But it is also redolent with Jesus’ own valuation of the soul (as Hugo well understood): “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) We will fail to appreciate Les Misérables fully if we first fail to perceive the hidden presence of Christ in it like leaven in the three measures of meal.
A Tapestry of Redeeming Love
Les Misérables is so complex a tapestry of social commentary, historical depiction, philosophical pondering, war story, detective story, love story, revolutionary saga, fictionalized autobiography (Hugo is especially visible in the character of Marius), and portrait of old Paris, that one may be overcome at first by the sheer richness of the cumulative effect and not notice the simple repetition of motifs running throughout. But we can tease out three “abstractly Christian” threads: redemption, laying down one’s life for others, and death and resurrection. And these are more than simple “threads”; they are in fact the governing themes of the whole novel.
The first and most dominant theme is that of redemption. The word “redeem” means “to buy back,” and much of the plot turns on this issue of “buying.” The most notable passage in this regard is the one, early in the novel, where Jean Valjean, the paroled convict, robs the saintly bishop of Digne and is brought back to him under arrest in order to confess to the crime and make restitution. Instead, the bishop gives Valjean the stolen silverware and, in addition, the two candlesticks which he had not stolen.
Then turning to the gendarmes, [the bishop] said, “Messieurs, you may go.” The gendarmes left.
Jean Valjean felt like a man about to faint.
The bishop approached him and said, in a low voice, “Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.”
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of any such promise, stood dumbfounded. The bishop had stressed these words as he spoke them. He continued, solemnly, “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!”13
This is the moment upon which the remainder of the novel depends: the redemption of the undeserving Valjean, his transforming encounter with the forgiveness and charity of God embodied in the bishop.
Hugo gets it theologically right: first comes the grace of God and the astounding discovery that God loves us even in our most undeserving condition, thus making it possible for us to begin to love him. Then comes our repentance, the active intention of the heart to turn around and draw near to this good and forgiving God. We see this in the woman who loved Jesus much because she knew herself to be already forgiven of her sins by him (Luke 7:36–50), or, again, in the willingness of Zacchaeus the despised tax collector to respond extravagantly to Jesus’ graciousness shown towards him first (Luke 19:1–10). It is not until the end of the following chapter of Les Misérables that we fully see the impact of the bishop’s display of grace on Valjean, when, kneeling outside the door of the bishop’s cottage, he repents of his past deeds and resolves to begin life anew as God’s purchased possession.
Hugo even provides hints of this redemption theme in the names chosen for his characters. The bishop of Digne, M. Myriel, is known to the poor of his district as Monseigneur Bienvenu (“Welcome”); and Jean Valjean discovers the truth, taught by another “John,” that “God is love” (which would also be the theme of Hugo’s theological poem, God).
The significance of Hugo’s choice of names is also glimpsed in that of the character Fantine. Fantine (from énfantine) means “childlike.” She is, in fact, one of those “little ones” who has been led into sin (cf. Luke 17:2), betrayed, exploited, and reduced to the living nightmare of prostitution. She does whatever she must to provide for her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, who is under the abusive “care” of the brutish Thénardiers. It is Jean Valjean, now the beloved Mayor “Madeleine” of Montreuil-sur-mer, who rescues Fantine from both her condition and her arrest by the grim Inspector Javert (loosely based on a true 1841 incident in the life of Hugo). At his own expense, Valjean cares for her, promising to retrieve Cosette and restore her to her mother. Valjean’s only reason for showing such gratuitous love to Fantine is his own profound experience and awareness of God’s love in his own life. Stricken with illness, Fantine dies, and Valjean, once again on the run, “buys” Cosette from the Thénardiers in fulfillment of his promise to the dead mother. Cosette is the “lamb” of Valjean’s redeeming.
Valjean’s own redemption has spread to the redemption of others. The love of God that he first experienced through Monseigneur Bienvenu has led him to the love of others—not passively, but actively on their behalf, for their good. Hugo challenges the reader to grasp the truth that a genuine encounter with God’s immense love must impel us to do the maximum for others. We cannot remain complacent. Les Misérables, like the Bible, like all great literature, is a work that asks us pointed questions about ourselves. Writing in 1862, Baudelaire noted this very thing:
[Les Misérables] is a book of charity [i.e., caritas, agape, love], that is to say a book intended to excite, to stimulate a charitable spirit; it is a book that raises questions, that poses complex social problems, agonizing and terrible in nature, that says to the reader’s conscience: “Well, what do you think about this? What is your conclusion?”14
Sacrifice & Resurrection
And this leads directly to the second theme, virtually ubiquitous, running through the novel, that of laying down one’s life for others. As we might expect, we see this preeminently in Jean Valjean. To save Champmathieu, a man falsely accused of being Jean Valjean and consequently on trial, Valjean gives up all that he has acquired as the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer and turns himself in instead. On the courtroom wall, Hugo pointedly notes, hangs the crucifix.
Later in the novel, Valjean, at great risk to himself, saves the life of the wounded Marius, carrying him to safety from the barricade via the dark, cloaca-filled sewers of Paris (“the intestines of leviathan”). This is all the more poignant because he is rescuing the man who will be responsible for his loss of Cosette. And it is this final blow, the loss of “his angel” in marriage to Marius, that finally leads to his own death from a bereavement he cannot bear. He lays down his life.
Others in the novel are also willing to sacrifice their lives on behalf of others, including Marius himself and the young insurrectionists led by Enjolras into the Paris uprising of 1832 (expressing Hugo’s acceptance of revolution as a necessary evil for the cause of human progress), and, of course, the tragic Eponine, Thénardier’s daughter, who saves her beloved Marius by taking a bullet meant for him. Willingness to lay down one’s life for another is the extent to which love must reach if it is genuine.
The third motif, intertwined with the last, is that of death and resurrection. It is Jean Valjean who repeatedly experiences the demands that redeeming love places on his life, and so his life’s pattern becomes cruciform—one of “dying” and “rising” again.
His encounter with the bishop is, of course, a death to his old way of life and a rising to a new one. But that is not the end of it for Valjean. He is not allowed to remain content in Montreuil-sur-mer. The implacable Inspector Javert takes him back to prison. He escapes by “drowning,” and once again emerges to a new life on the outskirts of Paris. Again it is Javert who chases him to find refuge at the convent on the Petite Rue Picpus. There Valjean takes up yet another new life as one of the convent’s two gardeners, but not before first having to undergo the harrowing experience of being buried alive in a coffin in order, by subterfuge, to gain a proper entrance for himself and Cosette to the convent. His later descent into the sewers, bearing Marius, is nothing less than a descent into the underworld (a hell of filth, flood, and fragments of historical detritus), literally carrying his “cross” (the man who threatens all his happiness in the world).
The Refusal of God’s Love
Those are the three dominant themes. However, one cannot conclude without some mention of the role Inspector Javert plays in relation to all three. In a novel that features an ex-convict, a prostitute and her illegitimate daughter, and youthful insurrectionists, it is Javert the policeman who proves to be the ultimate rebel (one begins to understand a little the nervousness of those New England puritan critics). This “guardian of the peace” is described by Hugo as “stoical, serious, austere: a dreamer of stern dreams; humble and haughty, like all fanatics.” His life, says Hugo, is summed up “in two words: waking, watching.” Javert “marked out a straight path through all that is most tortuous in the world; his conscience was bound up in his usefulness, his religion in his duties; and he was a spy as others are priests.”15 To put it succinctly, he plays the Pharisee to Valjean’s repentant publican, but with an added dash of the relentlessness of Captain Ahab in his pursuit (although this last feature of his character has usually been overplayed in dramatic and film versions of the book).
Javert is the dark, lurking embodiment of law without grace, justice without mercy. At every turn on his life’s road, Valjean finds Javert there. Javert is “the accuser,” for whom such notions as the redemption of sinners, selfless love, a new and transformed life are incomprehensible in the real world. So when Valjean spares his life at the barricade instead of executing him for the spy he is, Javert is scandalized and dumbfounded by this act of mercy. Later, when he has Valjean in his custody once again, he strangely returns the favor and lets Valjean go free.
But the damage has been done. Javert, acting out of mercy, has found himself behaving in a way that violates the ironclad obligations imposed by the law; indeed, he has violated all that he holds sacred.
“[O]rder was his dogma and was enough for him; since he had reached the age of a man and an official, he had placed almost all his religion in the police. . . .”
He had a superior, M. Gisquet; he had scarcely thought, until today, of that other superior, God.
The new chief, God, he was feeling unawares, and he was perplexed by that.16
All this is such torment to Javert that, unable to take hold of this inexorable God who has reached out to him (in contrast to Valjean before the bishop), he ends his life in confusion and suicide, drowning himself in the Seine. Rather than submit to such love and mercy, he dies in utter rebellion.
It is with Javert’s suicide, as also with Thénardier’s practical atheism, that we see that Hugo is no sentimentalist. The human soul, even in the presence of divine mercy, really does have the frightful capacity to choose the abyss instead of the love of God.
The themes of Les Misérables, as presented here, are Christian themes, themes that would be inconceivable without the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Victor Hugo consciously drew on these “sentiments abstractly Christian,” even though he himself stood on the boundaries of the Christian faith. If nothing else, this very fact testifies to the inherent power of the themes themselves, no matter what the limitations of the writer might be. Hugo was a heretic, but his book is a path leading us back to the God who became man and redeemed us. It is a book that may even provoke us to pray and live as better Christians. And, finally, it is the vision of God’s love that Les Misérables conveys, so close to the heart of the gospel, to which people respond in their hearts for reasons they might not fully understand. Christians could do worse than recognize the nature of its inherent appeal and consider how we ourselves present to others the love we see in Christ.
I leave the concluding word to Baudelaire:
I believe that even for those who find in orthodox doctrine, in pure Catholic theory, an explanation, if not complete, at least more comprehensive, of all the disturbing mysteries of life, Victor Hugo’s new book should be Bienvenu [welcome] (in keeping with the name of the bishop whose triumphant charity it relates); it is a book to be applauded and to be appreciated.17
1. Listener, Oct. 17, 1985.
2. Time Out, Oct. 17, 1985.
3. City Limits, Oct. 18, 1985.
4. Spectator, Oct. 19, 1985.
5. The New Englander, Vol. XXIII, No. LXXXVIII, July 1864.
6. The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. X, No. LVII, July 1862.
7. E.g., his poem, Athée? entendons-nous, prêtre, une fois pour toutes, in the volume L’anée Terrible (1872).
8. G. K. Chesterton, “Victor Hugo,” Pall Mall Magazine, 1902 (reprinted in A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, edited by Dorothy Collins, Sheed and Ward, 1953).
9. Thomas Merton, Opening the Bible, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1970.
10. Les Misérables, Vol. V, Bk. I, Chap. XX. (Quotations are taken from the translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the classic C. E. Wilbour translation, Signet Books, 1987).
11. LM, Vol. I, Bk. VII, Chap. III.
12. Charles Baudelaire, Le boulevard, April 1862.
13. LM, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. XII.
14. Baudelaire, art. cit.
15. LM, Vol. I, Bk. V, Chap. V.
16. LM, Vol. V, Bk. IV, Chap. I.
17. Baudelaire, art. cit.
Les Misérables (1998)
The newest film version of Les Misérables (May 1998) is an elegant piece of competent moviemaking from veteran Danish director Bille August. It delivers powerful performances, excellent cinematography, and historically accurate costuming and production design. Arguably, Uma Thurman is the finest Fantine the screen has yet seen, making the desperation, degradation and ugliness of her character’s descent haunting and vivid. Geoffrey Rush is a suitably driven Javert. Liam Neeson, as always, is thoroughly convincing in his role as Jean Valjean, a role that is guaranteed to demand much from any actor who undertakes it. Neeson carries all the aspects of Valjean’s character effortlessly, from menacing ex-convict, to redeemed man and respectable mayor, to hunted and fearful “father.” (I was not, however, greatly impressed by either Claire Danes or Hans Matheson in the roles of Cosette and Marius.)
Still, for anyone familiar with the novel, the film cannot help but disappoint. It goes without saying that no production of Les Misérables can reproduce the sheer embarrassment of riches found in Victor Hugo’s 1,400-page epic, and even the much-loved musical cuts many corners and characters to make the story manageable for the stage. Sadly, the new film was seemingly made without any genuine effort to present little more than the barest bones of the tale, especially in its second half. For this, it seems that the screenwriter, Rafael Yglesias, deserves the blame.
Gone for the most part is the Thénardier family, including Eponine and Gavroche, who are not insignificant characters in the book (or musical, for that matter). Gone is the shady cast of characters from the Paris underworld. Marius has been utterly transformed from the novel’s rather confused student of law to a leader of revolutionaries (thus dispensing with the need for retaining the charismatic character of Enjolras), and there is no mention of his strained relations with his Royalist maternal grandfather, or the link between himself and Thénardier through his father’s wounding at Waterloo. The 1832 Paris uprising, such a major feature of the novel, gets about thirty seconds of screen time, and Valjean’s harrowing flight through the sewers is reduced to action-flick dimensions. The historical panorama and symbolic significance of all these things are absent. So is the significance of Javert’s death as portrayed in the novel, as well as the content of the last 100-plus pages of the book—thus avoiding the potential “downer” of Valjean’s hastened death (Hollywood doesn’t care much for “downers”). So much is missing or—worse—“improved.”
Still, for Christian viewers, many of the gospel-related themes remain effectively intact. For once, Hollywood (or Yglesias) did not see fit to downplay or undermine the religious dimension.
Perhaps the definitive screen Les Misérables will eventually be made. For purists, the 1956 French version with Jean Gabin as Valjean will do. And, of course, there is the musical, in which the gospel themes mentioned in the article are abundantly emphasized.
Even more valuable than that, there is the novel. Comparatively, there are few books more nourishing for the soul of one who “takes up and reads” than this monumental masterpiece (and not an abridgment of it, for heaven’s sake!).
—Addison H. Hart
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.