Tell us about a favorite character from film, theater, or literature, with whom you’d like to have a heart-to-heart. What would you talk about?
While there are many characters that come to mind, the first was from my favorite musical Les Miserables. It is none other than 24601 himself. (Though Javert is a close second.)
So, what would I wish to talk about with Monsieur Mayor? Well, I would want to talk to him about many things I suppose. Jean Valjean’s story of redemption and perseverance is one of the strongest and most moving I know in all of literature. I would want to talk to him about his memories of the Christ-like Bishop and the awakening he experienced through the Monseigneur’s influence and act of mercy. I would want to know how it felt as his heart broke and the light of grace dawned in his dark, tortured heart.
I would want to know how it felt to be accused and viewed as nothing but a criminal for so much of his life by the self-righteous Javert. How does it affect you to know someone has such an opinion of you? How do you rise above the commonplace worldly desires of hate and revenge to show grace and favor to a life-long nemesis?
Jean Valjean learned how to adapt and to hide in plain sight. He learned how to change his name and identity. He learned how to live out a transformed existence.
Valjean is a very human character to me. He has his redeeming qualities, but he is no saint. Certainly his experiences caused him to be leery and coy. He learned to distrust others and, for all his success and transformation, he learned how to live in perpetual fear. Fear of his own face. His own voice. His own past. Fear of being found out. Fear of losing it all.
In that sense, I think, he is like many others. They may not be parolees on the run, but they live in constant fear. Even in success. Even with the love and respect of others, they feel a foreboding dread. Trepidation is the emotion they know the best.
Like Mayor Madeleine, they too have a name they fear, a name that represents disgrace and shame. It may not be, as in Madeleine’s case their true name (i.e. Valjean), but it is a name, perhaps of their own making, they know and fear. And all their lives they live in anguish and dread of that name. They hide from it, but like our hero, they cannot hide forever.
Yet, maybe as even Valjean learned, although so late in his life, when the revelation comes forth the truth is liberating. All at once, in epiphanic candor, the fear and dread fades, slumping over in the old rags of pallid flesh; and from this stale pupa bursts forth a radiant and free creature.
I can identify with Valjean. I think that is why the play is always so moving for me. I feel his pain, his fear and his release.
In many ways, his story is our story . . . it is my story. I too was cast into a dark, dank prison. I too was lost beyond all hope. I too knew what it meant to live in fear and dread. I too have known the darkness; the suffocating, blinding black. I too have met grace in an unlikely and undeserving place. I too know the release of redemption, mercy and forgiveness.
Who am I? I am not too unlike Jean Valjean.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?
(And Can It Be, Charles Wesley)