Victor Hugo’s monumental novel Les Misérables, first published in 1862, has been compared to a gothic cathedral — and justly so. One comes away from the work with the alternating images of grotesque gargoyles and chipped, mildewed saints, cobwebbed shadows and illuminating shafts of light lingering in the memory. Structurally, the book contains all the intricate, and oft-dizzying, architecture of the late medieval period, along with dark crypts and cold corridors.
While one may easily get lost in this literary labyrinth — literally, too, as Jean Valjean, the novel ’s hero, scurries about the streets of Paris with Javert the police inspector hot in pursuit — the artistic genius is evident at every turn. Virtually every major scene, for example, is doubled, finding a poetic and often ironic parallel. We will consider three of these twice-told vignettes to see how they develop the drama of Valjean’s redemption, of his struggle between the equally pressing demands of law and grace.
Stumbling into Grace: Two Hallowed Havens
The action of Les Mis begin s at dusk on a cold October evening, precisely one hour before the inevitable darkness of sunset, with Valjean, the recently released convict, seeking refuge in the small town of Digne. His yellow passport brands him as a criminal, and so he is rejected from inn after inn. In a tragic parody of Christ’s birth, innkeepers, having an abundance both of available rooms and of steamy, delicious-smelling suppers, turn Valjean away. “Put me up in the stable,” he finally cries, to no avail — even the local prison ward refuses him a cell, saying, “Do something to get arrested first” (a not-so subtle critique of the social system).
Having knocked on every door but the church’s, before which he had merely shaken a defiant fist, Valjean prepares to sleep on a stone bench through the starless, dark, and bitterly frigid Alp-air night. Then, the church door opens. An elderly woman emerges, bidding him to knock at one more door, that of a small house. Having done so, Valjean is warmly invited to supper and a bed fitted with clean sheets. “You mean, you’re not chasing me away?” he says, overjoyed with surprise. “I’m going to have supper! And a bed with a mattress and sheets — I haven’t slept in a bed for nineteen years! . . . Pardon me, what’s your name? . . . You are an innkeeper, aren’t you?” His host, the bishop of Digne, introduces himself. “This is not my house,” Bishop Myriel declares, “it’s the house of Jesus Christ,” a refuge for the outcast. Within this unassuming refuge, there are silver candlesticks, a kind of menorah symbolizing the presence of God in this kind-of holy place. When Valjean is later brought back to the bishop for having stolen his silverware, the bishop gives him the candlesticks, too, and their light — a token of God’s grace and the debt of love he owes.
On another wintry night many years later, after be coming “Madeline,” the benevolent governor of Montreuil-sur-mer, only to be discovered and imprisoned by Javert, Valjean finds himself on the run in the dimly-lit streets of Paris. He escaped prison in order to fulfill his promise to rescue and tend the orphaned girl Cosette, now at his side. They hide away in a lonely, enclosed garden as the sound of Javert and his troops, like a storm, breaks and rushes on. Then, out of the stillness, a hauntingly awe-filled scene unfolds, a mystery better experienced than explained: sudden singing; voices of an angelic choir fading in and out of the night air; a cruciform shape spied through a dim glass (dead, or alive?); the sound of a little bell. Like Jacob of old, Valjean discovers “the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. . . . How awesome is this place!” (Gen 28:16–17). He and Cosette, the penitent and the innocent, fall to their knees. The garden complex, a dilapidated convent for women, becomes a refuge for Valjean: “I must remain here,” he says, and becomes its gardener. Cosette, the illegitimate orphan, receives schooling from the women. It is an unexpected refuge in Christ — thus is grace portrayed.