Not Enough Cake To Go Around: Les Misérables and Culture During Revolutionary France

Everyone loves Les Misérables. Even if you’ve never heard of the show, the infectious rhythm of “Do You Hear the People Sing” is probably familiar to your ears. And even though the representation of women is lacking and one-dimensional to say the least, you can’t help but root for the barricade boys and their passionate idealism. Victor Hugo, the original author of Les Misérables (often abbreviated to “Les Miz”), expertly crafted a story that matched the revolutionary period in France with everlasting characters and themes that are still relevant today. However, first in foremost, Hugo wrote Les Miz as a representation of French cultural identity during the early 19th century. Many of the overarching themes such as intense poverty, roles of women, moral ambiguity, and extreme law enforcement were characteristics of French society during the revolutionary period. Hence, by portraying France through the eyes of Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo comprehensively depicts French cultural identity through one of the harshest and most graphic epics of musical theater.

For those unacquainted, Les Miz follows the narrative of a fictional man, named Jean Valjean, as he lives through the revolutionary period in France. The show begins with Jean Valjean being released from 19 years of prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family. Although he is now free, Valjean struggles to find redemption as society has forever deemed him a criminal. After a tremendous act of mercy from a bishop, Valjean starts his life anew, though the police inspector, Javert, attempts to track him down. While assuming his new identity, Valjean is responsible for the termination of a single mother working in his factory, Fantine. Feeling guilty for having fired her, Valjean promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Simultaneously, an innocent man is arrested for Javert suspects he is Valjean, and in order to free him, Valjean must confess his identity to Javert, forcing him to go on the run again. Nine years later, Cosette falls in love with a young student revolutionary named Marius. In order to save Marius, Valjean becomes involved in the June Rebellion (aka Paris Rising of 1832). During this encounter, Valjean has the chance to kill Javert, but decides to spare him, for he does not hold a grudge against the man for doing his duty. Torn between his beliefs about God and his desire to adhere the law, Javert commits suicide. Valjean ends up saving Marius, and Marius and Cosette marry. Valjean dies in peace soon after. (Though I left out many of the details that make this show so great, I tried to make this summary as concise as possible.)

The women in Les Miz primarily take the role of caretakers and love interests that support the men of the show, restricting their autonomy, but also mirroring the role they played in French society. Fantine, though not a love interest, is a prime example of the sparse roles imparted to women in Les Miz. For the majority of Act One, Fantine struggles to find work to pay for the care of Cosette. Single mothers were quite taboo, as stated in the song “At the End of the Day,” and men were expected to make most of the income, limiting the jobs available for women. At the beginning of the show, Fantine is secure with her job as a factory worker, but once fired, her opportunities for occupation become highly restricted, leaving her to make money working as a prostitute. Fantine’s fall into poverty reflects the lack of control women carried in France. Fantine’s burdens are paradoxical: forced to sell her jewelry, her hair, and her body to scrape up money (for she has no other options), yet still a social obligation to support her child. However, Fantine is not the only woman in the show to sacrifice her life to the patriarchy. Éponine (not mentioned in the summation above) conveys a strong love interest for Marius in “On My Own,” even though he is in love with Cosette. In this pursuit of hopeless love, Éponine disguises herself as a student revolutionary in order to find Marius but is fatally shot while crossing the barricade. Éponine’s death represents the shallow aspirations held for women in France. Éponine’s purpose is to be worthy of a man’s love, but when he does not love her back (Marius loves Cosette instead), her life becomes meaningless.

Extreme law enforcement plays a pivotal role in the storytelling of Les Miz, but also serves as a representation of French government and aristocratic oppression towards the common Frenchman/woman. As mentioned in the summation, Javert’s role in the musical is that of tracking down Jean Valjean for breaking parole. Valjean, having served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, does not want to go back to the backbreaking labor he would have to endure for even longer than before. Because Javert can send people away for decades, he carries immense power over the people of France. This large power gap, along with a severe lack of checks and balances, is a purposeful attempt by those in charge to keep the bourgeoisie and lower class from revolting (this was the revolutionary period after all). Furthermore, committing a crime carries even greater consequence than just prison time. As Valjean finds out after his release, society forever marks him as a criminal, making it virtually impossible to find work. French business employers were unwilling to associate themselves with socially undesirable criminals. As if the last 19 years of “rehabilitation” were meaningless, Valjean must either starve or steal food again, which would send him back to prison. The French government designed this extreme law enforcement system to iniquitously keep crime rate low, as it would not only incentivize people to not commit crimes but would also ensure that those desperate enough to commit the crimes would never leave prison. Luckily for Valjean, however, the bishop bails him out with enough money to escape Javert and start a new life.

Analogous with extreme enforcement of laws, oppression of the French people also manifested itself in the form of intense poverty. The wealth distribution in France was astonishingly large (again, revolutionary period–it was pretty bad). Poverty also plays a central role in Les Miz. The show begins and centers around Valjean escaping from poverty, but other examples include Fantine becoming a prostitute, the Thénardiers scrounging for cash throughout the show (“Master of the House,” “The Robbery,” and “Beggars at the Feast”), and the students starting the June Rebellion. In fact, every conflict in this show stems from the immense poverty faced by the French people. Victor Hugo ridicules many facets of French society while consistently referencing the negative effects of poverty. Correspondingly, Hugo’s depiction of poverty in Les Mis conveys the futility of attempting to change the system that had impoverished so many.

The dichotomy between Valjean and Javert provides the main conflict for the show as well as a parallel dichotomy in moral beliefs–ultimately conveying a challenge of authority. Valjean and Javert possess starkly different moral compasses. Interestingly, both characters’ moralities are defined by “Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development,” a psychological theory on the different levels of morality (I’m a psych major, so prepare for this to get a bit nerdy). Javert’s moral development is “Conventional,” specifically the “Law-and-Order Orientation,” for he blindly accepts and strictly enforces laws, considering only their importance in maintaining a functioning society. Valjean’s moral development, on the other hand, is “Postconventional,” specifically the “Universal-Ethical-Principal Orientation,” for he disobeys laws that are unjust and follows the principles of equality, dignity, and respect. In essence, Valjean has a higher level of moral development, for is not blind to injustice, but also because he feels guilty for breaking his principles. An example of this guilt takes place when Valjean confesses to Javert about his true identity in order to save an innocent man from going to prison in his place. Although Valjean could have been free from Javert’s pursuit for the rest of his life, his guilt to uphold his principles of equality, dignity, and respect forced him into confession. The point of this long explanation of morality is to interpret Victor Hugo’s agenda for French prosperity. Javert, a man who has done nothing but his job, followed the law as it was written, and conducted himself in accordance with his moral compass, is not viewed by the audience as a hero. Javert’s role as the antagonist in Les Miz is a strategy by Hugo to convey to his audience, the French people, that this level of morality is insufficient and incorrect. Instead, he makes Valjean the hero, a man who consistently breaks laws, but fights for what is right (based on universal ethical principles). Les Miz is a plea from Hugo to French people to mature their moral reasoning, to not submit to the absolutism created by those in power, and instead, fight for their rights (Monroe et al.).

Victor Hugo’s revolutionary (pun intended) novel turned musical encapsulates the cultural identity of revolutionary France, for it speaks directly to French people. Hugo’s depiction of intense poverty, coupled with the strictly enforced laws, as well as the limited rights allotted to women, accurately illustrates revolutionary France. As well, Hugo’s novel acts as a message to all French people: to start thinking beyond a “Law-and-Order Orientation” towards a “Universal-Ethical-Principal Orientation.”

Source:

Monroe, Ann, and Joel Amidon. “Education, Society, & the K-12 Learner.” Lumen, courses.lumenlearning.com/teachereducationx92x1/chapter/kohlbergs-stages-of-moral-development/.

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