Although Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables is oft-remembered for its exploration of love, revolution, and redemption, Les Misérables is simultaneously a profound exploration of the Christian religion. Using social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and German-American theologian Paul Tillich as a framework, the religious concepts of transcendence, faith, ultimate concern, and desire are clearly expressed through the lives of the musical’s characters.
In his 2012 TED talk, Jonathan Haidt explains the concept of “self-transcendence” by using the metaphor of climbing a staircase. This concept can be described as the process of an individual moving from a selfish, profane step, to a sacred, self-sacrificing one. According to Haidt, there are many ways this higher level can be reached. One path to finding this step is through religion.
Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the story, is sentenced to prison for nineteen years. While on parole, he takes refuge in the Bishop of Digne’s house. Even after a later attempt to steal silver candlesticks from the Bishop, the ex-convict receives the man’s blessing and avoids arrest. “God has raised you out of darkness,” the Bishop tells a shocked Valjean, forgiving him for his crime. As Valjean is left alone, he shakily looks up at a cross and is reminded that he was pardoned because of a “higher plan” where he would turn away from his life of crime. Even though he spent most of his years as a hardened criminal who had no faith, this awe-inducing confrontation with God and his message of forgiveness inspires a transition in his character, paving the way for later actions that change Valjean into a selfless and loving being who eventually reaches self-transcendence.
Adopting the alias Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean goes on to become mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, using this elite status and its corresponding wealth to help those around him. No longer is Valjean’s main worry his own well-being, it is that of faith—what Paul Tillich would call “ultimate concern”. “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned,” he defines. Ultimate concern is a spiritual act that encompasses one’s whole being, and it is infinite; one will always be pursuing it and seeking answers. “If it claims ultimacy, it demands the total surrender of him,” Tillich adds on. Given his position as mayor, Valjean is entitled to a life of carefree luxury. Instead, he follows the tenets of Christianity and dedicates his time and money to serve as a benefactor to the poor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Later on, even at the threat of potential re-arrest, Valjean surrenders the security of his disguise in order to leave town and take care of Cosette, the child of one of his previous factory workers. All of these altruistic actions work towards his desire of having a meaningful relationship with God.
Given the squalid conditions and misery of the time period Les Misérables is set in, the audience is also introduced to a horde of characters who shun religion, just as Valjean initially had. During the prologue, a fellow convict voices his prayer for a better life, to which the other convicts bitterly reply, “Look down/Sweet Jesus doesn’t care.” Their dismal and grueling fate has caused them to turn away from the ultimate concern of faith. The rogue innkeeper, Monsieur Thénardier, has also strayed from worrying about the Lord, though he shows no resentment. “I raise my eyes to see the heavens/And only the moon looks down,”`he exclaims excitedly as he robs the fallen insurgent bodies from the Paris Uprising of 1832. Seemingly, Thénardier’s ultimate concern would be wealth and gain. For the convicts, it would be basic survival. Nevertheless, even in these cases, Tillich would assert that one cannot completely remove God from their lives. “God can only be denied in the name of God,” he writes. Despite their reluctance to acknowledge so, He is still the basis of their concern.
Another aspect of ultimate concern is that it must be conveyed through the use of symbols, for “[they] alone [are] able to express the ultimate.” The silver candlesticks that Valjean stole from the Bishop serve as the symbolic manifestation of his faith. Tillich establishes clear guidelines that distinguish signs (such as a red stop sign) from symbols—one criterion being that they must “point beyond themselves to something else.” In this instance, the silver candlesticks point to God (traditionally, candles and fire are poignant symbols of Christianity that represent God) who Himself, is also considered a symbol. Initially, the candlesticks are given to Valjean as a gift from the Bishop, signifying the covenant he has now been entered with God. They are revisited at the end of the musical when Valjean lights the candles as he peacefully sits down for his final moments. The flames burn bright as he is joined by the newly wed Cosette and her husband Marius, showing that Valjean has successfully been graced by the light of God.
In addition to being an ultimate concern, Tillich describes faith as a “centered act”: it unites the two human polarities of faith and reason. However, oftentimes, this nature can be forgotten, and how one should go about pursuing their religion can be misinterpreted. Les Misérables’ antagonist, Inspector Javert, offers a parallel to Valjean’s story—their solo songs “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Javert’s Suicide” even share the same motif and mirroring lyrics. Furthermore, both vehemently strive to pursue their ultimate concern and come from deprived backgrounds. However, the two differ where Javert undergoes a “voluntaristic distortion of faith.” Inspector Javert is infamous for being ruthless and rigid in the way he carries out the law, no matter what the circumstance. His work method can be compared to the way he interprets Christianity and its texts. “So it must be, for so it is written/That those who falter and those who fall/Must pay the price,” Javert unwaveringly asserts, vowing to capture Valjean no matter what the cost. Blurring the line of obsession, Javert becomes fixated with catching Valjean—a misdirected desire to upholding the word of the Lord. The Inspector is possessed by a belief that whatever is written, whether it be inscribed in the law or the Bible, must be followed; there is no room for deviation or questioning. It is through this belief that he encounters a voluntaristic distortion of faith, a distortion that goes hand-in-hand with “literalism”—interpreting all the stories in the Bible as authentic accounts.
This sort of belief in the Bible conflicts with Tillich’s views. “[It] deprives God of his ultimacy and… his majesty,” he writes of literalism. Faith is more than just having blind confidence in religious authority figures, which goes against Javert’s penchant for obeying hierarchal codes and structures. Describing faith, Tillich says, “It is an experience of the holy.” Valjean encounters this through being pardoned by the Bishop, as well as through his metamorphosis of becoming a father and raising Cosette as his own. Javert, on the other hand, once confronted with the realization that he was wrong about how he viewed the world, suffers a loss of faith that pushes him to end his own life.
Through the individual lives of its characters, Les Misérables paints varying representations of the Christian religion centering on faith, ultimate concern, and desire. Javert interprets religion literally and fails to see the world in shades other than black and white, ultimately leading to his downfall. There are the miserable and downtrodden proletarians of the Paris slums who at first glance, disregard God, though He implicitly prevails in their thoughts. And then, there is Valjean, who undergoes a painstaking transformation from a hardened criminal to a doting father, who, in accordance with Tillichian assertions, proves that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”