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.
- 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,
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.
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