It’s Lit!

FULL EPISODE

The Beauty and Anguish of Les Misérables!

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable is one of history’s most famous novels and one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history. On this special episode of It’s Lit! we explore how Les Miserable became both a national and revolutionary anthem, and so publicly adored that all 1,900 pages never went out of print.

AIRED: April 19, 2019 | 0:09:07
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TRANSCRIPT

- Victor Hugo Les Miserables is just as famous for its

adaptations as it is for being a French national treasure.

The image most associated with Les Mis

was based on a drawing by French illustrator Emile Bayard

for the first edition of the novel,

but nowadays, it's an instantly recognizable icon

owing to its association with the 1985 stage musical,

one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history.

Unlike Hugo's other most famous work, Notre-Dame de Paris,

adaptations of Les Mis tend not to make massive changes

to the source material, save maybe cutting for its

not inconsiderable length.

Unlike other famous works like Melville's Moby Dick,

Les Mis wasn't rediscovered decades later.

It was never a lost treasure.

Les Mis was a sensation upon release

and it has never been out of print.

It has inspired over 65 film and television adaptations,

and Upton Sinclair described the novel as

"one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world".

But how did this doorstop of a book

that most people have never fully read,

admit it, you skimmed the Waterloo chapters, I did,

become both the national and revolutionary anthem?

And so publicly adored

that all 1900 pages of it never went out of print?

Nevermind that it went on to be adapted into

the most perfect and memable musical of all time?

To understand the appeal of Les Mis,

you must also understand the man behind the manifest,

I mean, novel.

Victor Hugo's ideology is hard to pin down

because, like the country he lived in,

it changed a lot throughout his life.

Hugo grew up during the governmental hot potato

that was France in the 19th century.

His father, Leopold Hugo, was team Napoleon,

while his mother, Sophie Hugo, was team royalist,

so hard that she or may not have had an affair

with a guy who was eventually executed

for allegedly plotting against Napoleon.

Hugo grew up absorbing both

the religious monarchist ideology of his mother and also

the idea of liberte, egalite, fraternite from his father.

Earlier in life, Victor was a Catholic Royalist,

but by the time he started working on Les Mis,

he was championing republicanism and free thought.

While Hugo turned against the faith in his adulthood,

so much so that he asked to be buried

without a cross on his tombstone,

you can see the influence of his Catholic upbringing

in the character of Bishop Myriel,

the saintly priest who refused to turn

Jean Valjean into the police

and lets him keep the silver he stole from him,

helping Jean Valjean to start a new life.

The narrator says of Myriel,

"There are men who toil at extracting gold,

"he toiled at the extraction of pity.

"Universal misery was his mine".

Also important to know is that Victor Hugo

was not just a dramatist and a novelist

but was also a politician

and was very politically active his entire life.

He was a vocal opponent of Louis Napoleon

a.k.a. Napoleon III, and he hated the guy so much

that he was exiled at Guernsey

for his vociferous criticisms of the man.

Les Mis was even published while Hugo was in exile.

Hugo was elected to the National Assembly of the Second

Republic as a Conservative,

only to end up trolling his own party

by calling for the end of misery

and abolishing the death penalty

and advocating for universal suffrage

and free education for all children.

But the main thrust of Les Mis is an expression

of Hugo's belief that we need to do something

about all of the, you know, poverty.

While there is a popular misconception

that Les Mis is about the French Revolution,

the story actually takes place

during the Paris Uprising of 1832

a.k.a. the June Rebellion, an anti-monarchist insurrection

of Parisian republicans many of whom were students.

During the Spring of 1832,

Paris suffered a widespread outbreak of cholera.

Which ended with a death toll of over 18,000 in the city

and 100,000 across France.

In addition to that, the economic disparity

between the rich and the poor,

that fueled the original French Revolution,

eeh, never really went away.

And the restoration of the monarchy in 1830

was a big outrage to the Republicans.

What's the point of the original revolution

if we're just gonna end up back where we started?

But the most noteworthy thing about the revolutionaries

in Les Mis is ultimately, they lose.

The French Revolution of 1791 is the event

that illustrates not only the shifting tide

in the Western world away from monarchy

but it's also emblematic of enlightenment thinking,

love of justice and order, of structure and rationality.

But the problem with revolution is that it kind of

stands in direct opposition to those ideals.

You kinda have to uproot the old order

in order to have a new one.

So there's a cognitive dissonance here.

Things obviously need to change

and the powers that be have no incentive to allow change

but we really do like structure and predictability.

The idea of revolution was significant to the people

but ultimately not fully embraced in the long term.

Hugo operated very much between

those two spaces in his work.

He was fascinated with contradiction and complexity

both with characters and with culture.

According to writer David Langness,

"We are not born in sin but in beauty, Hugo tells us.

"This realization doesn't seem so revolutionary today,

"but it did then and it has underpinned modern

"humanity's self-understanding ever since".

That said, when examining Les Mis,

it's important to recall that Hugo never lived in poverty.

He was a wealthy man and well traveled in his youth.

So with that sympathetic detachment that Hugo wrote with,

Les Mis can kind of romanticize poverty,

you know, in the way plastic bag in the wind

can mean everything and yet nothing.

In his depiction of the downtrodden,

Hugo tended to reduce the characters to shorthand.

Fantine, the hooker with the heart of gold,

Valjean, the reformed criminal,

Cosette, the beleaguered ingenue,

Marius, the doe-eyed backstreet boy,

Javert, the Javert.

The same can be said of revolutionary text

with mainstream appeal in general,

sympathetic to the idea of revolution

but cautious to embrace it fully.

Take Marius for example,

the guy who falls for Valjean's adopted daughter, Cosette,

you know, this character,

but when she's grown up and less miserable.

Marius joins the Friends of the ABC,

a group of French Republican students.

Their name is a pun

which is how you know they are students.

In French, abaisse means the abased people,

and phonetically sounds like ah, ba, ce,

which is ABC in French.

And during the uprising,

all of these characters except for Marius are killed.

But it says something about the author's priorities

that their existence isn't even brought up

until Marius interacts with them.

And Marius, well, he's way more preoccupied

with impressing his new girlfriend then you know,

justice and stuff.

And only really commits to the Friends of the ABC

after Cosette and Valjean peace out

in the middle of the night, and Marius was like,

aw well

I guess

okay

I'll join the revolution.

And when Valjean eventually joins the uprising,

he's not really there for the revolution so much

as to keep an eye on this rando

who's got eyes on his daughter.

Most of the characters are motivated

by interpersonal relationships.

In the end, only two well developed characters

are shown as ready to die for their beliefs.

Enjolras, the leader of the ABC,

a charming young man who was capable of being terrible,

and Javert who by the end of the novel

realizes that his dogmatism has put him

categorically in the moral wrong.

And he has such an existential crisis

that he throws himself into the Seine.

Les Mis acknowledges that society desperately needs

greater equality and justice.

But it's still kind of fond of the order-loving old guard,

structure, monarchy, the Catholic Church.

But this inner dissonance also speaks

to the story's universality.

In Hugo's own words,

"Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world,

"do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps.

"Wherever men go in ignorance or despair,

"wherever women sell themselves for bread,

"wherever children lack a book to learn from

"or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door

"and says open up, I am here for you."

it's interesting that one of history's

most famous novels about a revolution

focuses on a revolution that ultimately failed

and was otherwise forgotten by history.

Most of the characters with strong convictions die.

The cruelest characters in the story make out pretty well.

And yet, there's still an optimism that belies the whole,

well, miserable story that makes it

worthy of revisitation and of adaptation.

Les Mis focuses on the tragedy of the central characters

and uses them as a representation of the wretched overall.

It's simple and it's effective.

Hugo fills Les Mis with his rationalism,

his romantic ideas of love and friendship.

But what makes the text so resonant is that

it has a lot to say about the politics of its day

while always feeling relevant to the time

it is either read or adapted.

So we keep revisiting this little known failed revolution

and the characters that crossed paths with it over and over.

The important takeaway is that the fight against injustice

is ongoing and is no more resolved today

than it was in Hugo's time.

Sometimes you need a revolution.

Because injustice isn't going to just itself.

Speaking of Les Mis, you should check out

the new Les Miserables adaptation on Masterpiece on PBS.

The six episode mini series continues Sundays

at 9 Central on PBS and you can stream it on PBS.org

or the PBS video app on your Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast

and other fancy TV boxes.

Victor Hugo would want you to do it.

(lively music)

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