Les Misérables Isn’t Political – But It Ought to Be

The setting for “Les Misérables” is Occupy Paris – in the 1800s. The heroes of the musical are the 99 percent – idealistic but poor students, orphans, the unemployed and hungry, exploited workers railing against abuses by the obscenely wealthy. The villain of the musical is Javert, a policeman dedicated to crushing a revolt by working Parisians. As a mediocre musical, the show has broken box office records. Now director Tobe Hooper has made the long-awaited film. But the whole “Les Mis” phenomenon has had zero political resonance. I think it’s because the protagonist doesn’t know whose side he’s on.

Marshall Fine summarizes the plot, such as it is:

The story – distilled from Victor Hugo’s five-section, 1,200-plus-page historical novel (full disclosure: Never read it, don’t intend to) – focuses on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), about to be released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. On his way out of prison, his jailer, Javert (Russell Crowe), warns Valjean that he will be dogging him, just waiting for him to violate his parole so he can send Valjean back to the clink.

Instead, Valjean disappears, popping up a dozen years later as the rich owner of a factory and mayor of a small town; these kind of story twists were so much easier in the days before mass media. But he’s still looking in his rearview mirror for Javert. So he’s understandably distracted when his factory foreman sexually harasses and then fires a poor single mother named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Her life goes so far off the tracks that she’s become a dying, tubercular prostitute when her path next crosses Valjean’s – whose guilt at Fantine’s fate leads to his vow at her deathbed to find and take care of her daughter, Cosette.

Valjean stays one step ahead of Javert, even as Cosette grows from a tot into Amanda Seyfried, who later falls in love with a student revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius is involved with an uprising against the return of the French monarchy in 1832 (not to be confused with the French revolution of 1789, which most people assume this work is about). On the barricades, as the students hold off the government forces, Valjean finally confronts Javert for the final time.

More detailed plot summary from SparkNotes.

The short-lived Paris Uprising of June 5-6 1832 (aka the June Rebellion) was motivated by a reactionary move to replace King Charles X, deposed in 1830, with another king supported by an unrepresentative government. France at the time was suffering a severe economic crisis, and in 1832 the poor neighborhoods of Paris were ravaged by a cholera epidemic. Troops were called in, the insurrectionists were surrounded in the center of the city, and the uprising was defeated.

The problem I have with Jean Valjean is not that he becomes rich, but that he seems resigned to the various injustices meted out to him by the misguided Javert. For Valjean, nothing is political; it’s all personal. Then at the end he saves Javert’s life, which leads Javert (this guy is seriously screwed up) to commit suicide. Valjean only goes to the barricades to save the life of Marius, not to uphold democracy. He is indifferent to the uprising itself and everything else that’s going on in France.

Perhaps worst of all is a commenter on a blog that said the fictional Valjean was a hero because he “was a Taker who decided to become a Maker.” As if we could all just wake up one day and decide to join the 1 Percent if we wanted to. Valjean got the money to start his factory by robbing a church.

No, the true message of Victor Hugo’s story is captured in this quote from another novelist, Anatole France (Inspector Javert would not see the irony):

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

It’s like House Speaker Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal: Every American can get a tax cut on their first $1 million in income. What could be more fair?

  1. #1 by Ken Bingham on December 28, 2012 - 3:46 pm

    Leave it up to the Washington Post to inject modern politics into a story about another time period. Opinion writer says Les Miz reinforces gender stereotypes. It was set in the 1800s not 2012 Thank you. People are always trying to apply today’s sensibilities on the past and you cannot do that.


  2. #2 by Richard Warnick on December 29, 2012 - 8:13 pm

    Ken– Thanks for the link. It confirms my suspicion that this musical deliberately misses the point.

    The politicized Eponine of the French production is transformed into a sad girl with a crush, a characterization echoed in the music that accompanies her. “Eponine is always introduced by the same instruments,” composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg explained. “It’s a shortcut,” he said, meant to telegraph a certain situation with just 15 seconds of music. In addition, the team rewrote her song “On My Own,” originally about poverty and hunger, to express unrequited love.

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