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Les Mis, as the musical has come to be known, uses the power of the arts—drama, music, and literature—to point people to age-old but now often discounted truths about God, human nature, and the longings of the human heart. C.S. Lewis believed that the arts play an essential role in helping people understand and communicate truth. He writes, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”3 In other words, to fully understand a word or concept, we need to have an image that corresponds with it. We often understand truth much better when we get it through an image, a story, or a song. Many who have read Hugo’s novel and seen Boublil and Schönberg’s musical speak of how the two art forms, novel and musical, complement and illuminate each other using the power of the arts to communicate to both the mind and heart.
So what is it about the story and images in Les Misérables that have so mesmerized readers and audiences around the world? Interestingly, when Hugo’s book was first released in 1862, it too, like the modern musical, was dismissed by the critics and predicted to be a literary failure. The Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Its morbid elements are so combined with sentiments abstractly Christian that it is calculated to wield a more pernicious influence than Byron ever exerted.”4
Addison Hart points out:
I believe that the Atlantic Monthly critic stumbled on . . . one key for understanding the perennial appeal of Les Misérables . .. That key is simply the phrase “sentiments abstractly Christian.” . . . 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 . . . for which many hearts yearn.5
So what are some of those “sentiments abstractly Christian” for which many in our world yearn as revealed in Hugo’s work? While Hugo discusses many ideas, three biblical themes stand above the rest: the disarming power of hospitality given in the name of Jesus, God’s offer of grace to the undeserving, and the Spirit’s redemptive power as demonstrated through the transformed lives of those who choose to follow Christ.
The backdrop for Les Mis is the French Revolution and the years following—one of the most tempestuous and violent periods in French history. Hugo’s own preface describes this age as having three serious problems, “the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night.”6 It was a time of unjust laws, social unrest, and great suffering. In the midst of this background of turmoil, human depravity, and the anger of revolution, Hugo weaves his powerful tale of redemption. The story centers around the life of Jean Valjean, a convict sentenced unjustly to nineteen years of hard labor and a lifetime of probation for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.
The musical begins as Jean Valjean is released from prison. As he struggles to reassert his humanness by stating his name, “I am Jean Valjean,” the antagonist, the inspector of the law, Javert, seeks to remind him that he will always be a felon, known only to the state by the number 24601. As Valjean begins his journey, Javert’s words appear to be prophetic as Valjean wanders from place to place, an outcast and pariah in society. None will take him in to provide him with food and shelter from the elements. Valjean’s heart is bitter and hard when in desperation he knocks upon the door of Monseigneur Bienvenue, a humble priest who has risen in the ranks of the clergy to become a bishop. The bishop’s French name, Bienvenue, means “welcome,” and he lives out the reality of his name by opening his door and offering the bedraggled criminal Valjean a meal of bread and wine (symbolic of Jesus’ Last Supper), a meal that nourishes both soul and body. In the musical the bishop sings, “There is wine here to revive you . . . . There is bread to make you strong. There’s a bed to rest ‘till morning. Rest from pain and rest from wrong.”7
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