By Ilana Cohen
Have you ever heard the phrase “there’s a right and wrong side of history?” This phrase relies on each person’s personal belief on good and evil and the belief that as society moves forward through time, we are striving for perfection as a society. The problem, however, is that each person’s concepts of morality is individualized and unique to their upbringing and life experiences. If one were to ask ten people how they define good and evil, they would receive ten different answers. Thus, morality is not black and white, and what is right and wrong is not always clear. People do not like this idea that good and evil is messy and ambiguous, as many people crave guidelines to live their life by and some way to measure whether or not they are a good person. Many people agree to live by the laws as a measure of their morality, as being law-abiding citizens is a way to justify being a good person. However, this bodes the question what do you do when the laws of your society seem to be unjust or broken and conflict with your morals. This question, along with the question of what is the right and the wrong side of history, is directly addressed in Les Miserables, which follows the stories of the characters involved in a failed revolution attempt in France during the political turmoil of the French Revolution. In a cruel and unjust society, characters are caught in moral dilemmas forcing the audience to confront the questions: is following the law truly what is good, is good and bad as black and white as what is illegal and legal, and what is justice.
From the introduction of the movie, the audience is introduced to a character who blurs the lines between right and wrong. Jean Valjean has just finished 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Even after serving 19 years, his punishment is not over. His papers not only show that he is a criminal but also that he is a dangerous man, making it impossible for him to find work or shelter or food. From the little we watch of Jean Valjean’s struggles and knowing what he was being punished for, the audience sympathizes for Jean, not believing he is truly a criminal or deserves the consequences he is facing. Jean Valjean becomes discouraged after being turned away when seeking food and shelter and attacked by children, and he begins to think that maybe he is bad like society has designated him to be after his one moral transgression. He becomes the criminal that he has been labelled and treated as when he steals from a bishop, the one man who shows him kindness and gives him a place to stay and food to eat. He takes all the silver he could from the bishop’s home and runs. He acts out of desperation and the belief that this one night of kindness does not change the cruelty of the world around him. He is caught, but the bishop gets him off the hook, supporting Valjean’s story that he was given the silver he stole and even giving him candlesticks. This is a turning point as Jean Valjean realized there is true goodness in the world, as he was treated with dignity for the first time in 19 years. As the rest of the world sees him as a worthless criminal, Valjean begins to view himself as one too, but he is reminded of the goodness a man can have. He realizes he can rehabilitate himself and pursue good, but he knows he must shed his identity as a dangerous man to do so. Once again he is faced with a dilemma between what he believes is the right thing to do and what is legal. Jean Valjean again chooses what is right over what is legal and sheds his identity as prisoner 24601. Despite this breaking the law and breaking his parole to do so, Jean Valjean believes he is doing the right thing by starting a new life.
The audience is then introduced to Fantine. She was impregnated and abandoned by a man several years ago and works at a factory to support the child. However, she was fired and cast off to the streets after refusing to sleep with her boss. Still needing to support her child, Fantine has no choice but to sell what she can for the money to support her daughter— her hair, her teeth, and then her body. She shows her desperation and inability to say no to anything asks of her as she sings in defeat, “What can I do? It pays a debt” in the number “Lovely Ladies.” When a man is trying to force himself on her and she fights back, she is the one to get in trouble with the police, as Javert immediately believes the narrative of the honorable man over the dirty prostitute, despite her protestations that her child will die if she goes to jail and cannot support her any longer. When Jean Valjean hears this, it strikes a chord within him, as her story is much like his– a good person having to take what society sees as immoral, dishonorable, and even illegal actions in order to save their family– and calls off the police. He swears to do right by her, though society has not, and vows to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Jean Valjean is faced with a predicament– allow an innocent man to be sent away to prison as a runaway convict and quit all the good work he has done as mayor, breaking his promise to care for Cosette or take turn himself in as prisoner 24601. Once again, the audience sees that good and bad is not black and white
After experiencing Fantine’s tragic ending, the audience is hurting for her and questions what kind of society would allow for someone so good to slip through the cracks and fail her over and over again. A society like that must be built on injustice and inequality, and a society like that would have laws that uphold those inequities and reinforce a broken system. Thus, breaking those laws, especially like the audience has seen Valjean do, does not seem to make someone a bad or immoral person. Just when the audience is convinced, this society is broken and Javert, who is enforcing the laws put in place by that society, seems to be the antagonist of the story, we are introduced to the actually immoral and dishonorable couple, Thenardier and his wife, who exploit Fantine and steal whatever they can from whoever they can but never get in trouble with the law. These are two people in the play that I, as an audience member, am begging for Javert to go on a lifelong pursuit of to bring them to justice, but no. Instead, Javert has made it his mission to bring to justice Valjean, who has only committed crimes when acting as caretaker to those in need– those failed by society. The irony shows how truly pointless following the law and being a good person is, as the true criminals in the show are never brought to justice. All of these moral dilemmas occur before the revolution plot, which is the most clear question of whether what is good and what is right, necessarily is what is legal. The revolutionaries actively break the laws and stage a violent revolt in order to protest the new king, who allows his people to live impoverished, homeless, and hungry– a clear example of the moral ambiguity of violent protests.
Watching the scenes during the revolution, the audience is forced to confront their beliefs about morality, as in a war, you must pick what side you are on. Each of the young revolutionaries is given that choice, to be on the side of the people who are not heard by their government and are slipping through the cracks or the side of the law. Gavroche is a very symbolic character as at a young age, things are much more idealized and uncomplicated. He knows the right thing to do is to fight, as he knows what it is to be poor and hungry. All he knows is the status quo is not the way it should be, so he is on the side of change. When he is shot, it is a significant moment in the show, because most everyone agrees that shooting and killing a young child is not the right, moral thing to do. However, in the context of the show, he is technically a criminal, fighting on the side of the revolutionaries against the king and France, so shooting Gavorche was the right thing for the soldier to do. At this point, any of the audience that did not already completely sympathize with the side of the revolutionaries is completely horrified with the actions of the side of the law. Valjean continues to fulfill his promise to Fantine to care for Cosette and keep her happy, which he now realizes includes keeping her love, Marius, safe. Jean Valjean joins the revolution efforts to watch over Marius and is immediately faced with another moral dilemma. When Valjean is given the opportunity to kill javert and free himself forever, the audience is practically cheering for him to do so, and yet, once again, he chooses to do what he considers the right thing.Though Javert has made Valjean’s life miserable, requiring him to live in a perpetual state of hiding, Valjean knows Javert is a good man, only doing his job and what he perceives as the right thing to do, so he lets him go.
Valjean returns to his original purpose for joining the revolution– ensuring Marius’s safe return home for Cosette. He drags Marius’s wounded, unconscious body through the sewers to safety. At the same time, Javert, who has just been granted life by the criminal he has been chasing for years, is questioning his purpose. Javert walks through the destruction caused by the revolution, his feet standing in a pool of blood, walking down the line of the dead young men, and then he finally gets to Gavroche and he leaves his medal on his chest. The audience can see that Javert is no longer sure he is doing the right thing. Ignoring his doubts, Javert goes to seize his opportunity to catch Valjean. Valjean has made it to the opening of the sewer, exhausted and covered in human feces. Above him, stands Javert with his gun, ready to bring Valjean to justice. However, when Valjean begs him to let him go temporarily to get Marius home to safety and promises to return after, Javert hesitates and allows him to pass.
Pacing on the edge of the railing to a bridge, the audience can see Javert is being faced with the opposite dilemma as Jean Valjean. He has lived his life by the law, both following it and enforcing it; he spent his life in pursuit of Jean Valjean, who he saw as nothing more than a criminal who broke his parole. After seeing Valjean, a man he has decided is a bad person, a criminal, show him mercy and only protect others, he is faced with his own crisis. He starts questioning if he is doing the right thing by going after Jean Valjean which causes him to question if he is doing the right thing by enforcing the law in general. Overwhelmed by his new questioning of morality, unsure if he has spent his life enforcing laws which might not be right or good, Javert allows himself to fall off the bridge to his death. Commiting suicide, in the Christian faith, is a sin, which is perhaps Javert’s rejection of the constructions of morality he has lived by his entire life. Javert’s suicide is followed by the passing of Jean Valjean, who even in death seems to foil Javert. Javert died alone and his death was preceded by overwhelming doubt uncertainty and a complete questioning of his entire life and purpose while Valjean died, surrounded by his loved ones, at peace knowing that he lived a good life and did what he thought was best always. The final scene shows Valjean joining the rest of the fallen souls throughout the show, including Eponine, Gavroche, and Fantine, as they sail away on a ship made of furniture, like the barricade they built during the revolution. Having the final scene be all of the characters who have passed really forces the audience to think about who will be remembered and how they will be remembered. This brings me back to the question of what is the right and wrong side of history. Though Les Miserables is fiction, it is based on the struggles of real people during the French Revolution. Which forces me to post the question: which characters in Les Miserables are on the right side of history? Is Jean Val Jean or Javert?