Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Vajean's Lament (What's God Got to Do With It?)

At the end of the musical, Les Miserables, Valjean sings a lament of his loneliness and dreams that Cosette, his adopted daughter, being with him at his death bed. He prays that God gives them grace on their wedding day and then sings a melancholy version of “Bring Him Home” but this time about himself. At this time, the spirit of Fantine appears and she blesses his name and says that because he raised her daughter in love he will be with God. Marius and Cosette burst in; Cosette is confused about what is happening but Marius explains he realises now it it was Valjean who saved him from the barricade that night.

Valjean gives Cosette the story of his life and those who’ve always loved her. It’s the truth she wanted at the start of the act. Fantine’s spirit then beckons him to her, to a place where chains will never bind him and his grief will no longer be there. Valjean responds by asking forgiveness from God. Fantine’s spirit and Eponine’s spirit urge Valjean to take his hand and lead him to salvation. They give him their love and finally they sing “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

I’ve always loved this scene. It is so powerful, so evocative and so moving. It has so many subtle shades of meaning. Valjean is feeling alone and frightened. He wants to be brought home where home clearly means to heaven with God. He’s penned an answer to Cosette his daughter when at first he was hesitant to do so. He’s not able to wish his daughter and son-in-law well at their wedding so he prays that they will. And he knows he is dying.

Valjean is not only alone but he is feeling a deep loneliness. Yet, two spirits, his daughter and son-in-law appear as if from nowhere to comfort him. Although Les Miserables isn’t overtly religious it is set against a very heavy religious background. The book begins with the good Bishop of Digne and whilst the Bishop’s role is not expounded as much in the musical - anyone who has read the book would know why - it is clear that the Bishop isn’t just any normal Catholic dignitary. The musical’s story line effectively ends with the word “God”.

And it is clear what their job is: to reassure him that he is blessed, that his sins are forgiven and the has a place in heaven. And that he has unknowingly seen one of the face’s of God. There’s no magic or witchcraft in Les Miserables; it’s obvious who sent Fantine and Eponine back to Valjean to comfort him. It was God.

When Valjean prayed to God in his loneliness, thinking he was alone, God sent him comfort both physical and spiritual. This is one of the meanings I get from this song.

Cosette knows there’s something odd about their life. They’re always keeping to themselves and one can imagine how she’s not allowed to get too close to the other children or their families. She’d also notice the strange generosity of her father. But most of all, even though I understand many richer people in France at the time employed nannies, she would not have known her mother. She points this out to her father, Valjean who is also musing about how their odd life is affecting his daughter.

She wants to know the truth. Hinting that there are truths that she may not want her to know, Valjean tries to put her off. I’d imagine she would be old enough to attract a university student so she’d be just after her teens or maybe eighteen or nineteen and I would suppose any parent of a young girl would know just how persistent young girls can be.

Valjean eventually responds that “truth is given by God in our time, in our turn”.

And there is God again. Does God allow the truth to be known to her? Yes, yes he does. But it’s not always a palatable truth. Fantine’s husband - Fantine is Cosette’s mother - dumped her because of Cosette. Fantine worked as a prostitute and caught the consumption. Because of the dire circumstances, Fantine had to leave Cosette with the Thenardiers who are at best physically abusive and certainly spent as little as they could on her. Her adopted father is a convicted criminal who escaped once and has lived a life as someone else for a good number of years. These are truths in the era that Les Miserables is set in that you do not want to know. They’re uncomfortable and they’re enough to make you an outcast.

But Valjean’s words to her are these are stories of those who always loved her. These are the stories that are true, no hidden stories, warts and all.

This says to me that God didn’t hide the truth from her. He may have withheld it for some time - a revolution and finding a new love kind of got in the way - but when He did allow it to be given, it was the full truth. Not some child’s version; and reading between the lines one can sense that Cosette’s grown up enough to make sense of it.

We can talk very quickly about the wedding. It certainly does go well, except the Thenardiers gate crash the reception. Although this could have taken a bad turn of events, Mr. Thenardier presents Marius with Marius’ own ring and Marius realises just who actually saved him. After dispatching the Thenardiers with a few good punches, he runs off before Valjean can leave for England thus setting the scene for the scene I am discussing.

Some might say that this was providence but was it? Did Valjean’s prayers in “Bring Him Home” go unnoticed? Did his prayers that the two may be blessed go unnoticed? No, they did not.

And finally, he knows he is dying. Yet God sends his family and the spirits from the past to comfort him and to reassure him that even though he is dying - there’s going to be no magical recovery for him - he has earned himself a place in heaven with God.

Les Miserables is an absolutely fantastic musical with songs that are comical, sad, uplifting and sometimes downright depressing. There are so many ways to understand it and work with its story and its message.

But the story makes no sense without God - and just like today, He’s not part of the active cast but He’s very much active throughout the musical.

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