Les Mis Domesticated: What the Musical can learn from Hugo, and from Christ

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me

What your sacrifice was for

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more

I first read Victor Hugo’s epic a few weeks before the release of Tom Hooper’s film adaptation. At that time, I wasn’t overly familiar with the structure of the musical adaptation and I was floored by what I saw as an unfaithful interpretation of the book’s thematic content. Just last night, I had the privilege of enjoying a phenomenal performance of the music at the Grand Rapids Civic Theater. Unlike the movie, this stage adaptation seemed to get stronger as it went and I still have the haunting lines of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” running through my head (bravo Michael Peneycad!). However beautiful the song can be, the truth is that I still hate it.

Now, Hugo’s novel is far from perfect. It’s plot may be overly drawn out, at the least it is convoluted and the musical does a nice job of distilling a coherent thrust. Moreover, the novel follows a nineteenth century ideal of interpolating philosophical discourse between narrative segments. This makes it rather hard to read and detracts from some of its narrative power. On the other hand, these discourses serve to wrestle quite intensely with the nature of a true revolution and whether the (failed) revolution of 1832 was a heroic or futile endeavor. In the end, Hugo refuses to explicitly answer this question, a move that I found sympathetic to an understanding that revolutions can be both heroic and futile. More on that to come.

The musical, on my reading, eschews this possibility. The cost of the young revolutionaries death is driven home twice, first with the women and wives of the town, second and most poignantly with Marius. At the culmination of his song, Marius dares to utter the lines above, questioning whether his friend’s death was worth anything in the bigger picture.This is a bold move, and as the song ends in applause I believe the novel’s political content has been domesticated.

Domestication is further achieved by the dramatic, ridiculous shortening of Marius and Cosette’s love affair and the universalist quality of the final song, pinioned on the beautiful line “To love another person is to see the face of God.” The inclusion of the Thenardiers at the finale has always bothered me, as if their love of each other and relationship built on scheming is as proper a theophany as the love between Valjean and Fantine. This also levels the playing field for Enjolras and his crew; their salvation comes not from their martyrdom but from their comradery and solidarity.

Yes, I said it: martyrdom. I believe the musical adaptation of Les Miserables collapses the possibility of martyrdom, in effect (and not surprisingly) distancing itself thus even further from the more explicitly Catholic content of the novel. Hugo’s novel is a thoroughly political world, one in which the established powers have ostracized the poor to the point of starvation. Revolution in this world is a desperate attempt to upset the oppressive balance, an attempt which Hugo does not seem to believe is guaranteed success but one whose aims are noble, especially in the realization by young men that their individual lives do not belong to them but to a higher cause, one which may require sacrifice. In the musical adaptation, the social critique is present but blunted, pointed particularly at sexually voracious window shoppers and not so much at the financially wealthy, as we are treated to a ball complete with some degree of social mobility as the Thenardiers pass for a Baron and Baronness. Suddenly, the story is much more palatable to the Western middle class.

Of course, the book has an uneasy relationship to luxury as well, as Marius is rescued from the barricades and taken to recover at the palatial estate of Monsieur Gillenormand, a monarchist. It is here that Marius and Cosette’s love flourishes, ending in their marriage. Valjean, however, self-exiles from high-society, his secret is too hard to bear amongst those who see themselves as more free. The novel ends, however, with an affirmation of Valjean, the true hero of the novel, the social exile. In this way, the novel at least shows more signs of struggling with Marius’ privilege where the musical simply celebrates it, almost as a homecoming.

This I find incredibly troubling. I found the book, like any great artwork, to be arresting and challenging of my own relationship to privilege and poverty as well as my sense of self and what it might be willing to die for. As a pacifist, I was constantly uneasy while reading Les Miserables with the notion of justified revolution. In this way, I began the work more in line with the musical’s conclusion that violence is always tragic and never necessary. I still share this conclusion, but I was struck by what I would now call the novel’s appreciation of martyrdom. The absence of any sense of martyrdom in the musical is a great loss, as I have tried to detail above.

Martyrdom is always and everywhere challenging. In this sense it is prophetic, one makes of oneself a symbol that can energize a culture around a cause. In Les Miserablesthe students are willing to die for the sake of the poor; they stand with the poor and therefore against the government, a position which held brazenly enough will often end in execution. I believe this is also what happened to Jesus. Yes, Christ’s death was an atonement for sins in a spiritual sense, but let us not forget that Jesus was executed by the Jewish authorities because he represented a threat and rebuked their sense of social class and power. Jesus’ life was never free from political overtones; he died like so many early martyrs because he would not bend the knee to earthly powers, he would not (to paraphrase Augustine) become a citizen of any city but the City of God.

Animated by love, Jesus took sides with the oppressed and thereby became an enemy of the oppressor. Jesus was therefore hunted, much like Valjean was hunted by Javert. Christ’s death, though, is more akin to the students death at the barricades than Valjean’s peaceful end. While Jesus did eschew violent revolution, he was a revolutionary none-the-less. He was a revolutionary like the Bishop of Digne, who offered Valjean two silver candlesticks, his most prized possession, to “buy his soul for God.” The Bishop’s hospitality effects a personal revolution, bringing about Valjean’s conversion, and Valjean in turn extends his own love to Cosette and finally to Marius, saving Cosette from poverty and Marius from early death (which in the book is likened to suicide).

This vision of salvation through love is so inspiring to me. On the surface, the musical preaches the same gospel, but digging deeper I have found that the musical’s conception of love is contentless. It is a Romeo-and-Juliet love, a love at first sight so powerful it almost causes death. In the novel, Marius’ attraction to Cosette is borne over months and while the two young lovers are still a symbol of naivety and purity, their love is not as ridiculous or easily-won as the musical would have it. More powerfully though, in the novel love does not embrace everyone, there is a strong sense that choosing to love one person may make an enemy of someone else. Thus, Valjean’s love of Cosette leads him to continually run from Javert. Thus, Enjolras and the students’ love of the people leads them to fight at the barricades. It is also thus that the Thernardiers are exiled to America by Marius, where they become slave traders. In the final scene of the musical, heaven seems to meet earth and the dead return to lead Valjean to eternal peace. An inspiring sense of good will prevails, however, this last scene (and the musical on the whole) buries the thought that there may actually be evil will in the world. Rather, Javert and the Thernardiers are as much a part of the heavently ensemble as anyone, the whole nation it seems has been united by Valjean’s love. This is anything but truthful, and while the inversion may seem slight I think, in the end, the gospel preached by the musical is that love will always end in peace and unity, perhaps suffering for a time but ultimately reconciliation.

This is simply not true, if it were then Jesus never would have been executed. Think about that. In the end, a part of why I find the story of Les Miserables as told in the novel so powerful is that it is not scared of this challenging truth: true love of others often brings suffering upon ourselves. Sometimes, it even brings death. Am I prepared to die for those I love? More radically, am I prepared to die for those whom Jesus would have me love?

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungoldy. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NRSV)

We are called not only to love those who love us, but also our enemies. I cannot help but wonder how a true appreciation of this teaching would have changed the reaction of so many to the Worldvision announcement earlier this week. For those of us whose hearts are rent by the backlash and recanting of that announcement, I offer the message of Les Mis: true love of others often brings suffering upon ourselves. This is hard gospel, but it is the gospel to which I belong. It is the way of the cross, imagined so powerfully by Victor Hugo. I only wish that his story, the story of the wretched ones, had not been so co-opted, tamed, and emptied by its most popular rendition. May someone revive it in its full power someday soon.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.



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