Jean Valjean, an “Innocent Man”?

The voiceover for this Les Miserables TV spot befuddles me.

Imprisoned for nineteen years, an innocent man will reclaim his life by saving another’s.

At no point in the story is the hero, Jean Valjean, an “innocent man.” In the opening scene, we find Valjean a prisoner and convicted thief. We hear about his past and then we see him steal again, violating the trust placed in him and spitting the hospitality of a clergyman back in his face.

Then, after the cle…

  1. Ryan M

    Perhaps the PR person never read the book…  Seems to me the book focuses more on ValJean’s soul – hence, the interaction w/ the priest at the beginning – and is about how an obviously guilty man makes amends.  Not how an innocent man reclaims his life (as if to suggest that his prison sentence somehow stole his life).  If they are suggesting what is said in my parenthetical, then you are absolutely right about postmodernist nonsense.  After all, what is a criminal but a victim of society, correct?

  2. KC Mulville

    No, I think you’ve got it right, Mark. It’s crucial to grasping the power and beauty of forgiveness that we accept that the forgiven was, indeed, sinful. If you can only be forgiven for offenses which you didn’t do, it’s hardly worth the trouble.

  3. lakelylane

    Most people have not read the book because it is unreadable, sorry Hugo, but as far as reading it barely made it into the 2oth century, and if not for even more extreme overlayering of even more drama indoctrination it would be more boring than the original. Don’t believe me try reading it.

  4. Albert Arthur

    Even if you haven’t read it, doesn’t everyone know that Jean Valjean was sent to prison first for stealing bread? For instance…I haven’t read it. Come on. Everyone knows what Rosebud means, regardless of whether you’ve seen the movie…right?

  5. C. U. Douglas

    Essentially, the musical (and thus, the movie) contrasts quite a bit with the books narrative.

    In the musical, at the very beginning we find Valjean paroled on a nineteen year sentence because he stole a loaf of bread and then tried to escape in prison.  A hardened man he leaves, commits greater theft and finds forgiveness and more importantly a new life.

    In the book, the latter is similar, though Hugo goes into a bit more detail about Valjean, poor and wanting to feed his sister’s family, he desperately breaks into a baker’s house and steals some bread, only to be arrested.  Hugo makes note that once Valjean is gone, his sister manages to make do perhaps to show that his crime was unnecessary, despite good intentions.

    His escape attempts are also listed.  We soon find that Valjean is an impetuous man who initially does not think regarding his actions, and he falls victim to his own impetuousness.  The law is unduly harsh, but his lack of discernment leads him to fall under said law.

    The musical/movie seems to lean progressive; the book seems to lean Libertarian or Conservative.  At least in this case.

  6. Ryan M
    lakely LANE: Most people have not read the book because it is unreadable, sorry Hugo, but as far as reading it barely made it into the 2oth century, and if not for even more extreme overlayering of even more drama indoctrination it would be more boring than the original. Don’t believe me try reading it. · 19 minutes ago

    Oh, I can’t agree with this.  I enjoyed the book.  Hated the first movie with a passion, and I’m not going to watch this one, either.  Mostly because I don’t feel like spending the 3 hours when I could find plenty of better things to do.

  7. 10 cents

    It is a question of a higher law. Stealing is bad but letting those around you starve is also bad.  Here is a hypothetical.  You are caught in a hurricane and you have just lost your house. Do you break in and “steal” food  and clothing to survive?  Which is more important the life of a person or personal property?  Technically this person is a thief but I think most people would consider him innocent.  I think that is the point of Hugo’s book.

  8. Mark Wilson

    10 cents, your post reminds me of something my grandpa told me that taught me a lot about politics. He showed his coworker a newspaper article which quoted a politician saying something blatantly false and self-serving.  His coworker, who supported the politician, replied, “You can’t say he’s lying.  You don’t know his reason!”

    I see your point about the consequences of not stealing the bread.  I’m inclined to say his action could be morally justified but that he is not morally innocent, if that’s logically possible.  I’ll have to give it some more thought.  In any case, he’s not legally innocent.

    And even granting what you said, I think his actions toward the bishop remove any doubt that he is not an innocent man nor a moral man at that point in his life.

  9. M. T. S.
    Ryan M

    lakely LANE: Most people have not read the book because it is unreadable, sorry Hugo, but as far as reading it barely made it into the 2oth century, and if not for even more extreme overlayering of even more drama indoctrination it would be more boring than the original. Don’t believe me try reading it. · 19 minutes ago

    Oh, I can’t agree with this.  I enjoyed the book.  Hated the first movie with a passion, and I’m not going to watch this one, either.

    I also disagree. I loved the book (the abridged version – maybe that’s why I didn’t think it boring? Am I missing out on anything?), and I am definitely not a classic literature buff.  I have never seen it in play/musical/movie form.

  10. Ryan M
    Mark Wilson:

    And even granting what you said, I think his actions toward the bishop remove any doubt that he is not an innocent man nor a moral man at that point in his life. · 17 minutes ago

    I agree especially with this point.  I never got the impression that ValJean was supposed to be portrayed as ultimately innocent.  Frankly, I haven’t read the book in a long time, so I don’t 100% recall its message.  I remember kind of hating the end, where those he has helped essentially betray him, but in retrospect, it does kind of show that he isn’t rewarded in the end … which makes the Priest’s comments all that much more powerful.

  11. Mark Wilson
    Ryan M

    I enjoyed the book.  Hated the first movie with a passion, and I’m not going to watch this one, either.  Mostly because I don’t feel like spending the 3 hours when I could find plenty of better things to do.

    What a humbug!  Have you seen the musical or at least listened to the soundtrack?  It’s grand, and I thought it was quite moving.

  12. M. T. S.
    Mark Wilson: And even granting what you said, I think his actions toward the bishop remove any doubt that he is not an innocent man nor a moral man at that point in his life. · 22 minutes ago

    I think that is key – that he was not innocent, but was later redeemed despite this. Framing it as if it were Shawshank Redemption is a mistake.

  13. C. U. Douglas
    M. T. S.

    Mark Wilson: And even granting what you said, I think his actions toward the bishop remove any doubt that he is not an innocent man nor a moral man at that point in his life. · 22 minutes ago

    I think that is key – that he was not innocent, but was later redeemed despite this. Framing it as if it were Shawshank Redemptionis a mistake. · 0 minutes ago

    Exactly.  There’s a transition — from poverty to harsh punishment to harsher sentences — in the book from Valjean as a man wronged to a man who does wrong.  He takes his role as hardened criminal until the Bishop offers Valjean grace, and I believe Hugo’s image of grace is meant to demonstrate God’s grace as well.

  14. Ryan M
    Mark Wilson

    Ryan M

    I enjoyed the book.  Hated the first movie with a passion, and I’m not going to watch this one, either.  Mostly because I don’t feel like spending the 3 hours when I could find plenty of better things to do.

    What a humbug!  Have you seen the musical or at least listened to the soundtrack?  It’s grand, and I thought it was quite moving. · 1 hour ago

    well, I am not trying to disparage this movie, actually.  I don’t really watch movies in general.  That said, the reason I hated the first movie is kind of what concerns me about virtually all movies – they took a book w/ a nearly conservative but decidedly Christian message and turned it into preachy liberalism.  The worst character in the book is Marius, the revolutionary.  He is selfish, obnoxious, and stupid – you know, he is OWS.  In the movie, he is some noble hero, just like all socialists.  I think he was intended to convey a message, and they go against the authors intent in conveying the exact opposite message.

  15. Mark Wilson

    Ryan, I can appreciate your point of view.  Liberals from Southern California’s most liberal enclave (or New York’s, or London’s) are not the best-equipped people to channel a work of art based on a Christian and basically conservative message.  Somehow, in the case of Les Miserables the musical, they managed to get it right.

    As for Marius, I haven’t read the book myself, but it seems he is a much more sympathetic character in the musical.

  16. Monty Adams

    The terms of Valjeans parole were unjust, marking him as a dangerous man. This unjustified stigma is part of what made him unfit to find work and get his life restarted after being released from prison. That injustice ultimately contributed to him becoming so desperate that he felt he had to steal from the bishop. In that sense he was innocent.

  17. Cold Friday Warrior
    C. U. Douglas:   We soon find that Valjean is an impetuous man who initially does not think regarding his actions, and he falls victim to his own impetuousness.  The law is unduly harsh, but his lack of discernment leads him to fall under said law.

      

    And what’s immensely important is that when he accepts the Bishop’s grace, he begins to discern. He doesn’t reach full discernment overnight, of course. He is blind to Fontaine’s sacking. He gives alms to the poor but doesn’t get real close to understand their troubles. Only when he sees what his benign detachment has enabled — Fontaine’s descent into personal dis-grace — does he discern that good works without discernment are inadequate, that if he has the power, he must seek to raise up his fellow man and actually care about them. He saves the man under the cart but makes no attempt to get to know him as a person. He is a wholesale helper, providing decent jobs for the poor, without having to get too wrapped up in their individual problems. 

  18. Cold Friday Warrior

    And the catalyst for Valjean’s growing discernment of the individual humanity of every individual is when he learns of a mistaken identity =– an innocent — but incompetent (e.g., mentally disabled) — man is on trial to atone for Jean Valajean’s parole violation sin. If he lets the man be convicted without saying anything, he is free but he discerns he is also damned. And so he testifies to the court that HE is Valjean and the crazy guy is wrongly detained. Who should care for the crazy guy? He’s crazy and won’t be the wiser for what happens. This is an important point. Valjean discerns that even a crazy person, no matter how wretched, is still a human being, with dignity. He who cares for the least of his brothers cares for me, said Jesus. The light bulb turns on. Valjean returns to comfort Fontaine and pledges to the dying mother that her child will want for nothing and he will care for her always. He is discerns his obligations later when he recognizes he will lose Cosette to marriage, but rescues her beau even so, who would otherwise die on the ramparts. Theses are powerful messages.

  19. Amy Schley
    Ryan M

      The worst character in the book is Marius, the revolutionary.  He is selfish, obnoxious, and stupid – you know, he is OWS.  In the movie, he is some noble hero, just like all socialists.  I think he was intended to convey a message, and they go against the authors intent in conveying the exact opposite message. · 1 hour ago

    Well, I think in deciding Hugo’s message, it’s worth noting that he entitled the book “The Miserable [People]“, not “The Noble Fallen Heroes of 1832.”

    Marius is a “Miserable” because he has the dreams of an ideologue, only to realize that those dreams were not shared by The People he was so concerned about. That failed dream killed all his friends and even most of the people he knew even. (His near-death experience did reconcile him to his Royalist grandfather though.)

  20. Rosie

    One of the most moving scenes in the musical is when Valjean is dying and saying goodbye to Cosette and Marius.  Once he bids his farewells he unequivocally states the redeeming power of God (as found in Christianity) and lays claim to his peace knowing that he will meet his maker in the hereafter.  I can not think of any other modern work that would allow this on stage.  I hope this  film did the musical justice.  (I haven’t read the book)

    Mark Wilson: Ryan, I can appreciate your point of view.  Liberals from Southern California’s most liberal enclave (or New York’s, or London’s) are not the best-equipped people to channel a work of art based on a Christian and basically conservative message.  Somehow, in the case ofLes Miserables the musical, they managed to get it right.

    As for Marius, I haven’t read the book myself, but it seems he is a much more sympathetic character in the musical. · 56 minutes ago

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