The Miserable Ones: A Review of 'Les Miserables'

Like many others last week, I made it out to the theaters to see Les Misérables, which is one of my favorite stories. It was assigned to me as summer reading for my senior year of high school, and like the high schooler that I was, I put off reading it until five days before school began. I read it (abridged though it was) in five days.
Last year, I was introduced to the musical version of Les Misérables. I had seen the year before (back in 2012) that Les Mis would be performed in L.A. the following summer and somehow I convinced my fiancé to plan on going to see it in those first couple of months of our marriage. We bought tickets, bought the soundtrack, listened to all the music, had no idea what it was about, and went to enjoy our experience of Les Misérables live.
This time around was different. I knew the story, knew the music, knew the way it was performed, yet still I found myself crying embarrassing hacking sobs in the middle of a packed-out theater.
As I’ve been considering it the last few days, I realized that one of the most resounding aspects for me of the movie was the ending. Or rather, the lack of what I might consider a typical happy ending. Fantine has died much earlier, now many young men have died in a revolution attempt, and instead of ending with the marriage of Cossette and Marius, the story moves to Jean Valjean’s death. He enters the next life with the host of others who have gone before him in the story. The Miserables re-united is how I might sum it up. It is, in many ways, a confusing ending. Marius has just sung, “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.” Now Valjean joins those friends. He joins the ones who have died without bringing about any change. He joins Fantine, who was not even able to see her daughter before her death, though she gave her life for her. He joins Eponine, who dies for one who loves another. He joins the cast of the miserable ones, leaving you emotionally exhausted and perhaps confusingly hopeful.
They were all in heaven, you might think. So that’s a pretty happy ending. But the power of the ending is found in the final words, words easier to miss as you wipe your nose and prepare to leave the theater after nearly 3 hours of mind-numbing sadness.
It is quick. Fantine sings, “Come with mthree where chains will never bind you, all your grief at last, at last behind you.” And as he enters the chorus of the miserable, the triumph resounds from those with the saddest of beginnings and the most desperate of endings:
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 plowshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
This is the song of redemption, but it is the song of men who lived and died in misery. They carried their crosses and they felt no relief. They died without their children, with unrequited love, and with no hope of social change. They died in misery, in a bloodbath, conquered by those mightier than them.
The “dark night” that you expect to end while the people live does not end. It claims lives. Yet somehow the people still sing, “Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise.” They did not live to see it, but they claimed it. They never saw freedom, they died fighting, in slavery, yet now they “live again in freedom…They will put away the sword. The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.”
Marius has just sung, “Here they sang about ‘tomorrow’ And tomorrow never came.” But here we see that “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!”
We cry in Les Misérables because there is no respite. There is no reward. There is no hope. There is misery after misery after misery. This world seems to offer little joy and no real triumph. People die longing for “tomorrow” but tomorrow does not seem to come. They die fighting for a new world, but one does not seem to emerge. But there is a glimpse, a battle cry of relief, as the world they longed for arrives, as they enter into tomorrow.
The ending seems dissonant to our American sensibilities. We only know of good things fought for and gained. Victory seen and grasped. But this is our story. It is victory longed for, died for, not yet realized. It is victory when everything seems to have been lost, when we lose. It is victory after death. It is victory in death. It is redemption in its truest sense: a victory we do not now see and often do not feel; victory accomplished yet long awaited; victory we claim as our own as we join the cast of the miserable ones and look forward to raising the flag with them.
Rachel Crum and her husband, HAVEN team-member Adrian, have co-written an Anchor devotional coming out this June.
For more, listen to “I Can’t Stop Crying,” a short audio by Charles Morris on Les Miserables.

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