A Marxist Reading of Les Misérables

By: Priya Sankaran

We live in a land governed by law, structures, and institutions– all things we consider to be marks of a civilized and just nation. However, as the year 2020 has shown us, all that glitters is not gold. Under the shroud of this “virtuous” system, there is deeply entrenched inequality that affects the poorest, most marginalized people of the world. 2020 has further shown us that there comes a breaking point in society, where the most oppressed finally rise up against the powerful in order to create meaningful change.

Theories of Marxism detail this phenomenon. Within the context of Marxist philosophy, which proposes the abolishment of capitalism and class structure, the upper class of a society aims to hold economic power by establishing their status quo as natural and unchallengeable.The success of the dominant class (bourgeoisie) is in making their ideologies accepted and internalized by others, not necessarily through violence, but with the implementation of social institutions that subjugate the lower class (proletariat). Social institutions include government, religion, and other systems in society. 

The 2012 film musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables, is a story that follows this Marxist narrative arc, as it portrays a class struggle between an oppressed working class and elite bourgeoisie during a time of political instability and spurring revolutionary sentiments in 19th century France. Les Misérables features the justice system and its enforcers as the predominant social institution that seeks to suppress the vulnerable. This musical follows the struggle of Jean Valjean, a poor ex-convict, as he attempts to rebuild a dignified life following his release from prison. Despite his commitment to a virtuous and altruistic path, Valjean cannot conceal his identity indefinitely and must face his past. In the end, he, along with the French proletariat, break free from their struggles and move towards freedom. 

In Les Misérables, the criminal justice system and its proponents are social institutions in place that legitimize the authority of a powerful ruling class by subjugating convicted peasants. Legality is not a reflection of morality in this case, as Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Throughout the film, he is chased by Javert, played by Russel Crowe,a puritanical prison guard turned police inspector who is staunchly bent on upholding the law.

The opening song of the film, “Look Down”, unveils the ways in which a restrictive justice system demands order and obedience from its prisoners, often compromising the prisoners’ autonomy and enforcing a state of silent conformity. In this scene, hundreds of battered prisoners are clad in tattered red and grey robes, with chains restraining their necks and bodies.The prisoners are all males with unkempt beards, shaven heads, and filthy, blood-stained faces. They are separated into rows and are laboriously hauling a giant ship to shore with their bare hands. The costuming and makeup of the prisoners conveys a look of homogeneity. The prisoners begin to sing “Look down, look down/You’ll always be a slave/ Look down, look down/ You’re standing in your grave.” With each beat of the song they grunt and pull the ropes in unison. This gives the effect that the prisoners are all cogs in a machine, commodities that are being used as a form of mass production, which is characteristic of capitalism. The prisoners are essentially a mechanized force that must work on command. The camera then pans up to Javert, who is wearing a blue uniform and a smug look of authority. He is standing hundreds of feet above the prisoners which shows him literally and figuratively looking down on them. Thus, there is a clear imbalance of power. As a pawn of the elite ruling class and its laws, Javert is invested in imposing strict regulations on his prisoners. He monitors the prisoners as they labor on, keeping an eye out for any sign of defiance. Behavior exemplifying contention or provocation, the very qualities that characterize a person’s agency, threaten the homogenous balance maintained by Javert. 

As the prisoners sing, Javert catches the eyes of Valjean, who peers up at him with contempt. After the prisoners finish their task, they begrudgingly walk back to their prison doors. Everyone except Valjean, that is. Javert sifts Valjean out of the long line and orders him to retrieve a fallen French flag. The flag is enormous and heavy, but Valjean completes his task without complaint. There is irony in that Valjean, an unjustly victimized prisoner, is literally carrying French ideals of liberty and democracy on his back, all while suffering under an oppressive system. Javert then sings “Now prisoner 24601/Your time is up and your parole’s begun/Follow to the letter your itinerary/This badge of shame you’ll show until you die”.

These lyrics reveal three key ideas about Valjean’s and Javert’s role in society. Firstly, Javert never calls Valjean by name, but rather a five-digit number which strips him of any individuality. He is understood as a piece of inventory that Javert must check up on. Secondly, when Javert hands Valjean the papers he must carry with him for the rest of his life, he is highlighting the immutable nature of Valjean’s identity. No matter how virtuous or redeemable Valjean becomes in the future, he is tainted by his past inferior identity. This is another method through which the bourgeoisie can keep the masses under their control, without any possibility of social mobility. Lastly, Javert and the ideas he represents- dutifulness and strict adherence to the law- reveal how unforgiving the judicial system is as a social institution. In particular, Russel Crowe’s singing (if you can even call it that) represents Javert’s extremely rigid nature. He sings plainly without emotion, almost as if he’s shouting.This relays a sense of  robotism and monotony. Although Valjean is a slave to the elite class, Javert is a slave to the system of law. He is so blindly engrossed in his duty that he is unable to see the cruelty of his own actions. Thus, Javert’s characterization shows how such repressive, un-empathetic social institutions can operate so powerfully. 

Another key concept of Marxism is the idea that a power struggle between the dominant ruling class and the oppressed working class ultimately leads to a revolution by the proletariat to create a new society where class structures are abolished. When looking through a Marxist critical lens, Les Misérables highlights conflicting interactions between French elites and the poor working class through the reprise of “Look Down” and the inevitable revolution is characterized through “Do you hear the people sing?” The reprise of “Look Down” features different lyrics to the initial rendition, “Look down and see the beggars at your feet/Look down and show some mercy if you can.”  During this scene, hundreds of impoverished men, women, and children have surrounded the luxuriant horse-drawn carriages of the rich. Unlike the first rendition, they do not silently accept their destitution. Instead, they directly confront their oppressors. A brave little boy, Gavroche, goes so far as to jump in a carriage himself. He sings with passion “This is my school, my high society/Here in the slums of Saint Michele we live on crumbs of humble piety.” At this point in the musical, the working class has broken out of their false consciousness. False consciousness is a false sense of understanding the proletariat have regarding the reality of their situation. The proletariat often do not realize that they are being exploited by the bourgeoisie. Marxist philosophy argues that the proletariat must break through their false consciousness to fully understand their oppression and work towards achieving a classless society, often by overthrowing the government. This song thus represents that moment of breaking free.

Finally, the song “Do you hear the people sing?” marks the incumbent revolution of the proletariat. In particular, the final reprise of the song showcases the new power that the proletariat hold. Although it is a fictional scene in which Valjean has joined the revolutionaries in the afterlife, it still conveys a sense of new beginnings. The proletariat are standing atop a monolith of broken wood pieces, patched together like a mismatched quilt. Dozens of French flags of various sizes sway in the wind as the people sing. The film ends on an optimistic note, suggesting the possibility of a better future for all people. 

In conclusion, the film adaptation of Les Misérables is a representation of Marxist philosophy, depicting the journey of a marginalized working class that breaks through the establishment of the exploitative ruling class. In particular, we see how the criminal justice system as a social institution is employed by the powerful in an attempt to subjugate the lower class, generally by restricting their autonomy and individuality. However, once the working class recognize their oppression, they are able to revolt and make strides toward their freedom. 

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