“Therefore, my beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
With every role I’ve had in community theater, I have tried to write up a brief character study. I find this helps me develop my character and to understand his actions and his significance in the larger story. As I step into an iconic role like Jean Valjean in the Cherokee Community Theater production of Les Miserables, a part that has been played by some phenomenal actors, a character whose story is known and loved by so many, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on this character and the powerful message that he presents.
Les Miserables, as a novel, is Victor Hugo’s reproachful commentary on society and its treatment of the poor, the uneducated, and the suffering of women in his time. Within this critique unfolds a story of the redeeming and transforming power of love and grace, set in stark contrast with the inability of the law and revolution to affect any real change on the human condition. The musical focuses primarily on the story of the redemption of Valjean, and his effort to live worthy of the grace he has been given.
Here’s what we know of Valjean:
(All of the quotes are taken from Victory Hugo’s Les Miserables, http://www.classicreader.com/book/268/).
Jean Valjean was orphaned at an early age and raised by his older sister. When Valjean was 25, his sister’s husband died, leaving her with seven children under the age of 8, and him taking the father’s place in the family, “simply as a duty and even a little churlishly” on his part. A hard winter came, and without work, they had no food.
In desperation, Valjean robbed a baker’s house, breaking a window and stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. He was captured, and sentenced to 5 years of hard labor, serving as a slave in the galleys. He never again saw his sister or her children for, as Hugo says, “what becomes of the handful of leaves from the young tree which is sawed off at the root?”
While in the galleys, Valjean tried to escape three times, only to be recaptured and sentenced to more prison time. In total, he spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. He entered “the galleys sobbing and shuddering; he emerged impassive. He had entered in despair; he emerged gloomy.”
When finally released, Valjean blamed himself for his wasted life. He knows he would have been given the bread had he asked for it; that his act of violence benefited no one. At the same time, Valjean also blamed society for punishing a man unjustly, and he blamed God, for having created such a society. He condemned himself, society, and God; he had nowhere to turn.
Valjean is paroled, but everywhere he goes he is treated less than human. He cannot work, he cannot
find lodging; he is a dog on the streets. There is no compassion, no mercy, just law and condemnation at every step. Until, that is, he meets Bishop Myriel. The Bishop takes Valjean into his home, feeds him, offers him a place to rest, and when Valjean is arrested for stealing the silver from the church, the Bishop offers him the candlesticks he had left – giving him forgiveness, giving him a second chance, giving him grace.
When faced with such grace Valjean had two options: “if he were not henceforth the best of men, he would be the worst; that it behooved him now, so to speak, to mount higher than the Bishop, or fall lower than the convict; that if he wished to become good be must become an angel; that if he wished to remain evil, he must become a monster… That which was certain, that which he did not doubt, was that he was no longer the same man, that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him.”
The rest of the story comes down to how Valjean responds to this grace. I won’t go into all the details (read the book, or come see our show), but from his encounter with grace, Valjean is a changed man, and with every day he seeks to live a life worthy of such a gift. Alive because of grace, grace flows freely to others, bringing help and hope to those in greatest need.
What I love about the character of Valjean is that he is truly an “everyman.” He stands as a symbol for the human condition, our need for transforming grace and love, and our struggle to live according to that love once we find it.
In a way we are all like Valjean, cut off from the blessings of God because of our sin. We fall under the penalty of the law and are crushed under the weight of sins consequences. Each sin compounds our guilt and our burden. We think ourselves free, but our freedom is an illusion, for in sin we are bound to sin and to the law.
Then we encounter grace. As Paul writes in Eph. 2:4-7, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” This grace liberates us from the law. This grace transforms the wretched soul. This grace brings peace and joy to the burdened heart. This grace gives life to the dead.
And this grace calls us to walk in a new and different way. Valjean knew he could not act as if the Bishop had not touched his life. When God touches your life, you cannot be the same. This is why Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore my beloved… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
When you have known the grace of God in Jesus, the rest of your life is lived trusting in that grace, living according to that grace, and sharing that grace with others. Grace runs through every part of life. Grace is that which saves. Grace is that which restores. Grace is that which gives us strength to go forward. If we live at all, we live by grace alone.
I hope that my performance in the role of Jean Valjean in some way communicates this transformation in grace, and that through this show God may be glorified and known and the God of grace and love.