Friday, January 18, 2013

Beyond The Barricades: Les Miserables (Part Three)

Welcome, friends and fellow bibliophiles, to our final post on Les Miserables. Today we have many interesting points to discuss, including the movie and the musical. If you need to catch up, here are links to part one and part two. Today's post is a longer one than normal; I recommend splitting it up into two parts, unless you've got the time and inclination to do it all in one sitting. :)

Victor Hugo's book impacts the hearts of many that come in touch with his story, with good reason. The redemption of a man's soul, the mistreatment of women and children, and zealous youth dying for social reform are all ills that our culture wants to fight against, no matter what their religious beliefs. But, as I have read the book  and watched the musical, it is hard to see Victor Hugo pinpointing issues and providing less than biblical solutions to them--or in some cases, no solution at all.

Think about it: Les Miserables isn't translated The Anguished for no reason. *spoilers* Fantine dies  in poverty because of her life of sin. Valjean never receives justice on earth, and dies after his son-in-law, who has mistreated him, comes to patch it up at the last moment. The Thenardiers go on with their life of squalor, Eponine dies heartbroken, Enjolras' ideas, and those of the Friends of the ABC, perish with them at the barricades. Javert commits suicide after his legalism cannot reconcile with God's mercy. The only really happy person throughout the book is the adult Cosette, who is so shallow and selfish that she can't see Jean Valjean is dying by inches in front of her. *end of spoilers*

Friends, Les Miserables, regardless of the morality of the tale, is a dark and unresolved one. The mercy and grace of God sheds hope, and light, and justice, if not on earth than for eternity. Les Miserables does not.

Eight sections to discuss today. Let's begin. :)

*This post contains mature thematic elements, the most mature being in today's post. If you are under 14, please consult a mature adult before reading this series.

The classic men-at-odds plot: Javert, who dispenses justice with an iron grip, and will not allow for mercy. Valjean, who binds up the broken-hearted and sets the prisoner free, has had only bad experiences with justice. People typically understand this to mean that Javert (justice) is wrong, while Valjean (mercy) is right. After all, God is a God of mercy.

But this is perhaps Hugo's most brilliant theme in the entire book.

Without Javert, where would we be? Over-run by people like the Thenardiers and the Patron-Minette, who murder and lie and steal, oppressing their wives and children, and forcing them into a life of crime.

 For thou hast maintained my right and my cause; thou satest in the throne judging right.
Thou hast rebuked the heathen, thou hast destroyed the wicked, thou hast put out their name for ever and ever.
O thou enemy, destructions are come to a perpetual end: and thou hast destroyed cities; their memorial is perished with them.
But the Lord shall endure for ever: he hath prepared his throne for judgment.
And he shall judge the world in righteousness, he shall minister judgment to the people in uprightness.
The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.
-Psalm 9:4-9
God is also a God of judgement, and the brilliant tension between Javert and Valjean show both sides of His character, as in a mirror. His law is inexorable, and His mercy is relentless. We need people passionate for mercy and justice to bring peace and social reform to the earth.

Without Javert, there would be no Valjean.

Note that I'm not embracing Javert's extreme legalism. Javert's problem is that he makes Law his god, and that's why he comes to a sorry end. When his god is toppled, then his life holds no meaning. We must not hold justice and mercy as higher than God himself. We worship the God who works justice and dispenses mercy, not mercy and justice in themselves.

So even though Javert worships justice, that doesn't mean justice is wrong. ;)

The Battle At the Barricades
By far, the most blood-stirring event of the story, aside from some of Valjean's inner struggles, is the battle at the barricades. Who wouldn't love a group of handsome young university students piling up crates and dying for their convictions? By the time we're done, we'll do anything to join the cause, and every one of us would threaten to blow the district sky-high along with Marius, if we could just be there.

Most of us would do anything to follow Enjolras.

Enjolras and his little band's revolt started much sooner than Les Miserables. It started during the French Revolution. God was abandoned, government was toppled, and the people turned reason into a goddess. They wanted rule by the people, abolition of class systems, and even distribution of wealth. Blood flowed without appealing properly or endeavoring to flee oppression, and therefore it flowed to excess. A brief pause ensued when Napoleon took over, and then King Louis XVIII took his place upon the throne of France. Fast-forward decades, and Enjolras and his band decide to continue what the French Revolution began. Oppressed? Take up your arms, comrades! But because they were building on the foundation of a godless revolt against authority, they fell into the same difficulties, and perished at the barricades.

It is not wrong to "dissolve political bands" when oppressed by tyranny, as long as we follow the proper sequence of appeals to do so. The American Revolution separated themselves from an earthly authority while holding themselves to the supreme law of God, and providing themselves with another earthly government. The Friends of the ABC neither relied on God, nor had an alternate government ready to take the place of the old one. For a revolt to be successful, it must stand on the principles of a constitutional republic (e.g. United States) or a constitutional monarchy (e.g. Great Britain) but it cannot be a democracy (e.g. French Revolution).

Enjolras and his band are brave. And we mourn that their bravery is misinformed. Even if they had been successful, it would not have yielded the results they dreamed of.

We're almost ready to move into the musical, but before we do I want to discuss two things: Victor Hugo's writing style and the 2012 movie that just released.

Victor Hugo's Writing Style
Call me audacious if you will; I stand firm in the belief that Les Miserables: The Book doesn't deserve the rank of "classic". Hugo could have written this book in 900 pages much more concisely, and much more powerfully. Hundreds of pages of back story that holds very little relevance, long jaunts into political theory, and huge rabbit trails into history swallow up most of the story. In fact, it would be better to classify it as nonfiction with fictional anecdotes to illustrate his theories. ;)

From a professional standpoint the musical is much better. The writers took all the story that mattered and cut out all that didn't, turning it into a powerful and heart-gripping drama. People only love the book because the musical's so good.

If there were no musical, Les Miserables would not be a classic.

People read the book for the musical's sake; they wade through tedious rabbit trails, holding themselves up with the knowledge that Cosette and Marius will be singing 'Heart Full of Love' somewhere in the next 300 pages. And because the musical is running in their head the entire time, they miss the fact that Cosette and Marius never sing 'Heart Full of Love'.

Friends and fellow bibliophiles, our time is too valuable to read a long and wandering story simply because it's a classic that has become a musical. If the story deserves "classic" standing, then the musical should receive that rating, not Hugo's original work.

Ask yourself: why do you love the book? Is it because of Valjean's redemption? And when you think of Valjean's redemption, does a quote from the book come to mind, or this:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

Trollope and Dickens pack a much more powerful punch for social justice, without needing a musical to slide it down.

The Movie
The difference between a book and a musical is that the musical adds rhyme and melody to stamp the themes upon your mind. The difference between the musical and the movie is that a movie makes the visuals real. However heart-stirring it is to see Eponine dying on stage, it's still acting.But in a movie, it's not. You're watching it actually happen.

I have not seen the 2012 Les Miserables, nor do I intend to. Besides the themes that I have already explored in this series which cause me to question the story of Les Mis, the 2012 movie contains the most blatant sex and nakedness you can have under an "R" rating. And many people I've talked to say it deserves an "R".

"But I skip those bits."

So where do you draw the line?

If you go to the theatres, you see it. Even if you look away, you hear everything. And what you see and hear, you endorse.

For those of you who have not seen the movie PluggedIn reviews it from a Christian perspective. But I strongly recommend that if you don't know the story you don't read the review. Give it to your parents so they can evaluate the violence and mature thematic content.  I wasn't expecting it to be quite that bad, but when I looked it up I had to skip over the section on Sexual Content. It's so graphic and vile the reviews themselves are almost unreadable.

"But the Bible's graphic too."

The detail included in the written Word of God, and the detail included in a secular movie are two different things entirely. That's an excuse.

But we'll come back to the idea in an article someday, Lord willing.

The Musical
I don't recommend watching the musical from start to finish. I went to see it acted in November 2011, and while I love some of the songs, many of them are blasphemous and full of crude language. Following are two lists, based on the principles put forth in this review, of the good and bad songs. I like to end on a positive note, so I've saved the good songs for last.

Songs I Don't Recommend:
At the End of the Day--contains a man accosting a woman, and crude language.
Lovely Ladies--I was able to skip this one in the musical, and I am forever grateful for it.
Master of the House--crude language and inappropriate content.
Look Down (2nd occurrence)-- Crude language and content
Little People--language and crude content
In My Life/A Heart Full of Love--see the section on Cosette and Marius in Part Two of this series.
Drink With Me--mistress content
Dog Eat Dog--Thenardier; blasphemous
Turning--women who despair of the use of prayer after their sons die at the barricade.
Beggars At the Feast--crude song and crude language to match.

Songs I Recommend:

All lyrics can be found here.

I Dreamed a Dream (Lyrics)--a song of a woman dreaming she can get away with sin, and how her dream crumbles. This song contains mature themes, and is not necessarily a happy one, especially this version. But I think it holds a warning, and a good one, that we can't sin and escape the consequences. Watch it with the understanding of Fantine's delusions, for she is still holding on to the dream that the man who didn't respect her as a single woman would would respect her as a married one. If you don't know the song, read the lyrics first before watching.
Who Am I--Two instances of a word commonly used as a swear word, but in this instance used in a correct way. Jean Valjean is thinking about winning freedom forever at the expense of another man. (Lyrics Youtube)
Stars--Javert singing of justice (Youtube)
Do You Hear the People Sing? (Youtube)--guilty pleasure. I don't endorse Enjolras' revolt, but the song's rather nice.
On My Own (Youtube)--likewise.
One Day More (Youtube)--good and bad people coming to the realization that only the Lord can see into the future.
Bring Him Home (Youtube)--I find it ironic that in the musical Valjean's praying that the Lord will save Marius, and in the book he's ready to kill him for loving Cosette.
A Little Fall of Rain--Eponine's death; contains two misuses of the Lord's name, which I mute out. The link I give to the Youtube video is a live acting of the musical, so there's a lot of blood in the first 45 seconds, but it's the best singing version. I recommend reading the lyrics before watching. (Lyrics Youtube) To watch one without the visuals, click here.
Finale--all poor people do not go to heaven, but the song in itself is rather nice.

I had to cut out bits in this series. :) I was going to go into more depth with Fantine's story and character, but for lack of space, I will only say this: Hate the sin, and love the sinner. Fantine's sin begin with Cosette's birth, and led her into deeper trouble. But by the grace of God, she was shown mercy in spite of it.

And that, my friends, concludes Les Miserables. I love the story through the Focus on the Family audio drama, and select songs of the musical.

All the love....all the drama. That's taking a book captive to the glory of God.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Excellent post. I quite agree with your thoughts, which you put clearly, about the differences between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. I wonder if all too many revolutions today are more like the French one than the American one. Probably so, it seems.

    At one point my brother and I joked we'd go see the 2012 film just to see Russell Crowe sing, and because we kind of have an affinity for Javert (well, I do, my brother hasn't read the book), but that was before I read the Plugged In review. I shall quite happily forgo the viewing of *that* film.

    I wonder though if unresolved tales are a bad thing, in the main, although I don't prefer them myself. Now that I think of it, though, I guess even in real life, when an unbeliever dies, it may not feel like his tale is resolved to those around him, but that does not change the fact that it *is* resolved in God's eyes. Maybe the danger of unresolved tales lies in the fact that readers do not see that all actions *do* have consequences. (I hope that paragraph makes sense. I fear it is somewhat incoherent.)

    Anyway, interesting thoughts. :)

    Post Script: I once told someone that aside from the soldiers and Javert, my favourite part of the book was the chapters about the Sewers of Paris. Very cool. ;-)

    1. Yes, I think people model revolution after the French one, unfortunately, and even in America our understanding of our heritage is shifting from one to the other. The average American claims that we are a democracy now. *shakes head* How tragic.

      Part of me wishes the film was good enough to see, just for the scene when Valjean rescues Marius. That bit is chilling, and my absolute favorite part of the FotF drama. ;)

      I agree; if I thought about it I could probably come up with a lot of books I like that have no resolution. "Maybe the danger of unresolved tales lies in the fact that readers do not see that all actions *do* have consequences." Exactly. Well put. ;) The biggest problem with Les Mis is that the average reader misses out on the consequences, or lack thereof, and think the original action in itself was right.

      The best scene in the musical Javert's suicide. He's suspended in mid-air on stage while singing his soliloquy. That was breathtaking. :) I, think the sewers scene is the best in the whole book. :) Unfortunately, Thenardier's singing "Dog Eat Dog" during that scene, which rather took away my enjoyment during the musical. However, Valjean carries Marius with a moving backdrop behind them, It's rather hard to describe, but it was stunning. :)


  2. I'm late to the party! I liked your series of posts. Toby Sumpter had a really good take on Les Mis too: Les Mis Ain't the Gospel.

    I read the book nearly ten years ago (and eh, it's not THAT long; I mean, I've read at least three this year of comparable length) and don't remember much more than the basic plot outline and, as you say, the rabbit trails (Do we really need to know about the nuns not brushing their teeth?). I remember well Gavroche being killed mid-song (yes, mid-song in the book) singing about the revolution, and the general pro-revolutionism of the book itself. I don't think I'd read it again, given its length and digressiveness, but a friend of mine read the book recently and I'm trying to choke a review out of him, so we'll see how that goes.

    The only thing I would say is that maybe you need to look into revolutionism a little more deeply. First, I would not call the American War for Independence a Revolution by any means. It was a Protestant civil war with much more in common with the Civil War of the 1600s. In both these wars, the lesser magistrates of the colonies and of England (respectively) found it their duty as Christians and reformers to take up arms against tyranny. Throughout, the social order of Christendom was retained; indeed, the wars were in defence of Christendom.

    By contrast, when thinking of the modernist revolutions of France, I am reminded of the giant Egalitarianism in Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book V. He states his intention to free the common people from the tyranny of law. However, in the rest of Book V, Spenser demonstrates how tyranny is actually lawlessness. And this is the difference between revolutions like the French and reformations and reformatory wars like the American War for Independence. Both say they are freeing mankind from tyranny. But the revolutionary, the egalitarian, the modernist means that he is freeding mankind from the tyranny of law, God, and responsibility. The reformer means that he is helping to free mankind from the tyranny of lawlessness, irresponsibility, and impiety. So in fact the revolutionary is the natural enemy of the reformer; the two cannot be reconciled.

    And for more on this subject, I do recommend George Grant's Modernity lectures on why the revolutionary faith is so foundational to secular modernism.

    I continue to never have seen the musical, but you've done a pretty good job of persuading me that maybe I should ;).

  3. So glad you joined the discussion! :)

    Oh, dear, you caught me. I actually did write a lengthy section on the differences between the American War for Independence and the French Revolution, similar to the points you brought up, but cut it after the post grew to unmanageable rambling. (I think Hugo's writing is having an effect on me!)

    But you are exactly right, and had my readers read the unedited version, they would have seen me trace the time of the Pilgrims to 1776, and then the French Revolution from the Revolution itself to the rise of Napoleon and the Friends of the ABC. To think I deleted that paragraph because I told myself it was needless. Ouch.

    Actually "American Revolution" is our lazy way of saying "War for Independence". I agree with you completely; it really gets me on a rant when I hear "rebellion" and "democracy" coupled with our fight for law and order. But I don't consider it to be a revolution either. ;)

    I liked the article you linked, especially Sumpter's take on the grace in the story. Everybody tells me "But it has so much grace, and they mention God a lot". (Referring to the movie/musical) I agree, they mention God a lot, but most of it isn't the kind of mentioning Christians would approve of. And a Muslim or atheist could walk away seeing grace and redemption as well, though they wouldn't acknowledge it to be the grace of Christ.

    I'm not sure I would recommend the musical, and if you do look it up you won't get the dramatic acting bits, as the DVDs are concert only. But if you do decide to get it then I suggest the 25th anniversary concert with Alfie Boe and Samantha Barks. So. Much. Better. than the 10th, Samantha really captures Eponine to perfection, and the actress who plays Cosette gives the china doll impression I've always gotten of her. I'm sorry to say that Nick Jonas is Marius, but if you can stand that, the 25th is the better of the two. ;) I would be interested to know what you think of it if you do decide to get it! :)

  4. Dear Lady B,
    You did a great job with this series! Good for you, for pressing on and finishing it up! :D :D :D
    Someday, I hope to listen to the audio drama. ;)

    P.S. I didn't read the section on the movie or listen to the songs. ;)

    1. Thank-you, sister! :D I look forward to you listening to the audio drama sometime. ;)

      Love and cuddles,


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