What I Want My Daughter to Learn from Les Miserables: A Top Three List

by Nicole Plyler Fisk

Over the weekend, my husband and I took our 8-year old daughter to see the musical Les Miserables. I debated whether she was too young, with songs like “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House,” not to mention [spoiler alert] . . .

. . . Gavroche’s death — which was one of many, of course, but I wondered what she’d think about witnessing the imaginary violent death of a boy her age.

Then, I remembered that I was listening to the music at 8 years old and didn’t think about it again. (My parents went to see The Phantom of the Opera when I was in 3rd grade and brought back cassette tapes of the music; an avid lover of books, I remember being entranced by the idea of story in song and started collecting the soundtracks from every musical on Broadway and piecing together the stories).

I decided that 8-years old is the perfect age for Les Mis. At eight, Arina still values our opinion. Mom and Dad are still cool. Arina was actually impressed to hear the two of us sing the soundtrack back and forth to each other the week before the show, while making dinner. So, she took the opportunity to go very seriously. She nodded solemnly when Scott told her that the experience would be magical, that afterward she’d feel more deeply [“right here,” he had said, pointing to her heart]. And, happily, she sat transfixed, mouth agape, for the entire 2 1/2 hours.

Saturday was my fifth time seeing Les Mis, but this time was special, because I thought, throughout, about what I hoped Arina was learning. Without further ado, and in no particular order, my top three list is as follows:

1) Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert represent the best and worst of religion, respectively. Sometimes, my mother bemoans the fact that we have yet to find a church we feel comfortable attending, now that we’ve moved to such a small town. Our church is currently in Springfield, Missouri, since we tune in each Sunday to CCCSpringfield’s youtube channel and have struck up a friendship with the minister there, Dr. Roger Ray. We’ve decided to attend when we can, at least twice a year; we joke with Roger that we’re like those families who only come to church at Easter and Christmas, but since we’re of the progressive Christian variety we visit instead (1) after a tragedy, in order to be part of a sympathetic community and plan acts of social justice (we decided on our first visit after the Sandy Hook massacre); and (2) whenever the academics are in town (a conference is currently in the works for August, and hopes are to bring in John Shelby Spong as keynote speaker).

Until then, I reminded Mom that taking Arina to see Les Mis is worth a month, and more, of Sundays — since Valjean represents the best religion has to offer.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that some version of “love your neighbor as yourself” appears in so many religious and philosophical traditions; see the lovely slideshow: “The Golden Rule in World Religions.”

The musical/film/story opens with Valjean. Cliff notes version: V. steals bread, is imprisoned for 19 years, is unable to obtain work b/c he was imprisoned, is apprehended by the police for stealing something worse than bread (i.e. silver) from an aging, hospitable bishop.

The Bishop covers for Valjean, telling the police that he not only gave him the silver in his possession, but silver candlesticks as well that Valjean “forgot” — a literal example of “if someone takes your coat, give him your shirt as well.” Touched, Valjean becomes ridiculously good afterward: rescuing a prostitute; adopting her child; waltzing into the middle of a battle to save his daughter’s boyfriend, etc. He is, in effect, the embodiment of the Golden Rule, and is symbolic of a Christianity that is compassionate and generous, self-sacrificing and brave.

If Valjean is the embodiment of the Golden Rule, Inspector Javert is the embodiment of the Ten Commandments, all “Thou Shalt Not,” and if you do . . . well, you’ll get jail or hell, whichever comes first. And, yet, as Nathan Newman explains in “The Enduring Radicalism of Les Miserables,” Javert isn’t bad

“It is not just because the hero Jean Valjean is a good man that he saves Javert’s life, but because Javert on his own terms is a good man as well — just dedicated to protecting a very bad system.  Instead of personalizing politics in a bad guy the hero can kill, this is a movie where a Javert defending the system is instead confronted with the system’s own failings — and can’t live with having dedicated his life to defending a lie.”

Javert is, in effect, the embodiment of the Law, and is symbolic of a Christianity that is judgmental and unyielding, literal (with no room for interpretation) and sure (with no room for doubt).

I was thrilled to discover that Jean Valjean is Arina’s favorite character, even above the ones I expected her to pick (e.g. the little girl Cosette, with whom I assumed she’d most identify). When I asked her why, she said: “because he makes things right.”

2) We must both recognize and speak the fact that “she needs a doctor not a jail.”

Valjean’s empathetic imagination not only gives him insight about the plight of those around him but also inspires him to speak up for those too weak to speak up for themselves — despite the fact that, by doing so, he puts himself in jeopardy, because the Law (i.e. Javert) is always trying to capture him. This is nowhere more dramatic than when he steps out of the darkness and argues with Javert, who is in the process of carting off the prostitute Fantine to jail; Valjean uses his position as mayor to insist on mercy, saying “she needs a doctor, not a jail.”

When looking at Fantine, Javert sees someone breaking the law; when looking at Fantine, Valjean sees someone in pain. To Javert, she is worthless; to Valjean, she has value beyond measure, despite the broken state in which he finds her. I hope that Arina will see through Valjean’s eyes rather than Javert’s. I think she must, since her story has its own Fantine, a birthmother who was addicted and homeless and died young and alone.

I came across a cringe-worthy status update on Facebook this week: “A homeless man outside the grocery store asked me for a dollar. UGH! Get a JOB like the rest of us!” I thought of Fantine and Oksana and wondered what Arina will think when she’s an adult and hears such comments. I thought of Victor Hugo, who penned the novel Les Miserables in the mid 1800s and who, despite being a national hero, asked to be buried in a poor man’s hearse, to be given a pauper’s funeral — because he understood something in the mid 1800s that many fail to understand in 2012: that everything worth knowing is found among “the least of these.”

3) Families have little to nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with the loving connections we make to others.

At its core, Les Mis is one of the best portrayals of the bond between adoptive parent and adopted child that’s out there, because the little known fact it brings to light is that the bond could not be stronger if biology were involved. Valjean meets Cosette, a child in need, and provides for her; they become a family immediately, because they choose to do so and because it’s the right, the natural thing to do. The child becomes, as Valjean explains, “the best of my life.” Cosette is Valjean’s and Valjean is Cosette’s — and more. At the end of the musical, Fantine’s spirit ushers Valjean’s to the next life, because Cosette and Valjean and Fantine all belong to each other, inextricably and wonderfully bound not by biology but by love. Just like Arina and Oksana and I belong and are bound to each other.

I’ve realized, in this fifth viewing of Les Miserables, that it is a nearly perfect production. The only criticism I have, the only way it falls short of what I believe was Victor Hugo’s vision, is in its limiting view of heaven. Hugo believed in love and grace and redemption for all. So, in the last scene, when Fantine takes Valjean to join the heavenly song, and we see Gavroche and Eponine and all the young revolutionaries holding hands and singing together, we notice that Javert is missing. He shouldn’t be. I think that Valjean would expect, and even look forward, to seeing him.

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