Les Mis: A Revolution For Our Times

What do the revolutionaries in Les Misérables actually want?

This is not a pedantic question. Victor Hugo’s 1862 Les Misérables – or, at least, its 1980s musical adaptation – is now deeply embedded in the West’s popular consciousness.

Its popularity extends far past those who know anything of 19th century French history. Indeed, for many people the musical is a stand-in for the entire French Revolution, although it depicts events that occurred many decades later.

Popular culture profoundly shapes our political beliefs, and the idea of rebellion against injustice still resonates even in the democratic era. See, for instance, Occupy.

Even those who haven’t seen the musical would know its broad strokes. A former convict who has broken parole tries to build a virtuous life while on the run. The culmination of his personal struggle coincides with a doomed Paris uprising led by idealistic students.

But that uprising seems to be against… what? The monarchy? A general sense of inequality? It’s not called Les Misérables – the victims, the wretched ones – for nothing. The musical’s logo incorporates an engraving of a young girl in rags. The 2012 film has an energetic makeup artist who gives the poor of France gratuitously broken teeth and cholera.

But it’s never clear why any of the students believe economic injustice will be resolved by barricading off a few city streets. The student revolutionaries are hopelessly vague about their goals. They’re going to “cut the fat ones down to size”. There’s some suggestion of a utopian “tomorrow”.

The uprising depicted in Les Misérables was a real uprising that happened in June 1832. It was an aftershock of a bigger political upheaval just two years earlier, which had replaced the royal restoration under the House of Bourbon with a new constitutional monarchy under the House of Orléans.

Those who really fought on the 5th and 6th of June 1832 were opposed to the new Orléanist monarchy, but for many different reasons. There were radical Republicans, who wanted parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage. There were also ultra-Royalists, who wanted the reversal of all the gains of 1789, and Bonepartists, who wanted to restore French imperial glory as it was under Napoleon. With such a bizarre coalition, no wonder the people of Paris slept in their beds that night.

And France was hardly the stagnant, rotting, unchanging regime the musical suggests. Between 1796 (when our hero Jean Valjean was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread) and 1832, France was governed by no less than five political systems, from the revolutionary Directory to the monarchy after 1830.

All this politics is missing in the musical, replaced by a vague sense of injustice and a group of students with a serious martyr complex.

Sure, the musical is a musical. You can’t ask for too much political exposition in songs. It’s easier to find a rhyme for “love” than a rhyme for “chronic wealth disparity” or “post-revolutionary dynastic confusion”.

But Victor Hugo’s original novel is not a whole lot clearer. In his 2007 book The Temptation of the Impossible, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa argues that Hugo, too, is hopelessly vague on the purpose of the revolt. One student forecasts if they succeed “monsters will have given way to the angels”. But that’s about as specific as it gets.

One way to join the dots between the poor on the streets and the students’ bloodshed is to depict the latter as proto communists. The students might be Bolsheviks dedicated to a redistributive paradise.

But the narrator of Les Misérables was hostile to communism, writing that “equal sharing abolishes competition and, in consequence, labour”.

And the cruellest oppression in the story isn’t economic. Hugo reserves his biggest criticism for the legal system. Hugo himself was a political drifter, starting as a conservative royalist and ending life, loosely, as a liberal or a social democrat. Virtually his only constant belief was opposition to the death penalty.

We think of Les Misérables as a primarily a story about revolution and social oppression. The musical does not disabuse us of this idea. But it is wrong. Hugo is more preoccupied by God than politics.

The revolutionary students do not believe their uprising will succeed. As Vargas Llosa writes, the students “know and accept that they will be annihilated because this is the role that they must play”. What comes across as a martyr complex in the musical is more for Hugo an acceptance of fate and the will of God. The entire story is a grand morality tale of fate and redemption.
Contemporary versions of Les Misérables struggle to communicate Hugo’s essentially religious message. We live in a secular age. Faith is a niche topic not a mass one.

Yet a modern reader can’t help be struck that the first 70 or so pages of the novel are a detailed profile of someone marginal to the plot – Bishop Myriel, the good priest who forgives Jean Valjean for stealing his silver. If the opening of a story sets its tone, then this is totally different from the vision of penal hardship set by the musical.

Hugo stripped the politics out of the 1832 uprising to tell a religious story. Then the musical adaptation stripped most of the religion away.

There’s not much left, except a vague exhortation to violently, pointlessly die on behalf of the poor. The students are engaged in a vanity revolution. This is insurrection as a lifestyle choice.

There’s something very modern about that. Our mature democracies are boringly practical. For us, revolution is a romantic gesture which belongs in the past.

But real, historical revolutions have been about something: tyranny or taxation or arcane theories of economic class.

In the Les Misérables musical – and our popular culture – revolution is little more than an honourable, nihilistic death-wish.