What a wonderful story. I wrote a paper in college about it, having seen the musical in high school and read the book. As usual, I think I could do a much better job now. My dear wife and I indulged in a rare date tonight to see the new movie. I want to summarize a few of my impressions now while they are still fresh.
One of the great themes I caught back in college was the theme of freedom, but I don’t remember seeing that it’s so nuanced and pervasive in this story. So many characters have a deep connection with freedom. The chief character, Jean Valjean, starts the story at the end of his 19-year prison sentence. Though he is released from prison, he finds that freedom still eludes him, and he carries a resentful hatred of all that subjected him to his unjust prison sentence.
The lawman who released and pursues Valjean through most of the story is iconic of the law. Named Javert, he believes himself already free and above those who must be subjected to the due punishments for their sins. To Javert, Valjean can never be free because his crime has permanently defined his personal character.
The students in the barricades with Marius consider themselves to be fighting for the freedom of the common people. In their point of view, the bourgeoisie and the king have denied freedom to the poor of the land. The students hope to obtain freedom for the downtrodden through bloody revolution, as the French people had seen before.
We could also bring in Fantine and Eponine, and even the Thenardiers. Each has a position in the story that relates to freedom of one kind or another. Each either struggles to become free somehow (Fantine in her misery and Eponine in her unrequited love), or believes he is already free (the Thenardiers in their profligate theft).
But here’s the question: Which of the characters finds true freedom in this story, during the course of the story? The ending hints that many of them are in heaven, but who finds freedom before then?
The obvious answer is Valjean. But more importantly, how does he find this freedom, in contrast to the way others either pursue it or think they have already obtained it? Here’s where it gets really interesting, at least from the perspective of the Christian faith.
Valjean first thought that true freedom was freedom from injustice such as he suffered. He was wrong.
Javert believed that freedom was the same as outward righteousness, but that turned out to be a fragile thing.
The students seeking political and economic freedom through rebellion against the rightful authority found that rebellion cannot obtain it.
So obedience to the law can’t make you free in the end, and neither can rebellion. Those are the two possible responses we can have when we are confronted with the distinction between right and wrong, as we find in natural law, and also summarized in places like the Ten Commandments. We can be inspired to be as good as we might be. But like Javert, we will fail in the end, and find no room for mercy in the law that once inspired us. We can also reject the law and strive against its authority. But like the students on the barricades, we will always find ourselves outgunned. Resist as we may, the law will remain our invincible authority.
Valjean never escaped injustice during his life, but he did stop trying to escape it. In the end, he even submitted his future to the authority of Javert. But despite living with injustice, Valjean is the obvious character who found true peace, and it came from a completely different place than those I’ve previously mentioned. His peace came from God’s forgiveness of his sin. It’s not stated quite as obviously as we find forgiveness conveyed in the average Confessional Lutheran church service, but Valjean’s forgiveness is the foundational event for the entire story, and the reason he found true freedom and peace.
The movie did a great job of symbolizing Valjean’s forgiveness by repeatedly showing those candlesticks, and his strong attachment to them throughout the years of the story. The candlesticks are his most prized possession, because they represent and remind him of the forgiveness God gave him. That forgiveness ended his former life of bitter, hateful resentment against all that was done to him, and it gave him a new life of joy and thankful purpose in service to God. The candlesticks become to Valjean a kind of sacramental artifact, because when they were given to him, they actually carried with them the forgiveness of his sin. He carried them through his life the way every Christian should treasure his baptism.
With the peace of forgiveness, Valjean was free from the guilt of his condemnation. By ripping up his papers and essentially giving them to God, he shows not only that he’s a new man, but a new creation of God’s mercy. No longer does he wish for relief from the world’s injustices. No longer does he resent or hate others for the unfairness poured upon him. That’s why he was able to save Javert’s life and release him. That’s why he was ready to give everything to save Marius, out of a selfless love for Cosette. His freedom does not consist in leaving behind suffering and the cross, but in willingly and joyfully serving others because of his confidence in God’s forgiveness.
Valjean was touched by the merciful hand of a forgiving God, and so became an extension of that hand as God brought mercy and forgiveness to Fantine, to Cosette, to Marius, and to Javert. Fantine died in peace, like Lazarus who had laid at the rich man’s gate his whole life long. Cosette and Marius were the unlikely couple rescued from poverty and abuse on one hand and the romantic error of rebellion on the other hand. Javert was finally killed by the law that had inspired him.
Well, that’s a start anyway. As you can tell, I just love stories like this. They are such compelling expressions of the way God deals with sinners like us.