I've noticed that the Christian blogosphere has primarily focused on Jean Valjean as a Christ-figure who turns his life around after encountering the kindness of a bishop. Following this act, Jean Valjean undergoes a conversion experience, transforming himself from a hardened and bitter criminal to a loving and merciful father figure. He vows to help others, as the bishop has helped him. This is simply one theme among many in the book, and I think that by over-emphasizing the God-aspect of Jean Valjean 's conversion, it is easy to miss the human aspects of the story, which I believe were Hugo's intentions.
Victor Hugo was born into a Catholic family, but in his adult life he frequented spiritualist seances and considered himself a Diest or a Freethinker. Les Miserables was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for its anti-clericalism and its depiction of prostitutes and criminals as good people, corrupted by society, as opposed to sinners motivated by wickedness. Hugo, himself despised Catholic leaders and wrote various poems and plays that were markedly pro-rationalist and anti-Catholic.
It is greatly ironic that today Catholics are praising Les Miserables for the Christ-figure of Jean Valjean while neglecting the reasons their church condemned the story in the 19th century. I can't help but think about what Robert Blatchford said (Sorry, he's still on my mind.):
The children of the "True Believers" have adopted the heresies as true, and have glorified the dead Heretics, and then turned round to curse or murder the new Heretic who fain would lead them a little further toward the light.
The heretic, Victor Hugo, is now praised among the true believers, who are so quick to forget the former judgements of their church.
I tend to take Victor Hugo seriously when he calls himself a freethinker. Likewise, I believe that the Catholic Church of Hugo's days had sufficient reasons for viewing Les Mis as a seditious work that runs counter to the Catholic faith. Victor Hugo isn't concerned with Jean Valjean 's faith per se, but in his concrete actions--his treatment of others. And I'm not the only one to read Les Mis this way:
Overall my impression of Hugo is of one who was more concerned with what people did than with what they believed. The Bishop was moved to charity and poverty by his religious faith. An atheist who behaved in the same way would be no less noble in Hugo’s eyes. It is actions, not thoughts, with which Hugo is concerned.
This tension recurs throughout the novel, of course. Jean Valjean is moved by his religious rebirth to commit himself to justice and good works. But his antagonist, Inspector Javert, is moved by the same faith towards intolerance and cruelty. Clearly this is no simple story of religion good, atheism bad.
In addition, if one is focused solely on Jean Valjean's Christian conversion, is is easy to miss Hugo's focus on social injustice, the suffering of women, poverty, and inequality. As Hugo writes in the afterword:
In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: 'Open to me, I come for you.'*
In many ways this story is about the human response to suffering. Some characters exploit others, causing suffering for their own personal gain. Other characters respond by loving and helping others. The story takes place during the French Revolution, and the Revolutionary attempt to smash apart the unjust society is, yet again, another response to suffering.
My favorite charecter, Fantine, responds to suffering by attempting to make a better life for her child.
She had already valiantly given up her finery, was dressed in calico and had put all her silks, her trinkets, her ribbons, and laces on her daughter--the only vanity that remained, and that a sacred one. She sold all she had, which gave her two hundred francs; when her little debts were paid, she had only eighty left. At twenty-two years of age, on a fine spring morning, she left Paris, carrying her child on her back. Anyone seeing the two of them go by would have pitied them. The woman had nothing in the world but this child, and this child had nothing in the world but this woman.**The description demonstrates the emotional plight of a young woman attempting to care for her child in an unforgiving society that leaves few opportunities for women. Fantine's story displays the societal pressures and struggles women faced at a time in which single motherhood meant social ostrilization.
In short, Les Miserables calls us to consider the impact social structures have on the weak and vulnerable, especially women, children, and former criminals. The novel puts a human face on those living in poverty and the extreme measures, both good and bad, taken to survive in a hostile world. The movie is already a hit at the box office, and I hope that those who see it will consider both how to individually respond to those who suffer and how to build a society that helps, rather than harms, the weak and vulnerable.
* Sorry, I read the Kindle version, so I don't have page numbers.
** In college I used this quote to introduce my Sociology honors thesis on the feminization of poverty.