A world beyond the barricades

January 17, 2013

Victor Hugo's classic novel Les Misérables brought the lives of the poor out of the shadows. Megan Behrent explains why its message is still so relevant today.

IT IS a testament to the enduring appeal of Les Misérables thabt 150 years after its publication, Victor Hugo once again has crowds lining up to experience the epic story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.

Over the past few decades, the musical has been seen by more than 60 million people, in more than 40 countries. The newest film based on the musical grossed $18.2 million on Christmas Day alone is on course to becoming the highest-grossing musical in American film history.

This immense popular support of his work is far from new. In fact, Hugo's funeral, in May 1885, would attract one of the largest mass mobilizations ever seen in the city of Paris as over 2 million people came to pay their last respects--more than the total population of Paris at the time.

Only a few years earlier, half a million people had shown up to pay respects to him on his 79th birthday. In an attempt to capitalize on his death, the French government co-opted the service, preparing a massive tribute to the writer despite his expressed wish for a simple funeral. The only request they honored was that he be buried in a pauper's casket.

A scene from the film musical Les Misérables
A scene from the film musical Les Misérables

Despite all the pomp and circumstance, it was truly a festival of the oppressed, as workers, the poor and exploited arrived en masse to celebrate the life and work of a man who had given voice to the voiceless.

Graham Robb, the author of one of the best biographies of Hugo, describes the scene as a "fairground" as "...drunken bodies littered the Champs-Elysées. Wine shops stayed open, and as the night of the wake wore on, the singing became merrier and politically suspect." Brothels closed as prostitutes dressed in mourning to pay their respects.

"Behind the bushes in the Avenue Victor Hugo," Robb writes based on firsthand accounts, "'abominable outrages' were taking place 'which the police are impotent to repress.'"

The 2 million who showed up to pay their respects included delegations of "war veterans, civil servants, artists and writers, animal-lovers and school children." There were major debates about the order of the procession; for example, "the militant feminist journal, La Citoyenne, complained that the suffragettes were placed a long way behind the gymnasts and the department stores."

Hugo's significance as a writer is incontestable. As the poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé argued, Hugo "divided all French literature into two epochs--before and after Hugo."

HUGO HAD a lasting impact on a wide range of writers, from his contemporaries Emile Zola and Flaubert to Dostoyevsky and Camus.

But, as his funeral makes clear, it was as a hero of working people that Hugo gained his greatest notoriety--this, despite his politics more often than not. As a politician, he left much to be desired, but as a writer he captured the revolutionary spirit of his age and inspired generations to come.

In particular, his masterpiece, Les Misérables, captured the struggles, heroism and humanity of those who had been condemned to marginality.

American socialist Eugene Debs, who was given the middle name "Victor" in honor of Hugo, read Les Misérables over and over throughout his life, both in French and English. The brutalization of poverty--the theme of Hugo's masterpiece--was something he never forgot.

Louise Michel, the inspiring revolutionary, female incendiary and leader of the Paris Commune, called herself Enjolras after the student leader of the revolution at the heart of the novel.

And 150 years later, in film and on stage, it inspires audiences around the world to sing of revolution, barricades and a better world.

At the same time, Hugo is nothing if not controversial, and there is a long history of debate and disagreement among radicals about how to understand this man and his work.

Hugo's politics changed drastically throughout his life. At his best, he espoused a form of left-wing bourgeois republicanism--a hodgepodge of humanism and pacifism. At other times, he was a royalist, imperialist and counterrevolutionary.

His immense popularity cannot be explained by his personal politics alone. Nor can his legacy be understood solely on literary or aesthetic grounds. Despite his early success as a writer, he rarely received critical claim. It is as the "voice of the people," as he was often described, giving literary expression to the aspirations of the oppressed that he became a hero to masses of working-class people.

Les Misérables is significant because it captured the imagination of a generation of workers. It was the political, aesthetic and literary manifestation of a century of revolution and most importantly, the revolution of 1848.

PUBLISHED IN 1862, it was, according to Robb, one of "the biggest operations in publishing history" released with great fanfare in "Paris, London, Brussels, Leipzig, Rotterdam, Madrid, Milan, Turin, Naples, Warsaw, Pest, St. Petersburg and Rio de Janeiro" simultaneously.

Its release was a major event in Paris. As Robb writes:

The view from the street was an inspiring contract. At six o'clock on the morning of 15 May, inhabitants of the Rue de Seine on the Left Bank woke to find their narrow street jammed with what looked like a bread queue. People from all walks of life had come with wheelbarrows and hods [brick carriers] and were squashed up against the door of Pagnerre's bookshop, which unfortunately opened outwards. Inside, thousands of copies of Les Misérables stood in columns that reached the ceiling. A few hours later, they had vanished...Factory workers contributed money to kitties and raffled off the novel to buy what would otherwise have cost them several weeks' wages.

It had widespread influence internationally as Hugo gained immense literary and political prestige. To give a sense of Hugo's influence, in Mexico, French Army positions were "bombarded with...leaflets bearing the famous message: 'What are you? Soldiers of a tyrant. The best of France is on our side. You have Napoleon. We have Victor Hugo.'"

Like Hugo, the novel is a product of the period and politically reflects the mixed and contradictory nature of its author's shifting politics.

Les Misérables actually began in the 1840s as a novel about Jean Tréjean, a pruner who breaks a window to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven children who are starving to death. He is imprisoned for 19 years--five years for the crime and an additional 14 for trying to escape. This character would become Jean Valjean, the novel's famous protagonist.

But the revolutions of 1848 transformed the novel. Early in the year, a combination of bad harvests, unemployment, skyrocketing food prices, and a major recession led to a level of misery unseen since the revolution. By February 1848, France found itself in a perfect revolutionary storm as the National Guard sided with the people and Louis Philippe fled the country.

As a person of prominent political importance, Hugo was elected as a representative of Paris. Unfortunately, in the "June Days," or the second revolution of 1848--a revolution lauded by Karl Marx as one of the first workers revolutions--Hugo was tragically on the wrong side, helping to violently repress a rebellion led by people whom he in many ways supported--and many of whom supported him.

This was a turning point for Hugo, as he increasingly turned to the left. He became one of the loudest and most prominent voices of opposition to Louis Napoleon soon to be Napoleon III. After Bonaparte's coup in 1851, Hugo was ultimately forced into exile on the Guernsey where he spent much of the next 18 years and where he would write the bulk of Les Misérables.

FULLY ONE-FIFTH of the novel is set on June 5 and 6, 1832--the date of an armed insurrection against the regime of Louis Philippe. This insurrection comes to stand for all the revolutions of the 19th century up to that point--and, particularly, 1848. Written after the revolution of 1848 and Napoleon's subsequent coup in 1851, this section becomes the political and literary center of the novel.

Divided into five major sections or books, the section of Les Misérables entitled Saint-Denis, the neighborhood in which the barricades of 1832 were mounted, is the only section not named after one of the novel's major characters. In the post-1848 world, Revolution essentially becomes one of the major characters of the novel.

Notably, the barricades are one of only two places in the novel where the lives of all the characters intersect--all, but Cosette, who, though physically missing, provides the crucial link between the young revolutionaries and Valjean.

Critics note that Hugo is extremely vague about the reasons for the 1832 insurrection at the center of the novel. Sparked by the death of General Lamarque, Hugo witnessed the uprising first hand. But, aside from one impassioned speech, the novel says little concrete about its goals.

In part, this is because Hugo uses the minor uprising of 1832 to symbolize revolution more generally. It stands for the revolution of 1830, the revolutions of February and June 1848 and the future revolution Hugo hopes will overthrow Napoleon. What the depiction lacks in historical specificity, it makes up in broad appeal and inspiration as modern audiences continue to see their own aspirations represented in this revolution.

The novel contains a heavy religious and spiritual bent--which is emphasized in the movie version of the musical. The novel itself begins with the Bishop Myriel--a saintly man who through an act of kindness redeems Valjean when prison and parole have almost completely robbed him of his humanity.

Even this section, however, was changed after 1848. In a notable addition, Hugo includes an incredible scene in which the bishop talks to a revolutionary from 1789, a member of the convention who would vote to execute Louis the XVI. On his deathbed, the conventionnel gives an impassioned defense of revolutionary violence and in a reversal of roles, the scene ends with Bishop asking for his blessing.

Such scenes earned the novel condemnation from the Catholic Church. Despite his own belief in God, Hugo had a well-known aversion to the Catholic Church and religious institutions in general. He notably refused religious rites at his funeral or on his deathbed.

He was proud of the over 740 attacks on the novel found in Catholic publications of the time. In particular, he enjoyed the accusation of a religious paper from Madrid that insisted that Satan was the author of Les Miserables.

If there is one central message of the novel, it is that no one is born good or evil, it is society that makes one so, or, as Robb argues, "criminals are a product of the criminal justice system...[and] the burden of guilt lies with society." The collective emiseration of the majority of people is the crime the novel exposes.

ON A formal level, Les Misérables has been critiqued for its numerous digressions and wordiness. It is notable for containing the longest sentence in French literature. Digressions make up close to a third of the novel.

But, these digressions are actually crucial as they frame the narrative and provide the historical backdrop of the story. They emphasize that these characters--albeit fictional--are part of a history that is very real. Written primarily during Hugo's 18 years in Guernsey, the pain of exile seethes from some of the passage describing Paris.

In one famous section, Hugo details the twists and turns of the roads Valjean takes through Paris as he attempts to escape Javert. As Hugo wrote, many of the streets he names were being erased as the entire map of Paris was transformed. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, an official under Napoleon III, was creating the famous "grands boulevards" of Paris in part, to make it harder for workers to raise barricades, and easier to suppress revolts.

The section on Waterloo is perhaps the most notorious digression of the novel. It is hard to know what to make of Hugo's weirdly fatalistic version of history here, as he blames the weather for Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. But, here too, Hugo rewrites history from the perspective of its victims, not the victors whose tales we already know.

For Hugo, the hero of Waterloo, "the man who won the battle of Waterloo" was a man by the name of Cambronne, an "obscure officer"--one of the last standing on the field, who after being ordered to surrender, answers "Merde!"

The use of the word offended many critics. Nonetheless, the scene captures some of Hugo's humor, and defiance in the face of a history that is brutal and vicious. Faced with catastrophe, Cambronne's utterance is for Hugo "'Perhaps the finest word ever spoken by a Frenchman." As Hugo argues, "After this carnage to have laughter on one's side is immense." It means for Hugo, to emerge from the barbarism of history as the victor.

MOST OF the characters quickly became household names and are the main reason behind the novel's popularity. Hugo writes history from the point of view of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited and the forgotten. The novel's heroes are women, the poor, revolutionaries and convicts. As the title itself announces, it is the tale of the wretched of the earth.

The character of Fantine--played with surprising depth of feeling by Anne Hathaway in the movie--is an expression of Hugo's commitment to women's rights as well as the defense of the poor. A working-class woman, she becomes pregnant with the child of a student who abandons her.

She leaves the child with innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and goes to work in the factory of M. Madeleine. There, she is eventually fired when it is discovered she has a child out of wedlock. To support her child, she works as a seamstress earning virtually nothing despite intense labor almost 24 hours a day.

She sells her hair, and then her teeth. Left with nothing else, she is forced to sell her body. After being assaulted by a wealthy, vile man, she fights back and is thrown in prison for defending herself. It is here she meets Valjean--living under the name of M. Madeleine--who defends her, takes her in, and, on her deathbed vows to take care of her child, Cosette.

This episode is based on a real-life experience that Hugo witnessed in which he helped to free the woman in question.

Yet, Hugo's hypocrisy was glaring. One of his lovers, Leonie Biard was arrested for adultery after her husband, from whom she was seeking a divorce, had her followed by an investigator. Meanwhile Hugo faced no consequences (and offered little protest outside his literary work) because he had immunity as a pair of France.

It is in November 1845, while Leonie Biard was still in jail, that Hugo began working on what would ultimately become Les Misérables. At the time, he described the work as, "the story of a convict and an abandoned woman, a plea for natural justice written by a man who was above the law" That same year, he wrote of women:

For her, social laws are rough and stingy. Poor, she is condemned to labor, rich, to constraint. Prejudices...weigh more heavily on her than on man...The more adept she is at loving, the more she suffers...And, yet, what a contribution she makes to the total sum of providential acts which result in the continual improvement of the human race!

His own experience with the hypocrisy and misogyny of the "law" as it applied to women undoubtedly inspired the character of Fantine. For all his failures in his personal life, his literature gave expression to the early struggle of women against oppression and inequality.

THE CHARACTER of Jean Valjean is of course the most famous of the novel. As a convict whose humanity is almost destroyed by 19 years of chain gangs, he is an unlikely hero. At the heart of his battle with Javert is a debate about the criminalization of the poor, and human nature.

For Valjean, human nature is malleable. Evil is a product not of human nature, but rather a product of a society that debases humanity. It is perhaps not surprising that critics and fear-mongerers called Hugo "the candidate of the convicts of France."

Inspired by several real incidents, the story of Valjean continues to resonate today. One cannot help but think of the millions of people incarcerated today when, after Valjean's sentencing, Hugo writes, "What a mournful moment is that in which society withdraws itself and abandons irreparably a thinking being forever." Jean Valjean is not so far removed from the victims of what Michelle Alexander calls the "new Jim Crow."

After 19 years in jail, he is released only to find that life on parole is no life at all. Legally discriminated against everywhere he goes, he tears up his parole papers and assumes a false identity to try to start a new life. By breaking his parole, he once again becomes a fugitive pursued by the intransigent Javert. As a novel about the dehumanization that passes for "justice," Les Misérables occupies an important role in the history of protest literature.

Gavroche is arguably the most memorable character of the novel. The younger brother of Eponine, son of the Thenardiers, he is essentially cast off by his family and left to fend for himself. He lives on the place de la Bastille in the stomach of the plaster cast of a giant elephant--a monument planned but never actually built by Napoleon I. He, thus, literally lives in the belly of the decaying beast of empire.

He makes the streets his school with humor, defiance, resilience, courage and generosity. A child himself, he takes in two younger children to care for--unbeknownst to him they're his younger brothers. When revolution erupts he rises to the task. Try as he might, Marius cannot get him to leave the barricades.

His death is one of the most moving scenes of the novel--and the musical. Refusing to be cowed by the immense force of the entire state apparatus, he climbs the barricade, and in full view of the troops proceeds to gather the unused ammunition from dead soldiers. As the troops begin to shoot at him, he defiantly continues, singing all the while.

Gavroche's death is a searing indictment of the violence and inhumanity of the state. At the same time, it is an incredible tribute to the courage of the working class, and a reminder that children are not just passive victims of a brutal history, but, at times, it's heroes.

Eponine, Gavroche's sister, is likewise a child of the streets--although she is older and begins life with far more advantages as the favored daughter of the Thenardiers before her family's descent into abject poverty. When we meet her again in Paris, she has become in many ways the face of poverty. Her whole being is emaciated, sunken and stunted by her living conditions.

Like Gavroche, she tenaciously holds on to her spirit and courage in the face of misery. She is in many ways the heart of a heartless society and, another example of a strong female character who defies conventional stereotypes.

As she falls in love with Marius, she is increasingly confronted with the impossibility of a happy ending to her own story. She, too, refuses to stay away from the barricades and dresses up as a boy to participate in the revolt. She saves Marius's life by blocking a bullet meant for him and dies as a result.

THROUGH THESE characters, Hugo shows the dignity and heroism that emerges from the absolute worst misery and wretchedness. But, the novel's villains also have much to teach.

First and foremost is Javert, the ultimate figure of law and order: a man who detests anything that challenges authority or law, and believes that in no circumstances can people change. While he is almost a caricature, Hugo refused to reduce him to pure and unadulterated evil.

He, too, is a victim of society. Born in prison to a fortune teller and a convict, the misery of his own early years has much to do with his later intransigence. Central to all adaptations of the novel, Robb argues, is to make sure the villain in the novel is not Javert, but the system he serves. Indeed, the minute he considers the possibility that people can change, his entire world order collapses and he kills himself. Ironically, the Paris police department assumes that he has gone mad.

Hugo saves his most scathing mockery for the rulers of the old order. Mr. Gillenormand, Marius's grandfather who kicks him out for being a Bonapartist, is depicted as a pathetic old royalist with few redeeming values.

But Hugo's greatest ire is reserved for the Thenardiers, the ultimate representatives of the petit-bourgeoisie. As the class most likely to support Napoleon III, it is perhaps not surprising that Hugo paints them as true monsters who treat their own children as scum, rob from the dead and have a key to the sewers. It is fitting that at the end of the novel, they are sent off to America where, Hugo notes, they become slavers.

While the major characters of Les Misérables are in many ways stock characters there is also a dynamism to them that makes them elude easy interpretation.

This is certainly true of Marius, a character based on Hugo himself. While the recent movie portrays him as one of the revolutionaries from the beginning, in the novel he begins life as a royalist, like his grandfather. After learning that his father died at Waterloo, he becomes a Bonapartist. Forced to leave his home as a result, he experiences poverty for the first time.

He meets by chance the students of the ABC (an acronym which spoken in French means "abased' or the kept down)--the revolutionary group who lead the insurrection of 1832. He ends up at the barricades almost by accident because he thinks Cosette is leaving for England. But, once there his heroism helps at least temporarily save the day.

Most of Hugo's characters are, like Marius, accidental heroes, swept along in the tide of revolution. But, ultimately it doesn't matter what brings them to the barricades. What matters is that they fight, and risk their lives for freedom. Revolution for Hugo is both political and extremely personal.

Enjolras is the key exception. The leader of the revolution, Enjolras is a character who was not part of Hugo's original idea for the novel but is a product of 1848. He is the embodiment of the spirit of revolution. He lives and breathes politics and declares his only family his country and freedom.

THE INFLUENCE of 1848 is powerful, as the novel ultimately teaches us that revolution is the act through which people try to create a new world.

As Hugo argues in Les Misérables, "If you wish to understand what Revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to understand what Progress is, call it Tomorrow."

By the end of the novel, only Marius and Cosette remain to ensure the existence of a future bourgeoisie. Marius, rid of his revolutionary impulses, has moved back home, with his grandfather who is now a softer and gentler royalist and bourgeois.

Valjean himself is, also, in many ways the ultimate bourgeois. He makes his own fortune after escaping parole by using the technology he learned in prison to make jewelry and glasswork, using a German black glass that is cheaper and inventing a clasp that is far more cost effective.

Indeed, on his deathbed, he insists on this point emphasizing that this fortune was rightfully gained based on his own entrepreneurship, and thus, Cosette's inheritance is legitimate according to the laws of the French bourgeoisie.

Yet, poverty, inequality and the criminal injustice system constantly intervene within the narrative to prevent his fulfillment as a bourgeois hero.

Hugo is never anti-capitalist nor a revolutionary hero. Rather, he has a vision of a humane, beneficent and thus, illusory capitalism. He was a bourgeois revolutionary and a reformist at heart--but he was a reformist in an age when revolutions were often needed to win reforms.

Nonetheless, Les Misérables leaves behind a powerful legacy of the poor and oppressed rising up to fight for what rightfully belongs to them. It's an homage to working-class heroes who have been erased by history--much like Valjean who at the end of the novel is buried in an unmarked grave with a handwritten note on his tombstone later erased by time.

Hugo celebrates, romanticizes and makes heroes of prostitutes, convicts, homeless children and all people who in the face of the catastrophes, brutality and misery of modern history, choose to resist--or, at the very least, defiantly shout "Merde!" even when there is nothing left to salvage.

Writing to an Italian minister in 1862, Hugo gave voice to the universality of the themes and ideas expressed in Les Misérables:

You are right, sir, when you say that the book Les Misérables is written for all people. I don't know if it will be read by all, but, I wrote it for all. It speaks to England as much as Spain, to Germany as much as Ireland, to republics that have slaves as well as to empires that have serfs. Social problems know no borders. The wounds of the human race, those great wounds which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map.

Wherever man is ignorant and despairs, Wherever woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of a book to instruct him and a hearth which to warm him, the book Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: "Open to me, I come for you."

Today, as 150 years ago, such works are still necessary.

Beyond the barricades, Hugo points the way to another world, one in which, one hopes Les Misérables will continue to exist but solely as a reminder of a terrible time when women were forced to sell their bodies to support their children, people were locked in jails for trying to feed their families, and all the best of humanity was squashed by an inexorable pursuit of profit.

Beyond the barricades, one can only begin to imagine the new art, new literature and new life such a world could create.

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