As I announced to y'all the other day, I recently finished reading Victor Hugo'sepic masterpiece, Les Miserables. And immediately, I knew that I would have to write some posts here and there about it, because the novel is extremely thought-provoking, deep, and gives many experiences worthy of discussion. So if you haven't read the novel or seen one of the movies, these posts will most likely contain spoilers of some sort-and you should really get off this blog and watch one of the Les Miserables movies ASAP (I loved the 2012 musical with Anne Hathaway, but if you're not into musicals, the 1998 with Liam Neeson is also quite lovely). So consider yourself forewarned. For those of you who wish to stay for this (hopefully) stimulating post, do read on!
We need to talk about Thenardier. Because even if we utterly hate him, we have to be open to how God uses this man in the story-because Thenardier is unknowingly an instrument of salvation.
Yes, the man is completely despicable. He is a scoundrel, a cheat, a liar, and quite deceitful. To quote Hugo's masterpiece itself, Thenardier:
“was a little man, meagre, pale, angular, bony, and lean, who appeared to be sick, and whose health was excellent; here his knavery began. He smiled habitually as a matter of business, and tried to be polite to everybody, even to the beggar to whom he refused a penny…”
However, even with Thenardier's most vile intents, God uses and turns his actions into opportunities for salvation in a few very critical parts of the story. The significance of Thenardier's presence in the novel really struck me. After all, in the movies that I have seen, the man does not seem to do a whole lot, outside of abusing Cosette and demanding money, besides briefly popping into scattered scenes, like the sewer and wedding. Yet, one of the many thoughts that flooded my mind after reading the novel concerned the unlikely salvation brought through this horrific character. There are two prominent examples of this fact, which completely blew me away:
The Sewer Scene. How can any of us forget the critical, tense moments when Jean Valjean, carrying an unconscious, wounded Marius, races through the Paris sewer system? Page after page describes the determined, exhausted Jean Valjean fleeing, trudging, and fighting for their survival. And then, after several minutes of fighting for survival, Jean Valjean comes to the end: a large grate is the only object which stands between himself and freedom from the sewer. He shakes the grate frantically, trying to open it. Yet, even though Valjean is incredibly strong, the grate won't budge.
“He turned his back to the grating and dropped upon the pavement, rather prostrate than sitting, beside the yet motionless Marius, and his head sank between his knees. No exit. This was the last drop of anguish.”
What?!?! I internally shrieked as I read these words. The man who escaped so many horrid, terrible situations, who trudged through mire and many difficulties, is STUCK. For once, there is no way out. After all, if a man of his strength can't make the the sewer budge, who can? But ah! We must keep reading, because God's unlikely instrument enters the scene.
“In the midst of this annihilation, a hand was laid upon his shoulder, and a voice which spoke low said to him, ‘Go halves.’”
Yes, it is our nasty acquaintance Thenardier. He can't recognize Jean Valjean in the light, and figures that Valjean must have assassinated the unconscious man (Marius, which Thenardier also doesn't see). So, Thenardier offers this deal: go halves. Together, they will ransack Marius' pockets, and split the findings in half. Then, Thenardier will open the grating so that Valjean can properly dispose of the body-because Thenardier has a key. Jean Valjean forks over money, and Thenardier uses his key to free them from the constraints of the sewer.
I want to clarify that Thenardier had no noble purpose in all of this. Not only did he think Jean Valjean was an assassin trying to make an escape, but freeing Valjean was entirely selfish. See, this sewer opened onto a beach where ealier Thenardier and Javert had been in a bit of a conflict. Thenardier escapes to the sewers, but knows that Javert is still watching and waiting. So, when Jean Valjean comes along, Thenardier figures that he will be the perfect bait: Javert will be excited that someone is coming out of the sewers, and that will distract him from Thenardier. As I mentioned, Thenardier is all nastiness. But that doesn't stop him from being instrumental in salvation. God works through him, even though Thenardier has no clue about the salvation that is brought about due to his actions.
The Scene Leading up to Reconciliation. In the novel, after all of the craziness of the sewers, battles, and wounds, Marius and Cosette are together again, preparing for marriage, Monsieur Gillenormand (Marius' grandfather) is extremely happy, and all is set for Marius, Cosette, and Jean Valjean to live at Gillenormand's house. But, the day after the wedding, Jean Valjean reveals his past to Marius, and Marius isn't too happy. On top of that, Marius is fairly certain that Valjean killed Javert, and that doesn't make him happy, either. Oh, and he believes that Jean Valjean stole from Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of a small town, which enrages him. Jean Valjean cannot, in good conscience, live with them, but he asks Marius to let him visit Cosette once a day, to which Marius agrees. But, as the days go by, Marius enacts simple measures to cut Jean Valjean off from Cosette gradually. Finally, painfully, Cosette doesn't see Jean Valjean very often, and Jean Valjean is dying alone, at home.
But, salvation comes yet again.
Thenardier shows up at Marius' house, offering secrets for money. The thing is, Marius already knows what Thenardier is offering as "secrets." However, as Marius and Thenardier talk, Marius starts exclaiming about how Jean Valjean killed Javert and stole from Monsieur Madeleine. Well, Thenardier may be a scoundrel, but he can't let this false information just sit there. So, he sets the record straight: Jean Valjean didn't kill Javert, because Javert killed himself. And Jean Valjean didn't steal from Monsieur Madeleine, because he was Monsieur Madeleine. Also in the conversation, Thenardier talks about how a man in the sewers (remember, he didn't know this was Jean Valjean and Marius) had assassinated another. He had even torn a bit cloth out of the "dead man's" coat, which he shows Marius.
Marius completely loses it, all of the realizations hitting him as he sees the piece of his coat in Thenardier's hands. Jean Valjean saved his life! Jean Valjean is a hero! And he, Marius, had cut Jean Valjean off from his and Cosette's life! So, throwing tons of money at Thenardier (because Thenardier had wanted funds to travel to America. Though sadly, he takes Marius' money and becomes a slaver), Marius grabs Cosette and runs to Jean Valjean's house. They are able, in God's great mercy, to speak and reconcile with Jean Valjean right before he dies. So heartrendingly sad and beautiful (and yes, for the last several pages of the book I was sobbing immensely).
Thenardier is a vital part of the story, Les Miserables. Yet, he is cruel, awful, and continually exudes nastiness. It really bugs me that he ultimately becomes a slaver. Why, oh why, could he not have become good? However, as I have discussed today, God still takes Thenardier, vileness and all, and uses him instrumentally to bring about salvation.
God works in mysterious ways. Isn't that the adage? Yet, as cliched as this might sound, it's true. God works through car accidents, deaths, bad hair days, the people we can't stand, failed tests, and the people we completely hate. He brings good out of everything. He can work salvation using any situation or person. Yes, bad situations can be extremely irritating to go through, and people we immensely dislike can be just plain annoying. But let's try and work on our perspective. How is God working through this person, or that situation? How is God bringing about salvation and hope in all of the trials and difficulties? Many times, we may not be able to see any of this, but we can ask God to help us trust that He is in control.
We may run into the Thenardiers of our lives today. Instead of spending time and energy being annoyed, angered, or completely irritated by them, let us humble ourselves, so that we may receive all of the gifts and salvation that God wants to bless our interactions with. Yes, this is difficult, and I do not claim to be an expert; all the same, we must continually strive to love others more purely and be open to the varied ways in which God works.
Have a wonderful feast of the Transfiguration today!