What Les Misérables taught us about Human Dignity

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Last night, I saw my very first Broadway show! What an experience! My friend and I reasoned that if we were going to see a Broadway musical, it might as well be the world’s most popular one: Les Misérables. I was absolutely blown away by the incredible talent I witnessed on stage…so much so that I literally sat in complete shock for a good two minutes after the first act.

But as I walked home, I began to wonder: What is it that has made “Les Mis” such a timeless treasure? It must be something deeper than the caliber of the acting or music that continues to inspire audiences of all languages and cultures, regardless of actors or venue. Les Misérables is a show about courage, love, heartbreak, passion, and the resilience of the human spirit—themes which undoubtedly transcend time and place. Perhaps the most relevant themes, however, are related to the dignity of the human person. The affirmation of human dignity within the musical—through compassion, empathy, mercy, and forgiveness—ultimately evokes restoration and transformation. The amazing thing about the affirmation of human dignity is just how far-reaching one seemingly insignificant act of compassion can be.

After 14 years in prison, Jean Valjean is released on parole with papers that brand him as a former convict. He is unable to find work or housing for many days until a bishop invites Valjean into his home to spend the night. In the middle of the night, Valjean tries to sneak off with silver candlesticks, the only piece of wealth in the bishop’s home. Valjean is stopped by local policemen, but the bishop covers for Valjean, saying he gave the silver as a gift. The bishop then tells Valjean to use this silver to become an honest man. The bishop could have easily written Jean Valjean off as a sinful, unappreciative scoundrel. Yet, he is the first to see him as more than a number and more than his past crimes: He gives Jean Valjean the opportunity to realize his own worth and potential for excellence. And it is this affirmation human dignity, in fact, that creates a “ripple effect of compassion,” eventually giving hope to an entire community, despite the tragedies of loss and heartbreak they must together face.

The amazing thing about the affirmation of human dignity is just how far-reaching one seemingly insignificant act of compassion can be.

Do we truly realize the extent to which one simple act of kindness can influence others’ lives? Each of our choices contributes to the formation of not only ourselves but of other people. We are constantly impacting those around us—positively or negatively—through our actions, ideologies, conversations, and lifestyles. Those who we influence, in turn, go on to influence others. So each of us has the ability to offer a unique kind of hope and encouragement and light and love to the world, even through seemingly insignificant decisions. As we affirm the dignity of the human person, conform our decisions to this truth, and pursue excellence, we plant seeds which have the potential to blossom beautifully in our families, schools, communities, and cultures.

Les Mis also demonstrated that in giving ourselves to others, we begin to recognize our own worth. After being treated with immense kindness, Jean Valjean finds himself on a mission of love: He goes on to make many selfless sacrifices and those who encounter him are empowered to do the same. John Paul II once said: “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” How true this rang for Jean Valjean in Les Misérables! In repeatedly risking his life—and asking nothing in return—he becomes increasingly free and increasingly aware of his own dignity. By the end of the play, he no longer defines himself by the past. Rather, he discovers his true identity: Jean Valjean. This realization prevents him from succumbing to lies and from becoming the monster Javert accuses him of being. Ultimately, it saves Jean and it saves his community.

 

–The Broadway Newbie

 

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After living in New York City for two years, I have seen my fair share of Broadway shows. I have seen comedies, dramas, romances, and of course, Les Misérables, which I have seen twice. To me, Les Mis offers something more than beautiful singing, acting, and sets: Les Mis forces us to ask of ourselves, “what am I worth?” Is my worth defined by my past, or by what society thinks of me?

Les Misérables contains several blatant violations of human dignity, which leave characters feeling broken, rejected and alone. Several are told by the world, “You did wrong by the law, and that makes you unworthy of my love and attention.” After stealing bread to feed his starving family, Valjean becomes a number in a chain gang and is told, “men like you can never change.” Javert dehumanizes Jean Vealjean by referring to him merely by his convict number, “24601,” and insisting “once a thief, always a thief.” Likewise, in order to raise money to save her daughter’s life, Fantine resorts to prostitution. She is not only used as an object by men, but ostracized by her community because of her decision. Little Cosette is taken advantage of by the Thénardiers, who treat her as a slave. The student revolutionaries dehumanize themselves, telling each other that the state is worth more than their individual lives and loves.

The reason Les Misérables touches its audiences in ways other shows cannot is that it speaks to us to remind us of the times society has tried to define our worth. We are part of a world that does not value the individual or their dignity, and sometimes we want to belt out, either with our voices or in our hearts, “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living.” When that happens, we are given the option to either believe the lies saying we are “slaves” and “scum of the streets,” or we remember that no one- not an officer of the law, a con man, or any single person- can take away our worth, dignity, and ability to love.

The reason Les Misérables touches its audiences in ways other shows cannot is that it speaks to us to remind us of the times society has tried to define our worth.

The broken people of Les Misérables are healed when they are shown love and cared for: Fantine dies with a smile on her face after Valjean saves her and promises to take care of her child; Marius’s survivor’s guilt is cured by Cosette’s vow of marriage; Valjean finally accepts his worth at the end of his life as Marius and Cosette sit with him while he dies. Misérables means “the miserable ones”, which is what we become if we bow down to a false definition of our worth; when we learn to show others and ourselves that we are worth so much more than a label, the dream we once dreamed of a life worth living will become a reality.

Les Misérables is an incredible example of how a work of art can express human value and dignity through music, emotions, and heart-wrenching song and elevate the audience to a higher understanding of their own dignity. It is the story of the human spirit tested under terrible conditions and persevering in love, kindness, and eventually, self-worth.

The Broadway Fanatic

 

Written by our WYA Interns in New York City, Lauren Benzing and Michelle Volk. Learn more about our internship programs in New York by visiting our internship page.