The Psychology of Law and Grace in Les Mis

I’ve watched the 2012 Les Mis many times now (though I always skip two scenes—the scene where Fantine gives into prostitution is too dark for me, and “Master of the House” too vulgar). But I find a lot of beauty in the music and the story, and it seems to me to have more psychological and moral depth than most movies that come out nowadays. As I’ve watched it repeatedly and listened closely to the lyrics of the songs, I’ve been especially struck by the contrasting experiences of Jean Valjean and Javert, and the window each character provides into the psychology of law and grace.

Javert’s Suicide toward the end of the story is instrumentally an exact reprise of Valjean’s Soliloquy early on in the story, but with different lyrics to match the contrasting experience of each character. Both songs depict a similarly agonizing struggle with grace, but with diametrically opposite results. It is a fascinating case study in law and grace.

Javert: the extinguishing of the stars

Javert’s Suicide picks up from the song he sang towards the beginning of the story, Stars. You can see something of the arc of Javert’s dissolution from strength to despair throughout the story by comparing these two songs, and their connecting thread, namely, the motif of stars. Stars represent the moral order of the universe for Javert. In the first song, he is seen walking on the rooftops, calmly and assuredly balancing on the edge while he sings about the stars, referring to them as “filling the darkness with order and light” and as “sentinels, keeping watch in the night.”

In his mind, the stars’ light and constancy is linked with the very meaning of life: the inflexible principle that lawbreaking must be punished and justice must be served. They serve as a reminder of the fundamental law of life:

And so it must be
For so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!

As the story progresses, Javert’s identity and life purpose becomes completely bound up with this moral vision of the universe. What makes life meaningful and worth living for him is bringing Valjean to justice. So he vows to find Valjean and says, “this I swear by the stars.”

Towards the end of the film, Valjean has a chance to kill Javert but instead sets him free, and Javert cannot understand it. At first, it seems to simply make him angry. He says, “damned if I live in the debt of the a thief!” and “I’ll spit his pity right back in his face.” But as the song continues, the experience of grace seems to unravel his legalistic view of the world piece by piece. He says, “my thoughts fly apart” and stares off the ledge. He wonders “can this man be believed?” and asks “what sort of devil is he?” Valjean’s act of kindness does not compute with his vision of the universe. He does not know what to do with it. It does not fit inside his view of life. He begins to ask the questions he has never before asked:

“And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years? My heart is stone and still it trembles! The world I have known is lost in shadow.”

All his old certainty and strength is gone, replaced with questions. He is tormented, and wonders how he could possibly go on living in the debt of grace.

At the crucial moment in his struggle, Javert sings, “I am reaching but I fall, and the stars are black and cold.” Those stars he was singing about so confidently earlier in the story are now extinguished. Everything that gave light and order to his moral universe is dead. With the loss of that moral order, he does not even know how to live, and so he concludes: “there is no way to go on,” and he leaps to his death.

Why does Javert’s experience of undeserved grace from Valjean lead him all the way to suicide? What is he feeling when he sings this? It is not mere resentment against Valjean for winning. After all, Valjean hasn’t won yet: Javert could still kill him. It seems that Javert cannot face life in a world of grace: it threatens everything he knows, everything on which he has based his entire life: “I am the Law and the Law is not mocked!” Javert’s whole sense of identity and purpose is based upon his own righteousness, and he literally cannot a face a world where that is challenged.

Valjean comes to represent for him more than a mere man; he is another way of life, a threat to his orderly moral universe. There are two ways of understanding life, and they are not compatible: “there is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert.” And when he commits suicide, it is to “escape now from that world”—that is, “the world of Jean Valjean.” Just as Javert’s personal quest to hunt down Valjean came to represent his life’s meaning, symbolized by the stars’ light—so now Valjean’s act of kindness to Javert comes to represent the entrance of another world, symbolized by the stars’ extinction.

The most intriguing line to me, where I think you get a window into Javert’s emotions, is when he wonders: “is he from heaven or from hell?” It reminds me a line in Dickens’ Christmas Carol where Scrooge says something like, “why are you torturing me?” to the ghosts visiting him. This is how grace feels to the legalist. It hurts like hell. Grace hurt Javert so deeply it killed him. It made life unthinkable, unlivable. It extinguished the stars in his universe.

Valjean: escaping the whirlpool of sin

Interestingly, grace is also agony to Valjean! For the vast majority of his soliloquy, as he struggles with the act of kindness done to him by the priest, he is profoundly disturbed, veering back and forth, uncertain of what is happening to him. At first he feels certain that it must be too late to change, that the injustice of his sentence has already defined him, that all that remains of him is “the cry of my hate, the cries in the dark that nobody hears.” But then his thoughts are interrupted by his memory of the experience of the priest’s kindness:

Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love? He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?

Grace introduces a whole new world to Valjean (just as it did for Javert); it unravels the hardness and bitters accrued over his 19 years in prison. But this powerful touch of grace does not immediately help him. Far from it! Instead it brings all his shame and agony rising to the surface. When he considers that the priest could have sent him back to prison, but instead offered him freedom, he sings, “I feel my shame inside me like a knife!” Then he wonders what is happening to him, wonders if there is another way to go, and seems to sink down into despair: “I am reaching, but I fall. And the night is closing in as I stare into the void.”

Strikingly, the lyrics at this point are identical to those of Javert at the climax of his song: reaching, falling, staring into the void, etc. But here there is a twist: the void Valjean stares into is not the prospect of a world of unmerited grace (“the world of Valjean”), but rather the prospect of his own sin (“the whirlpool of my sin”). Therefore, in a sudden decisive turn for the better, he is finally liberated to say, “I’ll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now. Another story must begin!”

The parallels here are amazing. Jean Valjean exits “the world of Jean Valjean,” and it is life. Javert enters “the world of Jean Valjean,” and it is death. Javert is undone by grace, and the result is “there is no way to go on.” Valjean is undone by grace, and the result is “another story must begin.” What makes the difference?

Embracing the Agony of Grace

What I love most is this story’s depiction of the psychology of legalism and grace—its representation of how legalism and grace think and operate, what their different instincts and motives are. For both Javert and Valjean the experience of grace is sheer agony. Grace interrupts their lives and brings low every high place; it raises a question mark against every certainty; it undresses every human pride; it pierces like a scalding sword. When grace touches Valjean, he says “I feel my shame inside me like knife” and falls down to weep. When grace touches Javert, he says “my thoughts fly apart” and leaps to his doom. Both characters are unmade at their core by grace; grace interrupts and resets their entire life. (Maybe this is the logical link between the doctrines of justification and regeneration: how could we experience the forgiveness of our sins, including all that entails, without being reborn?)

But here is the difference, as best as I can tell: whereas Javert sees this starting over as a threat, because his identity in his own righteousness, Valjean sees hope in it, because he knows his desperation and brokenness. In other words, what determines whether the agony of grace is liberation or destruction is this: are we fundamentally self-presuming, or fundamentally self-despairing? Are we Javert or Valjean? Are we like the self-sufficient Pharisee or are we like the tax collector who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13)? In other words, do we know we need the agony of dying to ourselves?

There is a reason why Christ is called not merely a “cornerstone chosen and precious” (Isaiah 28:16, I Peter 2:6) but also a “stone of stumbling” (Isaiah 8:14, Romans 9:32-33, I Peter 2:8). The very things that make him precious salvation to some make him a stumbling block others. When Christ brings grace into our lives, when the gospel really touches down on our hearts, it is agony and crucifixion and grinding death. For the legalist, grace means the extinguishing of every star; it is a cosmic disruption to our self-ordered moral universe. For the licentious and the lawbreaker, grace means staring directly into the void of the whirlpool of our sin; it brings all our shame bubbling up to the surface. But for anyone, legalist or lawbreaker, who is self-despairing, who knows they need to die and be reborn—the agony of grace if a sweet agony, a cleansing agony, an agony that gives birth to resurrection.

So: are we fundamentally self-presuming or fundamentally self-despairing? Is the world of grace a threat, or a liberation? Are we Javert or Valjean?

This will determine what happens when the agony of grace touches us, scalds us. This will determine our fate for all eternity.

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