As the cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables gains popularity, more and more Americans are becoming familiar with Victor Hugo’s immortal tale of Jean Valjean, the ex-convict doer of moral good in face of all personal danger. As Americans watch this story unfold on the screen before them I wonder if, separated by nearly two centuries and the Atlantic Ocean, they can appreciate just how similar their own conflicts are to Valjean’s miserable conflict.
Valjean and Javert — the police who pursues him — represent two dramatically different ideas of piety: Javert, upright and proper, lives strictly by the letter of the law, disdaining those who live in darkness (like Valjean) and seeing that darkness as sin not to be touched. Alternately Valjean, a man thrust into that darkness by his act of generous desperation, is redeemed by the love of God and the kindness of a man. Though Valjean himself is raised out of that darkness, he never sneers at those in the gutter. Though societal restrictions on his personal piety initially cause him to turn his back as the destitute Fantine is thrown into darkness, it is his genuine piety and love that incite him to rescue her child, Cosette, and live his life devoted to doing what is best for her.
Such opposite poles of faith — that is, Javert’s disdain for the lowly, versus Valjean’s embrace of Fantine’s poverty and destitution — are equally as present here and now as in 19th-century France. Faith and Family in America have come to emulate that same distaste for the poor and desolate, and the loss of all meaning of true charity. Those who achieve comfort here tend to remain within that comfort zone, instead of doing as Valjean does and helping those still trying to find their way. Do we not see that same attitude of Javert walking among us, upright and strict, faith without compassion? Do we not see him in our own reflection?
As a country and as a people, it is time we look down without sneering, without judgment, greed or persecution, and help up all of humanity as our family. We can no longer mask selfishness and lust for power behind a façade of piety to the cause of wealth. Let us help our fellow man, recognizing his personal needs instead of blaming his failures on “personal irresponsibility.” Remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God. The only true piety is love.
College of Fine Arts, 2016