A Clearer Vision of Jean Valjean

29 Dec

Jean Valjean

I remember the thrill when I learned that Hollywood began work on the film adaption of Les Miserables – my favorite book. I had seen the adaption with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush and enjoyed it, despite its ending. But I also remember the catastrophic feeling when I discovered that Tom Hooper would direct a musical adaption.

Hugo’s book changed me. It reinvigorated every hope and ideal I bear for humanity. I exposed myself to the broadway musical long after reading the book. I purposely ignored it because I wanted to leave my impression of the story unblemished by other mediums. Had I seen the musical first, I would feel differently. Therefore, and I hope fans of the musical can forgive me, the stage show left me wanting. The soul-reviving experience which awaits the reader remains void from the stage. The broadway patron may wail at the music, revel in the nostalgia conjured by the songs, yet remain distracted, or content with a surface understanding, from the journey undertaken by Valjean’s soul.

Late Christmas night, I left for the movie theater alone. Those dearest to me wished to attend the film by my side but I hoped, and secretly knew, that this experience would hold the promise of a certain intimacy. I refused to present any socially acceptable demeanor or chit-chat during the rolling credits. I planned to expose every raw nerve in my being to the wonder of this tale.

Honestly, I applaud Hooper for heading this film. For Les Miserables, as opposed to other musicals, I found that presenting the story with a combination of film and musical ensures the retention of emotional integrity in a condensed story line. The music fills the emotional gaps left after writers understandably extract much of Hugo’s diatribes and embellishments – parts of the novel when he delves deeply into the human heart. When adapting any book, certain elements simply will not articulate through any other medium. THe music seemed to compensate for this problem. Also, I thought that seeing the story on film rather than on the stage gives the viewer a clearer idea of the plot.

This is my idea.

Critics categorize Les Miserables as a story of redemption. After reading the novel, I had trouble compartmentalizing it this way. Yet after the film, I understood Valjean’s redemption as a freedom not from his criminality or his victimization but from his own hatred of the world which scorned him and treated him unjustly. I often feel that our modern culture encourages humanity to embrace their hatred and return blows born from injustice and oppression. Yet the soul inevitably drowns in such hatred and bitter resentment.

In the first stage of Valjean’s growth, he experiences the childhood idiom of death by kindness at the hand of the Bishop of Digne. After devastating internal struggles, this death inspires him to abandon his hatred, even his identity, in order to grow as a better man. Also, consider how Valjean kills Inspector Javert with kindness by sparing his life, as the bishop had spared him. Yet Javert makes a different choice. Because Valjean yearns for a life free of bitterness, he changes. Because Javert yearns for definition, to add purpose to his life by defending the written law, he chooses to end his life since the cornerstone of his existence crumbles from the blow of forgiveness, something the law cannot enforce, regulate or contain. Hugo contrasts these two men in order to clearly define a fulfilled life, free of the law’s bonds and able to forgive when the law does not, and exemplify the power of hope and choice. Valjean frees himself from the confines of the written law, as personified by Inspector Javert, by living according to the law of love, forgiveness and understanding.

After leaving the bishop, and his identity, Valjean embarks on a philanthropic mission to better those whose bitter experience he once shared. He embraces a duty to help those who haven’t transcended above their station as he has. In his own way, he seeks to change the world through his own power, by economic means fueled by his moral code. However, as men do, he fails. He did great things for a town, brought resounding aid and blesses many of those under his influence. But to change the world through this methodology, one cannot settle for anything less than a perfect record. One cannot build a perfect home while using a few rotten planks of wood. One cannot boast of %100 when he succeeded only with %99.9. A man does not weild the power to completely expel suffering from all mankind.

Valjean withered under the shame-inducing glare of Fantine – how she slipped through his control, his circle of blessings, how he shriveled knowing that his power could have saved her. Despite all the prosperity he brought to unfortunates within his jurisdiction, he revolutionizes himself again because of one fallen angel. To use one’s own power brings the certainty of imperfection. Valjean tries to revolutionize society, much like Marius and his compatriots, through the power of his own hands and innovation. Marius and Enjolras fail. As does Valjean. If they had endeavored to change a few lives, on whatever scope they dreamed, perhaps we could gauge their success differently. But they set out to change the world and nothing but a changed world will prove any success at all.

As Valjean vanquishes Javert, and metaphorically (or perhaps religiously) the law, with kindness and compassion, Marius and his friends try to overthrow a political system with force and might. Valjean defeats his enemy not by his own reckoning but through the transformative power of love and selflessness. During his third stage of growth, Valjean experiences the overpowering control of love and the redemption of releasing one’s self. In love lies the power to change the world through the transformation of being. Valjean transforms the world by revolutionizing his life. Of course, the world carries on as it had, but for Valjean, Cossette, Marius and Fantine, the world changes. The world contains love and the possibilities of compassion and hope. Many unfortunates cannot see it through their chains of hate and injustice and cruelty and man-made blindfolds. Yet after experiencing a change within themselves, a freedom from self and all earthly bonds, the world does change as they see it seemingly for the first time.

Through this transformation, Jean Valjean frees himself from the bondage of judicial and oppressive turmoil and breaks into a seemingly new world of love where such turmoil cannot touch him, a world he only needed to experience and to freely give of himself.

I left the theater sobbing – overwhelmed by hope.

One can live such a life.

Even if it takes their entire lives, I want my children vulnerable to the glory of selflessness and love, looking down from the zenith of a new world, immune from the chains of their own hatred – every raw nerve exposed to the wonders of freedom and redemption.

My Initial Reactions After Reading the Book

Les MisérablesLes Misérables by Victor Hugo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I were still in school, I would begin a lengthy analysis of this book with genuine excitement. As it is, I will simply dictate my general reactions so as not to rob readers of the sublime joy of reading this book.

Regarding the author: there are few who can effectively mix the beauty of poetry and the brilliance prose with one stroke of the pen. Victor Hugo is one of these geniuses. He conveys the authority of a man who has lived the various levers of life. He is the personification of Wisdom. And he, the master, commands that wisdom, in all its manifestations of historical episodes, social philosophies and characterizations.

His artistry is unparalleled in word and literary construction. Sections which are seemingly tangential tie in with indispensable characters and events. Paris herself is a character and her history serves to supply depth to the efficacy of her civilization. By juxtaposing Jean Valjean, who weaves unnoticed into threads of other characters’ lives, to Javert, Thenardier and Marius – and Cossette – one finds the flawless masterpiece of a life well-lived, the Hell of social order and the liberty of personal justice and conscience, the humane flourishing where men never reason to find it and fumble recklessly to control it. If only we were all bishops and all knew a Jean Valjean. If only we were all Jean Valjean and didn’t need prison or a bishop to become so great!

Hugo described Les Miserables, within Les Miserables, as the MARCH from evil to good. Yet one must have a general grasp of what Hugo considers evil and what he considers good. From the story and its players, we know that neglecting the unfortunate is evil, the unconditional aid to those in need is good – the suppression of the people is evil, the insurrection of Right over the letter of institutional law is good – to live dutifully by conscience is good while stringently adhering to the fical sway of politics is evil. Yet the story is just that, a march. Les Miserables is not the next Communist Manifesto or Declaration of Independence. Les Miserables is a world of consequence and the struggle to realize the best of humanity.

This march sounds romantic and glorious, worthy of epic poetry and fantasy. Yet Hugo draws it as reasonable reality – something attainable and admirable. Inspiring. To wholly give oneself to the betterment of the unfortunate, even if at times they are the infamous masked over, to neglect only one’s self within any social order, is the epitome of love and life.

View all my reviews


Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Victor Hugo


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16 responses to “A Clearer Vision of Jean Valjean

  1. Heather

    December 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Great post. I’ll be reading Les Mis starting in January, and this gave me a lot of insight into the book.

  2. Mabel

    December 29, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Wow. Such an excellent post.

  3. Listra T (@museforsaken)

    December 30, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Amazing post. I’d like to say that I chose to read the book first before watching any adaptation, musical or not. It’s certainly one of the best books ever written and the book changes my life as well.

    As for the musical. I understand that the musical is so-so. It leaves out some of the most important things like political differences so common in that era (royalist, Bonapartist and Republican), also leaves a great hole in the relationship between Marius and Thernadiers. I also find Javert’s song Stars to be annoying, since Javert is all law in the book. The love drama between Marius-Cosette-Eponine also consumes too much place in the musical.

    However, What Have I Done and Who Am I for me is a nice condensation of the book, with lines like, “If there’s another way to go I missed it 20 long years ago,” and “How can I ever face my fellow man, how can I ever face myself again?”

    I’m not ashamed to say that I cried much during reading and watching Les Mis, in different adaptations. And no matter what adaptation I’m watching, I always cry at least at Valjean’s death.

    (I made a review of the book somewhere in my blog, by the way. Please visit if you have the time.)

    • Ben

      January 1, 2013 at 6:42 am

      Thanks so much for the shout out! *blush*

  4. Alleluialu

    January 2, 2013 at 12:31 am

    What a wonderful post. I had seen the stage version a couple of times before I went to the musical. I had thought of reading the book before the musical came out, but didn’t. You have convinced me that I have to read it now. I love “Les Miserables” in the forms I have witnessed. Thank you for your insight.

  5. Annette Hart Kristynik

    January 2, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    I just finished reading the book in early December.
    Yes, I feel there is a redemption theme running in it. But, what I felt was the greatest theme in the story was it is a great love story. Not a love between a man and a woman, such as with Cosette and Marius. But, the love Valjean had for Cosette. Valjean had a self-sacrificing, faithful, love for her. This love transformed him, it gave him purpose, and it gave him a life outside of the seemingly set course for his life that “had” been branded on him. I could go on and on about this story, it really impacted my reading life in 2012.

    • Ben

      January 3, 2013 at 3:17 am

      Good call…and that’s part of his redemption, discovering that love and giving himself to it entirely. Abandoning his hatred and choosing a world with Cossette in it!

  6. Claire 'Word by Word'

    January 3, 2013 at 7:52 am

    Wow, what a great review, of the book and the film, now I’m adding the book to my list and will be watching out for the film. Brilliant, thank you so much for sharing it.

  7. Tien

    January 3, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Glad you enjoyed the movie! I loved the opening scene, it was just GRAND 🙂

    I have to confess of not having seen the musical previously (well, at least, not in its entirety, I’ve seen bits & pieces of it) but of having known most of the songs. I finished reading the book at end of Nov and as I sat there at the movies, I thought, just how much richer my view & understanding of the movie is. There are just so much that was excluded in the movie (not saying that the main theme isn’t there but just with the detailed background I’ve read, I am that much richer).

  8. alenaslife

    January 4, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I discovered this story through the musical, but agree wholeheartedly about Hooper’s strong vision with the film. I was completely overwhelmed and left with hope in my heart.

  9. Geoff W

    January 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I’ll definitely have to come back after I read the book this year. I saw the film last weekend and it left me wanting. Before your post I’d assumed the book would fill a lot of that because of it’s length.

    • Ben

      January 10, 2013 at 10:19 pm

      It does…the musical/film sacrifices a lot of backstory, for example, between the Thenadiers and Marius, etc. And no one can reach your soul like Hugo…but I commend the film/musical for focusing on the umbrella theme of Valjean’s redemption.

  10. cbciucci

    January 13, 2013 at 7:51 am

    This is such a fantastic post. I love how you establish the parallels between change attempted through weapons and change attempted through love. There are so many themes running throughout this novel, but this change through love is one of the biggest ones.
    The parallels and contrasts between Valjean and Javert are spot-on, too. The view of Jean Valjean killing Valjert through the same means with which the Bishop saved him is something I had not thought about, but it’s incredibly interesting.

    • Ben

      March 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      I’m totally a member! Though I’m horrible about participating 😦


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