I'm reviewing the 2012 version of the musical starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. The original story stems from a novel written by Victor Hugo in 1862. Unlike other French novels the original title has been retained for the English version, since it is difficult to translate accurately. A musical based on the novel was first performed in 1980, in French. In 1985 an English language version was first performed in London. The original novel spends a lot of time discussing moral issues, but this is kept to a minimum in the musical. Nevertheless, the lessons are there to be learnt.
The story begins in 1815 when Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving 19 years hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread. Officially he is still on parole, so he has to report to the authorities once a month for the rest of his life. He is given food and refuge in a church, but he is tempted by the riches he sees. He steals the silver plates and flees. The police capture him and bring him back, but the church's priest says that he had given Jean the plates as a gift, and chides him for having forgotten the most valuable items, the silver candlesticks. This act of kindness changes Jean's life, but he also decides that he will never report for his parole.
In 1823 Jean is living under a false name in Montreuil-sur-Mer as a factory owner and the town's mayor. One of his employees, Fantine, is fired because she has an illegitimate daughter. Destitute, she is badly beaten and Jean finds her shortly before she dies. Since he feels guilty for her fate he promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette, as if she were his own child. But Inspector Javert, a policeman who knew Jean as a prisoner, recognises him. Jean flees to Paris and takes on another new identity.
|Cosette living in poverty|
There are many more details to the story, but I've only described what's necessary to understand the moral issues. Jean started out as a petty thief, only stealing out of desperation, but his time of imprisonment hardened him. When he was released he had become an immoral person, willing to steal even from some someone who was helping him, but the priest's act of forgiveness made him want to help others. It's wrong to say that Javert was a bad man. In one scene he is speaking to God, and we see that he honestly thought he was doing God's work in pursuing Jean. Javert's mistake was not seeing that a person can change. "Once a thief, always a thief". This is a mistake made by many today, Christians and others. Repentance can be a reality, but others who have "always been good" don't want to accept it and assume the change is only being pretended.
Jean, in the face of persecution, continues to do good. He lives to serve others, especially his adopted daughter Cosette. He even saves Javert's life when he has the chance, by letting the revolutionaries think he is already dead. A man who is truly good doesn't do good in order to gain a reward -- in this case a pardon from Javert -- he does good for its own sake. "Les Misérables" has a lot of lessons to teach us.