I first heard of Les Misérables way back in my high school Religion text book. The chapter was discussing morality and sin, and it cited Jean Valjean’s theft as an example. The hero stole bread in order to feed his sister’s child. In cases like this, the textbook said, the end justifies the means. That reasoning was enough back then — but things are a little different today.
The introduction of Philosophy classes into my life has grown my hobby of asking questions. I now know that everything is a little bigger and a little more complex than it seemed at first glance. “The end justifies the means” isn’t a life principle that applies to everything.
Our Philosophy teacher offered a bonus grade for watching the movie in the cinema, and so I did. And that’s what brings me to this post. I have not read the book, watched the 1998 film or watched any of the musicals. I’m not here to release my inner Comm major and make remarks on the production and casting. I’m here because it was my first time experiencing the story of Les Misérables, and it made me feel things.
The original dilemma is the same: Jean Valjean stole bread for his sister’s son and was sentenced to five years in prison. He kept trying to escape and so ended up serving nineteen years instead. The prison guard Javert is always on his chase, determined that the law be followed to the letter.
If my high school religion textbook is right and what Valjean did is okay (since his intentions were of utmost good), does that mean Javert is wrong? Is he a “bad guy” for punishing Jean Valjean’s good deed, for doing his duty and following his beliefs? Is it possible that neither of them did wrong? What should have been the right thing for everyone to do? Most importantly, what does all this say about our concepts of right and wrong, of good and evil?
The setup reminds me of my favorite thesis statement from our midterm exam: dapat (ought, must, should) versus kailangan (needed, necessary).
Dapat commands something that must, under any circumstances, be followed. Jean Valjean stole bread and must be imprisoned. He broke parole and went into hiding, and he should be arrested. Kailangan, on the other hand, takes a good look at what is happening before deciding what needs to be done. He needed to steal the bread because, if he didn’t, his sister’s child might die.
If you asked me, I would always argue that understanding context is more important. I don’t believe in black and white, only shades of grey that are so dark or so light they look like new colors. What should be done is a statement; what needs to be done is a question. I vote the question.
The Bishop was one of the most touching characters to me. There was a freedom in his wisdom when he did what he did, setting Valjean free (physically and spiritually) without knowing if the latter will use it for good, but having faith that he will. It was this blessing, after all, that moved Valjean to transform his life.
“One word from him and I’d be back beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom. I feel my shame inside me like a knife. He told me that I have a soul; how does he know? What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?”
He acted with a certain holiness and grace that I can only dream of imitating.
I don’t think Javert is wrong or evil; I think maybe he didn’t believe he had better choices, if he believed he had other choices at all. The life of right and wrong was all he had ever known, and the possibility of there being something else simply terrified him.
What we were taught to know or believe is not our fault. What we refuse to know or believe might be.
There will always be people who obey what demands to be obeyed, and that does not make them bad people and it does not make their choices wrong. Everyone has a story that cries to be heard. If we stopped to listen to all those stories, there would be chaos and our world would fall apart. The law was created to keep our world together. The law was created to protect something. But what happens when the law begins to hurt what it was supposed to protect?
What do you do then?