Spoiler alert! If you want to enjoy the movie Les Misérables without hearing extended discussions of it before hand, don't read this post if you haven't seen the movie yet!
Viewed from the perspective of Inspector Javert, the central concern of the story in Les Misérables is redemption from sin. Jean Valjean has broken the law, and he must pay. Once he has paid his debt to society, he is free. This is on the face of it a very reasonable perspective. Arguably, no lawful society can exist without adherence to this principle.
Of course Victor Hugo's entire point in writing the novel was to show how very problematic this is in the kind of world we live in. In a world where injustice reigns, slavish adherence to the law is the sin. From the perspective of Jean Valjean, "Against love there can be no law."
From the perspective of the law, Valjean is a repeat sinner. He steals, twice; attempts to escape from prison; violates parole; and joins in an unlawful uprising.
But Valjean stole bread in order to feed a starving child. He attempted to escape prison because feeding a starving child cannot be a crime. He violated parole because society was forcing him to continue to pay even though he had completed his sentence. He joined in a revolution that sought to alleviate the conditions of injustice that produced tragedies like his and so many others'.
Jean Valjean is from the beginning to the end of this story a person fundamentally driven by compassion. This does not change. It is not a variable within his story arc. From the point of view of the story's author, Victor Hugo, Jean Valjean is not a sinner (at least not in any conventional sense). Inspector Javert, though on the side of the law, is a sinner: utterly lacking in compassion, which is the Higher Law.
Javert Is never redeemed from his sin. Though offered numerous opportunities to tender mercy, he refuses every time. In the end, he succumbs to suicide (despair) at the moment when he simultaneously recognizes that compassion is the higher law, and that he is incapable of submitting to it.
Yet, Jean Valjean sees himself as a redeemed sinner. If he is a consistently compassionate person, what sin can he possibly be redeemed from? Valjean is redeemed in a very real sense, but not from lack of compassion as Inspector Javert should have been. The sin from which Valjean is redeemed is his lack of hope. He gives up on the world and on himself, not because he lacks compassion, but because he lacks hope that compassion has any place in such a world as this.
This is why Bishop Myriel's act of mercy is so significant to him. Valjean recognizes through this act that compassion in the world is possible, and it does make a difference. This act of mercy gives him the gift of hope. And from that moment on he commits his life to making a difference. Valjean's story arc is about redeeming himself from cynicism, not mercilessness. He evaluates every decision in his life based on whether it will provide concrete comfort and relief in this world.
Valjean must, by the way, believe in God in order to find hope. Only faith in God, who was manifested through the incomprehensible charitable act of Bishop Myriel, could offer him hope that his actions would ultimately make a difference in a world plunged in mercilessness and cruelty. Bishop Myriel made God real to Jean Valjean. And Valjean in turn made God real to others through a lifetime of consistent, sacrificial compassion.
This is why the story of Les Misérables resonates so deeply with me. As a young Mormon missionary in France, the central lesson I learned was the importance of love over the law. As a missionary I was subject to very exacting rules. I learned that frequently in order to respond compassionately to particular situations I needed to be willing to bend or break rules. I also needed to be able to forgive myself and others for perceived transgressions.
This lesson was extended over the years following my mission, as I came to terms with being gay. I learned much about the cruelty of the law, or at the very least, the cruelty of certain legalistic interpretations of the law. My coming-out process was a process of learning compassion toward myself and toward others.
What was much harder for me to learn, was the lesson that I needed to learn about hope. Serving a mission and coming out had taught me the central importance of love as the highest principle in the Gospel. But for many years I was plunged in despair and anger, because of my inability to believe in the possibility of love manifesting itself in the world that we live in.
To learn hope ultimately required a much greater act of faith on my part.