Victor Hugo's nearly 1,500 page French tome, Les Miserables, may well have been the most profound novel ever written. If you have a teenager, this is a good read (and it's great for a slow, indoors time of year). Here are some thoughts to accompany that reading—to view it not only as a story, but as a parable. The novel is a full discourse of every nook and cranny the soul runs to, to understand itself. It is saturated with spiritual verities.
Javert epitomizes "the law", unbridled and metastasized into a cancerous fever on an insistent hunt for its prey—a universal "gotcha". But when the law becomes a conundrum even to himself, his soul is confronted with an irresolvable complexity. Choosing mercy is unthinkable. Sadly, as seems the case with most people, he must die with his theology intact, even if it doesn't "fit" and even if it was proven to be incorrect. Suicide is the only way out of his rigidity.
Juxtaposed to this is a depiction of the very opposite, the low-life; lawLESSness run aground in its own bawdy insatiable flesh. The flesh even pillages the dead for more stuff, totally blinded to the fact that this IS, in fact, eventually death for him, too—and then what will he live for? The revolutionaries are the "arm of the flesh" trying to change the hearts of men from the outside in. Without God as a reference point, without prayer, men are sure to strew the stage of life with death. As in Hamlet, revenge eats up everything in its path; not a soul is alive on that stage at the end of that tragedy.
Eponine depicts for us the secular humanist who is hunting for salvation in a place where it will never be: a hand-picked lover, who himself is preoccupied with someone else. She dies in the arms of a transient fulfillment. Desperate to be sure of her ground, she tells it how to function, what to say and do, and she clings to it still.
And Jean Valjean? His thieving habit, he thinks, needed to work his own salvation, still not cured after 19 years in prison (that it was done for a good purpose made no difference), so he tries it again. He sees no other way to meet his needs—which are many. But, alas, his trembling confidence is met again with the "lock-him-up". Life, for him, now, is a verified endless dead end. However, this time his thieving despair is unexpectedly met with the priest's "Take my silver candlesticks, too", and Valjean's habituated impulsive world-view dissolves. What is this? Some mysterious abundance that goes beyond my needs? Mercy? Not only has he now felt it, he also now realizes that he may be the agency of it, too. His conversion is none other than Christ in the soul—the synthesis of law and mercy. The halleluiahs break out over his wasteland and he quietly and maturely lives differently—Calvary bound, too.
The story has it all. It even raises the great universal, cosmic question of "Who Am I?" Am I this thing or the other? Where do I "come down?" Where is my core? What is my zip code, really?! Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous poem from prison was titled the same: "Who Am I?" "Am I caring and deferential, as my prison mates imagine me to be, or am I the wild man who thrashes around inside, full of questions?" Shakespeare’s Hamlet adds to the body of literature, also asking this question. "To be or not to be? that is the question." And so, too, we see the Psalmist, King David, beg for integration even in his mature soul—far more advanced than most: "May the meditations of my heart be pleasing to thee, Oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer." May I not live in shadows. Deliver me from splinteredness. Make me "one" before thee, in my inward parts. Show me to myself.
"Who am I" is a question that really none of us can answer. Only He, Who made us, really knows. Self-discovery takes a lifetime; it is really only unveiled as we partake of God-discovery, and even then it is only mincingly understood. With Bonhoeffer we end up saying, "I do not know, but what I do know is that "I am Thine!"