Who Do You Believe? Jean Valjean and the Amalekite

Les Miserables 1999
Les Miserables 1999 (Photo credit: Rick Payette)

My wife and I went on a date (admittedly a rare occurrence with four children) to see Les Misérables. It was a wonderful (at times depressing) musical film adaptation of the classic book by Victor Hugo (which I have never read). One of the things which struck me was the sense in which we are beholden to the story delivered by Jean Valjean. He tells of his reason for the nineteen years imprisonment (stealing bread for his sister’s son) as an inclusio (in the opening scene just before his release and again at the end just before he dies).

The question is: Can we take Jean Valjean at his word?  It is a literary technique to allow for ambiguity by keeping such significant claims in the mouth of the perpetrator.  After all, don’t most criminals have some form of justification that is claimed?  Should we believe this man who wants to assert his innocence?  As it turns out, we are never shown the actual incident.  There is no narrator who asserts this claim. Such things would actually validate the claims of Valjean, but as it stands (at least in the musical film adaptation…again…I haven’t read the book so I cannot say at all how it is presented by Victor Hugo) we are actually left to wonder if Valjean speaks the truth or not.  I want to believe him (he is the “hero” of the tale), but struggle to do so (he is also the man in need of constant redemption).

This leads me to think of the account of Saul’s demise in 2 Sam. 1:1-16. In this account, we find an Amalekite who brings word to David that Saul is dead. He recounts a tale of Saul instructing to take his life so that the Philistines would not have the pleasure. As it stands, we might be bound to believe this account of the Amalekite (in fact, David does; vv. 14, 16). But the narrator in 1 Samuel 31:1-6 states that Saul tried to convince his own armor-bearer to finish him off, but in end falls on his sword to end his life to which the armor-bearer does likewise (vv.5-6).

So which account should we believe?  The words of the narrator (1 Sam) or the character of the Amalekite (2 Sam)?  I personally think it is normal that one would accept the words of the narrator over any character given that the narrator typically asserts some sense of omniscience in all accounts. This is the conundrum of literary stylizing.  One cannot simply assume that all characters (particularly those painted in some way as untrustworthy–a criminal imprisoned for 19 years, an Amalekite) speak the truth. It is this ambiguity which actually helps to create a deeper sense of reality to the whole tale. We do not know the reality, but in the end it would not matter. In either case, we are led toward other matters more pressing: the redemption of Jean Valjean and the rise of David as king in the place of Saul and his sons.

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