‘Les Miserables’ and Christian inspiration

I recently watched the 1978 made for TV version of Les Miserables with Richard Jordan as Jean Valjean, Anthony Perkins (Psycho) as Javert and Claude Dauphin as the Bishop.

I found myself weeping uncontrollably during the scene when the Bishop forgives Jean Valjean and allows him to leave with all of his silverware.

And then I began thinking about Christian inspiration and what this means for the Lord’s One True Church.

Given the Christlike actions of the Bishop — and the undeniable witness I received from the Holy Ghost that Victor Hugo was inspired to write this scene by the Holy Spirit itself — what does it mean that Victor Hugo was not a member of the restored Church?

Of course Victor Hugo never had an opportunity to hear about the true Gospel, but it seems clear to me that he had a deep and profound understanding of the Atonement.

Javert is symbolic of “Justice,” a blind, unbending need for wrongs to be righted. The Bishop is symbolic of Christ-like mercy, the unselfish ability to give of oneself so that somebody else may live. Can mercy rob justice? No, not unless an atonement is made. Hugo clearly understood this, which is why Javert kills himself near the end of the movie, unable to understand how Jean Valjean could allow him to go free when Javert was filled only with the desire for seeing justice done. Justice cannot comprehend mercy — somebody must pay for the crimes committed.

And that somebody is Christ himself, of which the Bishop was an awe-inspiring symbol.

But yet Joseph Smith was clearly told that the Lord’s true Church was not on the Earth in 1820. Victor Hugo’s inspiration — filled with uplifting eternal Truths — is yet another great example that this statement, the fact that no other churches are True, is not meant to mean that the Lord sees things in a binary fashion. Religion is not 1s and 0s — it is a continuum.

As Joseph Smith himself said in 1842 (HofC: 4:588):

If you wish to go where God is, you must be like God, or possess the principles which God possesses, for if we are not drawing toward God in principle, we are going from Him and drawing towards the devil.

Joseph Smith was talking to the Saints when he said this. It seems clear to me that he was not saying, “join the one true Church, and everything will be alright.” Instead, he was saying to all people that religion is a continuum and that there is Truth everywhere. God wants you to become like Him, no matter who you are. Latch onto the Truth and draw closer to God.

I guess I see us all on a massive mountain hiking our way up to the top, where the Celestial Kingdom is located. If we follow the right paths, we will make it to the top and be able to be with God, but there are a lot of Truths that will help you get to the top. I personally feel that a person’s progress will stop if they don’t — in this world or the next — eventually join the true Church, but in the meantime there are True and inspired things all around us, and we need to be open to them.

This message was also brought home to me in reading an article linked on T&S today: “The Cultural Illiteracy of Easy Atheists.” The point was that today’s atheists are quick to imply that all good literature — Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are three examples often mentioned — does not need God. In fact, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were, like Victor Hugo, profoundly influenced by Christianity.

There are Truths everywhere — I wish we were all more open to see them.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

19 thoughts on “‘Les Miserables’ and Christian inspiration

  1. “Of course Victor Hugo never had an opportunity to hear about the true Gospel, but it seems clear to me that he had a deep and profound understanding of the Atonement.”

    If it’s any consolation, Victor Hugo was baptised by proxy on 23 March 1915 in the Salt Lake Temple.

  2. I never understood what all of the fuss was about until I actually saw the movie. In a word- incredible!!

    You have given me some ideas for discussion during my lesson in priesthood meeting tomorrow. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Les Miz is perhaps the only classic that I actually enjoyed reading as a teenager (albeit an abridged version that left out a lot of the political commentary). Great stuff.

  4. Actually, Victor Hugo received his vicarious temple ordinances as one of the “100 eminent men” who Wilford Woodruff officiated for in the St. George Temple. (As you may know, several “famous” people have repeatedly had ordinance work done on their behalf, due to recordkeeping issues, etc.)

    None of the filmed versions of Les Miserables do it justice, and the most recent cinematic version (with Liam Neeson) was an absolute offense, combining characters and ending with Valjean dancing in the streets to celebrate the death of Javert—something entirely opposite the real story.

    Some might be interested in knowing that the book’s episode wherein Valjean demands mercy for the prostitute, Fantine, was a recast of an actual incident in the life of Victor Hugo. Hugo used his fame as an author (“Do you know who I am!?!?”) to demand that police release a victimized prostitute.

    I consider Les Miserables to be “inspired fiction,” and have long thought that every person who claims to represent deity should read the first fifty pages, which tell of the bishop’s backround (his past was just as good!) and his kindness to Valjean.

  5. Nick, thanks for your comment. I had a long response discussing the different film versions, but our ridiculous software won’t let me post it, and I can’t figure out the offending word.

  6. Developing a bit further on this theme, I think Les Miserables is more than just a story of reprentance. It’s also the story of the remarkable effect that just one act of kindness can have on another’s life.

    The book also demonstrates that good and evil are not always as clearly delineated as we might think. The bishop’s transformative act of kindness is, to put it bluntly, the telling of a lie. Valjean misleads the student protesters in order to allow himself to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness toward Javert. Hugo’s demons are the self-righteous, the ungenerous wealthy, and the unbending moralists.

  7. “Actually, Victor Hugo received his vicarious temple ordinances as one of the “100 eminent men” who Wilford Woodruff officiated for in the St. George Temple.”

    It is my understanding that Wilford Woodruff received a revelation in the St. George Temple in 1877 that the temple work should be performed for these eminent men. Since Victor Hugo didn’t die until 1885, are you sure he was one of the “eminent men”?

  8. “Of course Victor Hugo never had an opportunity to hear about the true Gospel, but it seems clear to me that he had a deep and profound understanding of the Atonement.”

    Actually the Gospel was preached to Victor Hugo while he lived in exile on the Isle of Jersey following the 1848 Revolution. The article by Richard A. McClellan gives a history of Elder Louis A. Bertrand, one of the translators of the Book of Mormon into French, and one of the elders who preached the Gospel on the Isle of Jersey.


  9. The movie versions spend way too long on the initial imprisonment.

    Add Soren Kierkegaard and Immanuel Kant to the list of closet Mormons.

  10. Mea culpa, Hans!
    Sorry, I was going from an obviously faulty memory on that one! Thanks for keeping me honest. 🙂

  11. I just want to bring attention to the reason for Valjean’s initial imprisonment:

    He stole a loaf of bread.

    And for this he spent years and years and years in prison.

    The whole initial imprisonment has always, for me, been a chilling illustration of just where justice will go if you give it full rein.

    For theft, Valjean was imprisoned. Unable to bear prison life, he attempted to escape. When caught, he was sentenced to more years. He escaped, was caught, was sentenced and so forth.

    At each point, justice was satisfied.

    But the end result is utterly monstrous.

    This is where justice will lead us if she is allowed to rule society unchecked by other virtues. It is for this reason that I believe that pure justice can NEVER be a viable sole basis for our system of criminal laws. It locks us into one of those twisted little logic games that seems correct at every turn, but yields an absurd result.

    Mercy and pragmatism must also govern our penal system along with justice. Left to her own devices, justice will annihilate the very civilization she has been employed to defend.

  12. Given the Christlike actions of the Bishop — and the undeniable witness I received from the Holy Ghost that Victor Hugo was inspired to write this scene by the Holy Spirit itself — what does it mean that Victor Hugo was not a member of the restored Church?

    As a pagan and searching for answers to life and the existance of God I had a life altering experence where the Holy Ghost confirmed to me that God did live and cared about me. This happened two years before I came in contact with the LDS church. One year later I was reading a non-LDS book on how Christ had created miracles in a persons life and as I read this again I had the Holy Ghost fill me from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. From these two events I learned that God lived and Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

    One year late when I heard the Joseph Smith story of the Father and the Son appearing to him I knew that it was all true. Further, I have learned that I am nothing special that all people are Gods children and He is working on them up to the amount that they are ready for. I have known many people that have had many contacts with the church but were not ready to join. God still works with and through them as they are receptive to doing his work.

    It does not matter if His church is on the earth His work goes on. Out of the 6 billion people on this earth most will have the gospel taught to them like the founding father of this nation when they appeared to the President of the LDS church. We are blessed more than most of us will ever understand by having the chance to here and except the fullness of the gospel but we should never misunderstand that God is pulling for all His children on this earth no matter how lost they are. They are acting without the full knowledge of His LAW. They will have the chance to except it in its fullness when they are in their most receptive state.

    I also remember the old Father Mason told Wilford Woodruff the he would find the true church and he would would be a great leader in that church but he Father Mason would never have the chance to join before he died. Father Mason was the first person Wilford Woodruff baptised for the dead when this ordinance was restored upon the earth.

  13. Seth #11:
    Amen to that! Gordon B. Hinckley actually gave a rather good general conference talk, in which he pointed out this problem in our current justice system. Unfortunately, nobody (and I mean *nobody*) quoted him on it, or tried to work for reform. They were far too busy using his earring advice to pinpoint the true evil-doers.

  14. My first encounter with Les Miserables was as a missionary. Vaughn Featherstone was fond of quoting it to us. As a result, my mission president gave the entire mission office staff copies of an abridged version. (We were encouraged to mail these home to read after our missions.)

    I agree that the Neeson movie was disappointing. So far as I can tell (I have only heard portions of the soundtrack) the musical is much truer to the spirit of the book.

  15. The musical has its own weaknesses, but is much closer to the book than any film I’ve seen. I have the complete symphonic recording on my ipod; all this talk is inspiring me to listen to it today!

    When I was in law school, I worked with a juvenile court judge who sentenced a boy to read Les Miserables, unabridged. (I don’t recall what the offense was.) The boy was so impressed with the book, that he soon had several of his classmates reading it at school. 🙂

  16. Question to all LeMis fans:
    Put yourself as Valjean in the story and do the best you can as a Christian to help others but no matter what, nothing changes in the lives of the people you want to help and care about. How do you think Valjean would feel? Will he remain as a good person? or do you think he will become the same person before he met the Bishop?

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