The main character of Les Miserables is Jean Valjean a former convict who after nearly twenty years of forced labor is released back into society. He is initially viewed only by the stigma of being a ‘dangerous’ criminal until he sheds the identity given to him by society to be the man that he truly is.
As soon as he is released he is considered a social outcast and treated cruelly by everyone he encounters because of his past. He had been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, an illegal and immoral act done for good reasons. As society labels him a criminal Valjean begins to accept the role that is given to him. Angry and bitter by the treatment he receives from the world he soon resorts to thievery to survive.
After being given shelter and food by the local Bishop and church Valjean steals the silverware and runs off only to be captured by the police and brought before the Bishop. The Bishop in an act of generosity lies to the police, informing them that the silverware was a gift and even includes a set of silver candlesticks, showing Valjean that while the rest of society views him as a thief and criminal that is not all that he is or has to be. The Bishop implores Valjean to use the silver to start a new life as an honest man.
After another act of thievery Valjean realizes that his life now had reached a crisis point, where he had the option of choosing what to do and who to be. He repents and the identity of Jean Valjean dies only to be reborn as Monsieur Madeleine.
Monsieur Madeleine uses the silver to start a new life and in a few years becomes a wealthy factory owner and Mayor of a small town. He is renowned for his generosity and kindness.
The character of Jean Valjean experiences what Christians would refer to as being ‘born again’ as he turns from a life of a sinner to one of a Christian. Regardless of religion this is something that anyone can do with their life by rejecting their current selves and remaking themselves into a different person. The idea of death and rebirth don’t need to be religious in nature and unfortunately also does not need to be a positive. Valjean’s mistreatment by society and his time in prison can also be seen as a moment of death and rebirth as he is changed from a man caring for his family to the ‘dangerous’ criminal that society viewed him as.
The cycle of death and rebirth often described in Buddhism extends beyond the idea of a physically cycle but to that of a mental, emotional and spiritual cycle that occurs to everyone. The simple concept that people change over time is the realization that the old is gone and the new remains. In some cases like the transformation of Valjean into a criminal it is mainly an occurrence due to outside factors, we simply change into what society sees in us. Whether that society consists of family, friends or the entire world many of us shape ourselves to fill or satisfy a certain viewpoint without even realizing it.
The second transformation of Valjean into Monsieur Madeleine is one of conscious choice. A suicide that kills off the old to make way for the new. These tend to happen when someone reachers a crisis point in their life or in other words hits rock bottom. You see such transformations in ‘Born Again’ Christians or other who find faith in other religious avenues. Again, this change does not need to be a positive one as some when they hit rock bottom can opt to change in the opposite direction.
Valjean before becoming Monsieur Madeleine had the opportunity to make that personal choice to be a criminal or to be a better man.