Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a powerful juxtaposition of Grace and Law represented in the lives of two men.
Valjean represents a life lived by Grace: an ex-convict and parole breaker longing to be innocent, angry at a world where he can never get a fair shake. He is shown kindness and mercy by a stranger who has “bought his soul for God”. The circumstances in which this happens confront Valjean with his sin, and he chooses to die to his old self and begin a new life of faith. From that point on he spends his life and fortune in helping the injured, the poor, the orphaned, the downtrodden of the world.
Javert represents a life lived by the Law: he is an officer of the law, and when Valjean breaks parole Javert makes it his life’s work to hunt down and capture a man he sees as a law-breaker and a thief. He takes no notice of Valjean’s change of heart or his mercy and generosity to others. Javert is right, but his righteousness is cold and hard and could never redeem anyone; in fact he’s not interested in redemption, he’s interested only in justice. In their final confrontation Valjean says to him: “there’s nothing that I blame you for; you’ve done your duty, nothing more.”
In the musical version of Les Miserables, each man sings a song at THE pivotal point in his life. Valjean’s song starts with the words “What have I done?” after which he begins a new life; Javert’s starts with “Who is this man?” and ends in his suicide.
The fresh insight is this: both songs are sung to the same music. They are two verses of the same song… or more accurately, the two possible responses to Grace upon being confronted with one’s own sin. Valjean responds with confession and faith; Javert also confesses but cannot bring himself to bend the Law and chooses suicide rather than a life in which there is something greater than the Law.
It’s the choice all of us need to make, sooner or later. As Javert sings, “It’s either Valjean or Javert“. It’s either Grace or Law. The Law kills, but Grace redeems. It’s either life or death. God says: “come, let us reason together“. Which would a reasonable person choose?
Here are the two songs side by side (WordPress permitting!). Note the richness of the parallels and how often the two men sing the same or similar words, yet end in totally opposite places.
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night,
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far,
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?
I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number and
When they chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life.
He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell.
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on….