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Misérables Without Christ

I very rarely decry my public school education. I value the experiences it gave me, the lessons it taught me and the affection it showed me: and all that for free. But as I have grown more and more into the adult world, I am amazed at just how much it left out in leaving out God. And while it is true that I was never persecuted for my faith (as current public school students are beginning to be) it is an unfortunate fact that God was never invited to the party. Much of my post-compulsory education has been the gradual realization that God is indeed everywhere, even academically. Every great thinker spoke on Him, either to search for Him, embrace Him or deny Him. It is only our current age that chooses to ignore Him entirely.

The latest example in my own pilgrim’s progress has been the reading of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables . Growing up a theatre kid, I was well acquainted with the characters, the plot and the themes of Les Mis. I have heard the songs, seen the play and reflected on the show many times. Yet, even when enjoying the haunting Castle of Cosette or the On My Own of Eponine, it always seemed like there was something substantial missing from the stage rendition. The music made it emotional, the backdrop of the French Revolution made it epic, but still something was lacking. It felt like they had left out some important character or neglected some important plot point in the story arc. I cannot explain precisely why I felt this way: I only know that I had this sneaking suspicion that something significant had been abridged from the tale. When I read the novel recently, I found out that all of my suspicions were true. The Broadway version does indeed leave out an event, a character, a plot point and a moral. The politically correct script writers left out God.

Hugo’s original version is not the epic-melodrama that Americans are familiar with. It was, rather, an epic story of conversion. With chapters entitled things like “Christus nos liberavit” and a whole section of the book dedication to the Bishop of D— who grants absolution to Jean Valjean, Les Mis reads more like St. Augustine’s Confessions than it does The Phantom of the Opera, that other famous French melodrama. Yet, because of the watered down Broadway musical version, most people associate it with the latter rather than the former.

Here are just a few things I have learned:

1) The Bishop of D—, only a minor character in the musical, is actually a major character at the outset of the book. He is presented at the perfect, saintly Christian. Nearly 10% of the story is written with him as the guiding figure. When he dies, Jean Valjean goes into mourning much to the scandal of the town.

2) Jean Valjean is a devout Catholic. He attends Mass every Sunday and every funeral during the week. He employs nuns in his house. He prays for extended periods. In fact, when Fantine is rescued by him, she immediately falls for him because of his sanctity and prayer.

3) Christ is often referenced as the only true solution to “the miserableness.” Hugo returns again and again to the efficacy of the Gospel and Christian charity as the best and brightest hope for the poor.

4) In contrast, a character’s distance from the Christ usually works to indicate their level of enmity toward the heroes. For example, when Fantine is ratted out by a town gossip, Hugo goes out of his way to point out that this spinster was the widow of an apostate monk. He makes certain the his audience associates her distance from the church with her scheming and trouble making.

5) As any fan of the play would tell you, forgiveness and redemption are recurring themes in the plot. However, in Hugo’s original version, it is a specifically Christian forgiveness. Characters often frame their reconciliation with each other within the larger frame of their reconciliation with God. And before anyone argues that this is due to the cultural context, remember well that Christian reconciliation was NOT one of the priorities of Enlightenment-Era French society. Rather than imitating any popular movement of the time, Hugo was in fact making certain the both his contemporaries and all future readers should be surprised by the mention of Christ’s forgiving love.

Now that I have read the original Christ-inclusive version of Les Misérables , it has quickly become one of my favorite books. It’s wisdom and wit concerning institutionalized injustice and the plight of the poor is as valuable today as it was a century-and-a-half ago. Hugo’s point is clear: until men learn to love each other as God intended (and with the help of his grace), poverty will continue to be a blight upon our race, overshadowing all our supposed “progress” and “revolution.” As he said so well in his short Preface to the novel;

“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny…books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

About Daniel Lacourrege

Daniel Lacourrege is a 20-something year old theologian living in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It is the best place in the world to be a 20-something. It is the third best place in the world to be a Catholic (Rome & Jerusalem claiming first & second).
His life has become one adventure right after another. Most of them start in a classroom or library, but very few of them finish there. He likes most things, but usually must be in the mood for them. The only thing he is never in the mood for is traffic.
If you feel so moved, you may email him at lacourrege4@archbishopshaw.us.

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