Why Les Miserables demands our attention

It’s one of the most beautiful and haunting stories in the history of literature. A story that has yanked the heartstrings of audiences and readers for more than 150 years. A tale as captivating now as it was in 1862 when it was written.

Victor Hugo’s novel about class, justice, forgiveness and integrity in the context of France’s post-Revolution hangover is once again climbing to the peak of pop culture popularity. Thanks to an all-star cast and dynamic, new cinematography methods, Les Miserables has been reborn for the 21st century in film.

But what is it that makes Les Mis connect with our hearts, in such a way that leaves us walking out of theaters (movie and stage alike) feeling as if elements of the story are our own? That we are actually a character, a bystander and witness to the drama that unfolds? At the risk of sounding dramatic, I think it’s because we are participants in this story. Les Mis is but an analogy for our duty to respond to injustice. To care for the orphan and widow. To love the oppressed…

At the end of the day you’re
another day older
And that’s all you can say for
the life of the poor.
It’s a struggle! It’s a war!
And there’s nothing that anyone’s giving.
One more day standing about -
What is it for?
One day less to be living.

While this analogy should connect at different levels, including sociologically and politically, the weight of the story bares upon us most when we look into the eyes of each character. When we attempt to experience the world as they do.

We yearn to help Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway in the movie). We ache for a mother who simply wants to care for and love her child, but must sell herself in all ways possible so that her daughter may live. She ends up paying the ultimate price, leaving us grieving for an outcome that didn’t have to be so tragic.

We seek justice for Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who has suffered in excess for a crime of desperation and survival, and yet must forever run from one man’s incomplete sense of “law.” We shake our head in disbelief at his persistent offer of forgiveness and mercy, contemplating whether we would have the courage to exhibit such integrity if we were in his shoes.

At the end of the day you’re another day colder
And the shirt on your back
doesn’t keep out the chill.
And the righteous hurry past
They don’t hear the little ones crying
And the plague is coming on fast
Ready to kill -
One day nearer to dying!

For me, the analogies… finite or broad… only tell part of the story. The beauty of Les Mis is partially what happens on stage (or paper or screen). The other part… the more significant part… is how we respond.

 

I dreamed a dream in time gone by,
When hope was high
And life worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die.
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

The story of Les Miserables is about poverty. In fact, early English translations of the novel used the title The Poor Ones or The Wretched Poor. It is a story about the torment of individuals, the injustice of society and the evil of self-righteousness and greed. But it is also, just as much, about how God’s people should respond.

How different is Fantine from a lower caste mother in Bangladesh?

How different is Cosette from the orphan in Uganda?

Listen to their song. Does it not still ring true today?

As Christians, Jesus asks us to respond because the power of HIS love is most evident to all when we serve the poor. In Les Mis, we encounter the poor in fiction and in history. But we are also confronted with the not-so-different reality of today. While Jean Valjean is a broken and flawed man, he ends up being an example of how we should strive for justice and integrity.

Looking into the eyes of Cosette, you can’t help but see her pain. At Food for the Hungry we have the blessed responsibility AND opportunity to look into eyes similar to Cosette’s every day. While pain and turmoil are evident, the eyes of poor children around the world are also filled with hope and dreams.

We need to respond in a way that the “dreams” of the poor, are not of a “time gone by,” (as the lyrics state) but that they become realistic goals in their lives. And it is our Christian duty to walk with them in reaching these goals.

About David Curtis

David is passionate about two things: Walking with the poor, and the New England Patriots. His interest in understanding and advocating for the poor began while spending the summer in rural South Africa, where he worked alongside a fellow 19 year old at an orphanage. The juxtaposition of life as a privileged American, with that of a determined yet struggling friend and peer from the Global South, began the trajectory of a calling to walk with the poor. Since then he has spent time working in South Africa, Indonesia and Haiti. David graduated from Calvin College as a Social Studies Teacher, combining a passion to teach with that of learning. A potent combination that strives to bring "Mutual Transformation" to the world. Go Pats!

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