Several weeks ago, I posted an article recommending a number of books I’ve read more than once, a list that included Les Misérables. I first read Hugo’s masterpiece while in seminary and then, about a decade ago, I revisited it via Julie Rose’s translation.
Listening to a recent episode about Les Mis on the Great Books podcast, I discovered there is yet another English translation, recommended by scholars and readers alike, by Christine Donougher. And, well, with BBC’s Masterpiece now airing a new adaptation of the novel (as a six-part miniseries), I decided this was a good time to embark on a third journey into France during the 19th century, and so I am working my way through Donougher’s translation of what may be the greatest novel of all time.
Once again, I’m struck by the portrait of grace near the beginning of Les Misérables—a kindness that kills pride and strips away an old identity before giving a sinner new life. The transformation scene of the hardened convict Jean Valjean, captured musically in Tom Hooper’s film from a few years ago and dramatically in the new Masterpiece miniseries, takes up several pages in Hugo’s novel, giving us insight into Valjean’s thought process and emotional distress upon encountering and then surrendering to grace.
Even if you’ve not read the book, you may be familiar with the story.
A priest permits the recently released convict, Jean Valjean, to stay overnight in his house. Valjean steals away during the night, robbing the man of God of his most valuable possession—the silver utensils. Caught the next morning with his loot and dragged back by the police to the priest’s home, Valjean is stunned when the priest claims to have given him the silverware and tells him to make sure and take the silver candlesticks from the mantle as well, the most valuable belongings in the house. Through this action and through his declaration to Valjean that his soul now belongs to God, the priest sets up a channel of amazing grace that floods the heart and mind of Jean Valjean and eventually bursts through all of his defenses and changes his hardened heart.
Journey of Grace
The film and television portrayals of Valjean’s transformation compress the emotional response into just a few minutes. The novel shows us more of the inner battle fought between Valjean’s initial exposure to grace and his surrendering of his life to God.
Stunned by Grace
First, Valjean is stunned by amazing grace—that he would not be imprisoned again and thus receive what he deserved, but would instead be given more valuables and thus receive undeserved kindness.
Self-assessment of Sin
Next comes the moment when Jean Valjean, having encountered grace in all of its brilliance, sins in light of the grace he has received. It is here, after stealing from the boy Petit-Gervais, that he “collapsed on a large stone, exhausted, with his hands in his hair and his face in his lap, and he cried, ‘I’m a wretch’” (103). The word is repeated two pages later, when we are told that Valjean “had just seen himself for what he was” (105). For the first time in 19 years, this man weeps. He sees his wretchedness (which is perhaps the closest translation to the novel’s title, The Wretched), but the battle is not yet won.
The War Against Pride
Valjean’s defensive posture toward grace is a sign of his pride. For this reason, his exposure to grace feels more like an assault than a balm of comfort. Here’s how the scene unfolds:
When Jean Valjean left the bishop’s house he was, as we have seen, in what was to him an entirely different mental universe.
Here we have a terrific description of a person’s initial encounter with grace—a rearranging of one’s mental universe. The experience of grace turns the world upside down. But the natural response is to try and turn things right side up, with our prideful hearts back on top.
He could not understand what was going on inside him. He hardened himself against the old man’s angelic deed and gentle words. . . .
This kept coming back to him. This heavenly kindness he countered with pride—the fortress of evil, as it were, within us. He had the indistinct feeling that this priest’s forgiveness was the greatest assault and most tremendous attack he had ever experienced. That if he resisted this clemency the hardening of his heart would be definitive. That if he yielded he would be obliged to renounce that hatred with which the deeds of other men had filled his soul over so many years, a hatred he relished. That this time he had to vanquish or be vanquished, and that the battle had been joined, a colossal and decisive battle, between his own wickedness and that man’s goodness (104).
Here we find the inner thoughts of a person who experiences grace and forgiveness as an “assault” or an “attack.” In response, Valjean’s pride fights back against heavenly kindness. Note the “now or never” sense of urgency at the moment of conversion, when eternity is at stake. This is a battle over the human soul. Notice also the desire to hold onto the sin of hatred—a sin he “relished.” This is the moment just before Valjean surrenders in glorious defeat to the grace that has overcome his heart’s defenses.
Grace on the Attack
It’s common for God’s grace to be set up in opposition to God’s judgment, as if grace is God’s gentle, loving kindness flowing toward us as a peaceful river. Nothing dangerous or disruptive about a peaceful stream, is there? Why not just talk about the grace of God that calms the soul and makes us feel affirmed and accepted as we are?
But Hugo’s portrait shows us the offensive side of grace—grace ready for attack—and it looks more like a flood bursting through the dam of pride and rearranging the landscape of the human heart. Grace is on the move. It is amazing because of its power. It is scary because this “love so amazing, so divine” actually “demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Tim Keller tells a story about a woman who discovered that the gospel of grace threatened here sense of self-rule.
I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace? She replied something like this: “If I was saved by my good works—then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace—at God’s infinite cost—then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.”
This is why we sing about “amazing grace” that saves “a wretch like me.” When we are stunned by God’s kindness, we suddenly see our sin in light of God’s grace, and then watch his grace wreak havoc on our sinful souls, channeling the flow of his love into the depths of our heart, where it leads to life transformation so profound that we can never be the same again.
Don’t try to tame the nature of God’s grace. It’s on the attack. It brings down the walls of pride. It assaults our selfishness. Love so amazing it destroys the cancer of our pride and then brings healing in its wake. Grace wins.