Les Misérables and the folly of grace

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess we each have a picture of grace: what it looks like, how it operates and, of course, its limitations. Yes, I know, grace isn’t supposed to have limits, but we have to be practical, surely?

In God’s economy grace doesn’t wait for guarantees or require a deposit. But we’re not so sure about that, either. After all, we can’t just offer someone free pardon and hope they make amends. What if they ignore the responsibilities that go with our gift? What if we’re left with nothing because we’ve ‘invested’ in the wrong person?

Although he rejected the Christian faith, French writer Victor Hugo seems to have understood grace better than most. He may not have practiced it any better than we, but he captured it beautifully in his epic novel, Les Misérables. We were reminded of Hugo’s profound view of grace when we went to see the filmed version of the musical recently.

Victor Hugo had apparently seen grace in action in the Bishop of Digne, Bienvenu de Miollis, on whom he based his character Bishop Myriel. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel’s unconditional grace turned Jean Valjean’s life around, with extraordinary results.

Of Bishop Myriel Victor Hugo writes, ‘The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ The Catholic writer Theresa Malcolm says, ‘Monseigneur Myriel. . . is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness.’

Bishop Myriel takes the vagrant Valjean into his home, feeds him and gives him a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing his silver and fleeing into the night. When the police catch Valjean and bring him back to the Bishop with the unlikely tale that the Bishop had given him the silver, the Bishop agrees. ‘That’s right,’ he sings.

But, my friend, you left so early,
something surely slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these (candlesticks) also.
Would you leave the best behind?

After the police have gone, he says to Valjean:

The silver candlesticks‘Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’

The context of Hugo’s grace is a society fraying at the edges and stretching to breaking point. The film version portrays more starkly than the stage production can the vast number of people existing at the edges of society. We see the depth of their poverty, misery and, above all, despair. And despair is echoed in the songs.

In the opening song Jean Valjean sings,

‘I’ve done no wrong, Sweet Jesus hear my prayer,’
To which the other prisoners reply,
‘Sweet Jesus doesn’t care.’
And they end with the cry of despair:
‘You’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down,
You’re standing in your grave.’

Later the poor sing:

At the end of the day you’re another day older
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 winter is coming on fast
Ready to kill,
One day nearer to dying.

Which brings us back to the limits of grace. Our expression of grace is usually limited by two things.

We are afraid of the size of the problem: it’s far too big for our meagre supply of grace, our few candlesticks.

And we are afraid of what people will do with grace if it’s given too freely. They may take our candlesticks and run, never looking back. We would have wasted the candlesticks, instead of using them for others more deserving.

We stall because we first measure out the cost of grace against its benefit. What will the return on our grace be? Perhaps chastised for his unseemly hoard of silver, the kindly Bishop was willing to put it to good use. But to chance it all on a single throw of the dice? To give it all to this one undeserving thief?

Perhaps the Bishop knew more about grace than we do. Perhaps he had experienced for himself what undeserved, extravagant grace can do. Perhaps he knew also that grace is not mass-produced for mass distribution to mass markets. Grace works best when delivered with care in personalised packages, under great risk.

The Bishop knew he could do very little for the masses of poor and desperate who live outside of hope, and who sing:

Nothing changes, nothing ever will .
Every year another brat, another mouth to fill.
Same old story. What’s the use of tears?
What’s the use of praying
If there’s nobody who hears?

But perhaps he also knew that God has always preferred to ‘invest’ in individuals rather than in the crowds. He delights in what an individual can do when she or he responds to grace with love and mercy.

‘Love one another,’ Jesus told his disciples.
‘Yes, Lord, we can do that.’
‘As I loved you.’
‘You mean, without limits?’
‘Without limits.’


Filed under Books & Movies, Grace and Law

17 responses to “Les Misérables and the folly of grace

  1. There’s a smidgin of Javert in many of us – enough to prevent us from fully letting go the reins on this “grace” thing! I had never seen or read Les Mis until attending the film last week. What a powerful challenge to practice from the core what we preach.


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  3. I think it may have more to do with the type of person you are. I am the most forgiving person you will ever meet and that has not always been in my best interest at all! I’m getting the hang of it though. I believe in the power of positive energy and it is a much better frame of mind to live in.
    I didn’t realize that about Hugo. He may have been a broader minded thinker for the times. Nowadays you can be opened minded and practice traditional religion.
    Loved the movie! The play, not so much… 🙂


    • Hi Susie, thanks for stopping by. I told my wife I want the DVD and will watch it at least once a week. But I’d go and see the stage musical in a heart beat (a regular heart beat, that is!). It was my favourite of the musicals we have been able to see, with Cats a close second.


  4. Dear Ian, having read the book (and watched many film versions), I felt that Hugo MUST be a Christian. It’s not that I want to discuss that, but I say this simply to show how lovely the book is. It’s a book you can live in for a while.
    God bless you!


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  6. Well said Ian. I am in the process of listening to the audio book, and saw the movie – my first time through the story. I was in awe of the bishop and the description of how godly he was – giving everything he had and earned to help those around him.

    I love your thoughts about grace here – how we limit the grace we extend, and so undermine the image of God who gives with open hands so freely to those who have spitefully used Him.

    Great word – thank you – and Thanks you Caddo for the introduction.



  7. Les Mis is my husband’s favorite story. He’s actually READ the book! And so we often watch the movie at home. Next time, I’ll perhaps have some better understanding! Thanks! 🙂


  8. Caddo Veil

    WOW, Brother–you’ve blown me away with this post, and sent me to my knees. Just this morning, my attitude was anything but grace-filled–and I confess that is the case too often with me. I acknowledge this before God and you, and pray that He will soften my heart and assist me in ever pressing forward–into more grace, more victory, ultimate glory. God bless you so abundantly for this wonderful word from Him–love, sis Caddo


    • Thanks sis Caddo. Glad it was meaningful, but I hope it didn’t hurt your knees too much!
      Grace is always a challenge. I guess that if it’s not, we probably aren’t listening properly. You take care. Love, Ian


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