Doing Moral Theology with Les Miserables
You could teach a whole semester-long class on moral theology through the lens of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s epic examination of “the miserable”–the downtrodden and forgotten part of society. The novel turned musical turned recent film starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and a whole host of other stars is a marvelous study in social justice, beginning with Jean Valjean in prison serving an unjust sentence for a crime committed more against him than by him and ending with the idealistic students dying at the barricade as martyrs for a better world during the French Revolution. But the story’s characters also highlights certain key approaches to ethics, effectively carving out a typology of ethical theories.
First, there are the egoists, represented by the Thenardier couple. They have no values outside of self-interest; they have no God besides profit:
But we’re the ones who take it
We’re the ones who make it in the end!
Watch the buggers dance
Watch ’em till they drop
Keep your wits about you
And you stand on top!
Masters of the land
Always get our share
Clear away the barricades
And we’re still there!
We know where the wind is blowing
Money is the stuff we smell.
And when we’re rich as Croesus
Jesus! Won’t we see you all in hell!
Then there is Javert, the chief of police who chases Valjean through Paris and through the years after Valjean breaks his parole to become a new man. Javert is a deontologist, committed to rules and duties. For him, the good and the true is found in the law, not only the law of France but also the law of God reflected in the order of the universe. His soliloquy is probably my favorite:
In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light
You are the sentinels
Silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night
Keeping watch in the night
You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!
And perhaps the best line in the play and in the film is during Javert and Valjean’s final confrontation, when Valjean tells him that he doesn’t hold a grudge, that he isn’t filled with hate towards the man who has haunted him for decades. He tells Javert, “You’ve done your duty, nothing more.” There are two ways we can take this. Valjean could be excusing Javert for his misdeeds since he was only acting out of duty. This was the excuse made by the “good Nazis” at Nuremberg and the excuse still made by people like Lynndie England today. But Valjean could also be accusing Javert with these words. “You’ve done your duty, nothing more” is precisely what is wrong with Javert.
See, Javert isn’t a bad guy, really. We misunderstand him if we make him a demon. True, he doesn’t know mercy, but that is only because he is so committed to the moral law. His story reveals the shortcoming of deontological theories–the law alone is not enough to make a person righteous or good. The law is a pedagogue. It points us to the end, but it isn’t an end in itself. In conflating the law with God, Javert misses who God really is–Love.
Then there are the various consequentialists. The best song illustrating consequentialism is the factory ladies singing “At the End of the Day” as they urge the foreman to turn Fantine out on the street:
At the end of the day
She’ll be nothing but trouble
And there’s trouble for all
When there’s trouble for one!
While we’re earning our daily bread
She’s the one with her hands in the butter
You must send the slut away
Or we’re all gonna end in the gutter
And it’s us who’ll have to pay
At the end of the day!
The ends justify the means for these women. And they show us too the fatal flaw of consequentialism–it allows the minority (Fantine) to be sacrificed for the sake of the majority. Valjean toys with consequentialism but ultimately rejects it when the man mistaken for him is brought to trial:
I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
How can I abandon them?
How would they live
If I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!
Which brings us to Valjean. He is a study in virtue ethics. “Who am I?” is the question that guides his moral choices. His powerful soliloquy by this title continues,
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!
What is fascinating about Valjean is how he must continue to re-ask himself the question “Who am I?” and how the answer continuously leads him to make different choices. After his confrontation with the bishop who shows mercy on Valjean and gives him the means to become a righteous man, the question leads Valjean to break his parole, to take on a new identity, and to literally become a new man. He breaks the law here (which is why Javert pursues him) but who could blame Valjean? He might have broken the law of France but almost anybody would agree that he does the moral thing here. And when he reveals his true identity to the courts, he fights Javert and again runs from the law to go and save Cosette. Again, he breaks the law of France but Valjean is definitely still on the side of the moral law. And finally, when he finds out that his Cosette is in love with Marius, the question “Who am I” leads him to the barricades and then to the sewers to save Marius’ life. It isn’t that Valjean is above the moral law; it is just that he recognizes that the moral law does not always conform to the external law. One hears echoes of Jesus: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
In the end, Valjean is a man, “no worse than any other man,” as he explains to Javert. The critical difference between the two is that Valjean is willing to live out a life of mercy. He is willing to both give and receive it while Javert can do neither. When Valjean offers Javert mercy, saving his life at the barricade, Javert is tormented. His system is broken, his god dead. As his world comes crashing down, he plunges into the Seine. Valjean, on the other hand, looking up with shame into the eyes of the bishop whom he just stole from, chooses to accept mercy, and then give it in return–to Fantine, to Cosette, to Marius, and even to his enemy.
Victor Hugo apparently had a strained relationship to the faith but the story has a very Christian message: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” As human beings, we are made for mercy. It is in mercy that we live; it is in judgment that we die. Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel of John, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Jesus comes in mercy to lead us to life because we are incapable of finding it on our own, as Javert shows us. Jesus in turn asks us to lead others to that life by loving our neighbor, by showing them mercy, by forgiving them as we wish to be forgiven. In living a life of love and mercy, whatever our circumstances, whatever our class, whatever our faults, we come to know God, and we come to see God in this world, this broken and fallen and oftentimes all-too-miserable world he came to redeem.