The Eschatological Vision of Les Miserables

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My wife and I finally got around to watching Les Miserables, the movie, on Amazon streaming. Not a bad thing to do when a good friend is in town, the kids are sound asleep, and you’re buried under 18″ or so of snow.

I became familiar with the music back in high school, I think, in the late 80s or early 90s, and then when studying at Princeton in the late 90s went up to Broadway with my wife to see it live. Very good stuff.

Watching the movie this time round, though, I find myself captivated with the finale. Here’s the song, not from the movie but from the ten-year anniversary concert, complete with subtitles. Note the lyrics:

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

Eschatology. Instead of the earthly, merely political eschatology that revolutionaries promise, a secular eschatology which is at heart denatured Christianity, and which the prior version of the song (“Do you hear the people sing?”) puts forth:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!

Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France!

I haven’t read the original novel, nor have I read anything about the writing of the musical. But it is obvious that in the film the heavenly vision of God’s vindication of the suffering supplants human hopes for revolutionary justice on earth. Were I an enterprising and clever graduate student, I suppose I could write up something about how Les Miserables collapses and sells out justice for the sake of some non-existent heavenly reward, how it deals in the opiate of the masses, an exercise in tedium that would miss the profound dimensions of the story.

The whole thing seems to me an exercise in exploring Christian hope and despair, represented in the first instance by Jean Valjean on the one hand and Javert on the other, but also experienced by various characters along the way. Hope not only for heaven, but hope that one might be transformed in this life a la Jean Valjean, or rescued in this world, a la Cosette, or that one might receive justice in the eternal. For that is what the closing scene of the film, at least, suggests to me: all these characters who have suffered injustice and died along the way (Gavroche, Fantine, Éponine) find themselves alive again, singing an eschatological song, way, way high up above the city, obviously suggestive of heaven. And I find it eminently powerful.

Note too at the end of the film, at least, as Jean Valjean dies, he’s welcomed by the archbishop into the church, crossing a sort of threshold. Note also that in the finale those who appear are only the just, not Javert or the Thenardiers, for instance. Personal sin and revolutionary fervor forgiven and fulfilled in the heavenly kingdom…

Here’s the movie finale. Tell me that’s not a depiction of reconciliation with God, a cinematic form of the achievement of the beatific vision:

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