Freedom and Tragedy: The Story of Les Miserables

by Jason Stotts

Note: this essay primarily deals with the story of Les Miserables as portrayed in the musical (and consequently film) version, but draws from the book to fill in the gaps in the story.  If you have not seen the film or read the book, you should wait to read this essay until you have done so as it explains the entire plot and some of the subtler points.

Les Miserables is the story of the downtrodden of France in the days before the French Revolution.  It is the story of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Enjolras, and the rest of the students.  It is a story of a people being ground to dust by a repressive and exploitative government who grants no rights to the people.  It is a story of a people who might dare to fight for the chance to be free.

The story opens to Jean Valjean who has been in prison 19 years, originally for 5 years for stealing a loaf of bread, the rest for trying to escape his unjust imprisonment (and to maintain their free labor).  Valjean had stolen the loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children, who were starving.  The people in that time were being taxed to death (literally) by a government run amuck and knowing no limits on its power.

The story of Les Mis cannot be understood without this backdrop: it is the story of a people being oppressed by their government.  It is the story of people trying to live under a government that treats them as property and not free men.  Secondarily, although Hugo definitely did not intend this, it is a story about how bad sexual ethics destroys lives.  Primarily, however, it is a story about government gone wrong.

After being freed, Valjean is given his prison papers that brand him a dangerous criminal and discharged.  He goes from town to town, but no one wants to help a dangerous criminal (recall, he only stole some bread to feed starving children).  He ends up sleeping near a church and is brought in by a kindly bishop who is the first person to treat him with kindness and humanity in nearly two decades.  Valjean decides to take advantage of this and steals the bishop’s silver in the night.  He escapes, but is caught and brought back by the gendarmes to stand before the bishop.  The bishop could have Valjean executed for crimes against the Church or at least minimally thrown back into prison until he dies.  The bishop, however, takes mercy on Valjean and corroborates his story, setting him free and even giving him two additional pieces of silver, his candlesticks.  The bishop encourages him to think about his life and the kind of man he wants to be.  Valjean has an inner crisis about what kind of man he has become and chooses to be a man and leave behind his hate-filled and misanthropic past.

Valjean tears up with prison papers and leaves into the night.  His story jumps several years and Valjean has become the mayor of a small town.  He is widely known for being a caring and just mayor who has brought order and prosperity to the town.  How did he become mayor of a small town?  He became a capitalist.  He developed a new locking mechanism for bracelets and opens a factory to produce it.  He ends up being very successful and his business rejuvenates the town.  Overjoyed at having jobs, money, and food, the people make him mayor.  Valjean, the capitalist, creates the prosperity that the government had destroyed.  The businessman brings food and jobs to a region where the heavy governmental taxation had decimated the people and people were starving in the streets.

Entre Fantine.  Fantine is a young woman who fell in love with a man.  After having a romantic summer full of sex, the young man deserts her.  She gets pregnant and has to flee the town to have the child (think The Scarlet Letter).  After having the child, she sees a sweet child swinging in front of an inn being doted on by another young mother: Mme. Thenardier.  She makes a bargain with the Thenardiers to care for her daughter, Cosette, and to raise her.  In return, Fantine would travel to the town with the prosperous factory and work there, sending money back to the Thenardiers for raising Cosette.  This goes well enough at first, but the Thenardiers are actually criminals and do not care about the value of human life.  They start fabricating stories that Cosette is sick and that they need more money.  Fantine, the diligent mother, works as hard as she can to raise the money to save her daughter.  Unfortunately, the other women who work in the factory find out that Fantine has a child out of wedlock and, being the good christians that they are, attack Fantine for not living according to their rules and get her fired from the factory.

Fantine tries to find other work, but cannot. Fantine would do anything to save her daughter and sells all of her possessions, including her furniture and heirlooms, then must turn to less savory means including selling her hair, her teeth, and even turning to prostitution.  She is assaulted by a noble (a person granted special authority by the government to own certain parts of the country and the people who live there) and is blamed for the assault: since, of course, sex workers aren’t real people. She would have been thrown in prison by Police Inspector Javert, if not for the intervention of Valjean (recall he is the Mayor) ordering Javert not to do so, when he realizes that she is not a villain and that she is working to save her child.  Realizing that she is also very sick, he takes her to be treated for her illness.  She at first resists, blaming him for being kicked out and forced to turn to prostitution, but when she realizes that he did not know and genuinely wants to help, she implores him to save her child.  He vows to do so.

In the meantime, Javert, the police inspector who used to work at the prison at which Valjean was housed thinks that he recognizes Valjean and writes to the authorities in Paris.  They say that it cannot be him, since they have that person in custody in a nearby town awaiting trial.  Javert goes to Valjean and tells him of his breach of duty and asks to be punished for violating his duty (as Mayor, he would report to Valjean).  Valjean tells him that he has done no wrong and dismisses him.  Unfortunately, he now must choose between letting an innocent man return to life in prison for breaking parole or let his city fall back to ruin.  He chooses to free the man and travels to the town, clearing him of guilt.  Stunned that the well-known Mayor could actually be a criminal, no one in the court moves to stop him and he returns to his town to check on Fantine and to seek out her daughter as he has vowed. Javert discovers that he was right and moves quickly to arrest Valjean.  He goes to where Fantine is being treated and bursts in to make his arrest.  Fantine thinks he has come back for her and she dies of fright (she is already deathly ill and close to death).  Valjean overpowers him and escapes to find Cosette.

(As an interesting aside, in this time period in France, the Mayor would have worn ornate chains of office and these are the chains that Javert refers to in his song when he says “M. le Mayor you’ll wear a different chain.” Since he would soon lose his office and be returned to shackles.)

Valjean takes the profits that he has earned as a businessman and savior of the people and takes Cosette from the Thenardiers, who have abused and neglected her.  They then head together to Paris and ends up at a convent, where he enrolls Cosette and takes up a position as a gardener in order to remain out of the eyes of the law.  Recall that the Church and State have long been enemies in their desire to control the people and so they were in this time period too: the police could not enter sacred ground without cause lest they cause civil war between the church and state.  Many years pass (Cosette is around 8 when she is taken from the Thenardiers and around 16 when she meets Marius) and things are going well until she meets Marius.

Marius is a young aristocrat who is studying law.  He is one of the leaders of the student rebellion, being disaffected with the aristocracy and walking out on his uncle who spurns him for not taking his place of duty.  He moves to a boarding house, where he meets Eponine, daughter of the Thenardiers, and befriends her.  She falls in love with him, but he is indifferent to him (this plays out very differently in the book and play).  Marius does his part to help lead the underground student rebellion against their oppressive government, until he sees Cosette and falls in love with her “at first sight.”  He has Eponine find out where she lives and goes to see her.  Unfortunately, Thenardier has recognized Valjean and later that night goes to get his “rightful” share of his money (rob him), but he finds Eponine still outside his gate.  She saves him by calling out, even though she risks herself to do so.

Valjean thinks that Javert has finally found him and takes flight.  Cosette barely has time to send a note to Marius, who despairs that he has lost her.  Unfortunately General Lamarque, who is the only advocate for the people in the government, dies and the students decide to use his death as the rallying point for their cause.  They take over his funeral procession and erect barricades to fight the government, who is sent in to kill them all, to maintain “order.”  Marius sends a note to Cosette via the young Gavroche.  Valjean intercepts the letter and is moved to protect Cosette once again by going to the barricade to protect Marius.

Javert also goes to the barricade as a spy, but is recognized by Gavroche, who is the urchin son of Thenardier.  Valjean, having shown himself to be true to the cause by helping repel a wave of the army, volunteers to take care of the spy.  Javert, believing that Valjean is evil and that people can never change, thinks that he will be killed, but Valjean frees him and sends him away.  He returns to the barricade, which is soon beset by the army.  They are overwhelmed and underarmed.  They start to run out of powder and Gavroche sneaks out past the barricade to get the powder from the fallen soldiers (this is before bullets, in the days of powder and balls).  He is killed, but dies fighting for his freedoms against the oppressive government.  In the next wave Marius is wounded and Valjean escapes with him into the sewer as the barricade is overrun and the students, including their leader Enjorlas, are cornered in the bar and killed.

Valjean manages to escape with Marius through the sewers.  In the process, Javert sees them and is forced to make a choice: to violate his duty and let Valjean go or to uphold his duty and send a man he now knows to be a good man to rot in prison for the rest of his life.  Javert is thrown into crisis, never before had he considered that to do his duty may not be morally right and discovering that morality is something apart from duty is too much for Javert.  He lets Valjean go, but confronted by the doubts he has now about his duty and the way he has lived his life, he commits suicide.

Valjean successfully saves Marius, but uses up his strength in the process.  He doesn’t tell anyone who saved Marius, leaving him at his uncle’s to be found and treated.  Marius and Cosette are reunited and their relationship blossoms.

Valjean now is greatly weakened and he knows that his time is running out. He confides his past to Marius and leaves, so as not to taint Cosette’s future with Marius.  He secretly goes back to the convent where he has spent so many years, knowing his death is imminent.

At their wedding, the Thenardiers crash and attempt to extort money from Marius, who has reconciled with his uncle and resumed his place in the aristocracy.  Marius finds his ring with his family crest on Thenardier and finds out that it was Valjean who has saved his life.  He forces Thenardier to tell him where he has gone, then kicks him out, before he and Cosette rush to find Valjean.

Unfortunately, Valjean is dying.  He has, however, written Cosette a letter explaining her past.  They thank him for all that he has done and attempt to comfort him.  His final visions are of Fantine and the Bishop as he dies.

Les Miserables is one of my favorite stories, whether the book, the play, or the movie.  It is the story of a heroic man who acts as well as he can under an oppressive government.  It is the story of a kind man who takes it upon himself to raise a young child as a kindness to a dying woman.  It is the story of young love.  It is the story of a downtrodden people who are suffering at the hands of their government and church.

It is, above all, a story of a people who long for freedom and the tragedy of life in an oppressive government.

Looked at this way, Les Miserables is a testament to the importance of philosophy, to the importance of having a rational philosophy such as Objectivism.  Ideas move the world.  Good ideas lead to freedom and prosperity.  Bad ideas lead to oppression and death.  Although I’ve already spelled this out somewhat in the laying out of the story itself, let us look closely at several aspects.

Jean Valjean is a capitalist hero.  Through his ingenuity he creates an invention that improves people’s lives and that they want.  They voluntarily buy his goods and he creates a factory that employs people and brings wealth to the area.  People get jobs and money, they are able to buy the things they need and are saved from their destitution.  He becomes known far and wide for saving the town.

Throughout Les Miserables, the enemy at every turn is the government.  It is an unjust government that taxes its people to death and creates an environment where human life is not possible.  Javert, as a representative of the government, is the perfect exemplar of duty.  He will do his duty without a thought to right or wrong.  Morality can’t coexist with duty: an unchosen obligation (duty) is the opposite of free choice taken for one’s own ends (morality).

A second-level enemy of human life in the story is the church and christian morality, which has permeated the culture.  Recall that the reason that Fantine must flee her hometown is so as not to be ostracized or attacked for having sex outside of a marriage sanctioned by the christian god.  Christianity is evil.  All religion is evil to the extent to which is encourages irrational thought and divorces one’s mind from reality (which is the essence of religion).  This is not to say that there is no value to religion, but such value as it has is incidental to its real nature, which is irrationality and control.

I find the fact that in the musical and movie that the Thenardiers are comical to be offensive.  They are thieves and murders.  They are directly responsible for Fantine’s death.  They are evil and to laugh at evil as comedy is immoral.  To deride evil and cut it down with laughter is an entirely different matter and is perfectly moral.  But, to look at pure evil and find it comical is offensive to all people of reason.

Lastly, throughout Les Miserables, I kept thinking: Freedom, how easily people give it up and take it for granted.  What our ancestors gave their lives for, we take for granted.  We take this great gift that was given to us through the blood of good and noble men and we take it for granted.  We can have freedom or free things; we cannot have both.  Of course, there will be problems in freedom since there are evil people, but how much better to have a chance at life than none at all.  It struck me that Les Mis was beyond relevant to our current firearms debate.  Especially in the scenes of the student rebellion, I can’t help but to think of the rifle as the symbol of a free country.  The rifle to these students was a way to fight back against the power of the government, it was their chance at life, it was their one shot.  The firearm was, and is, a symbol that a man’s life is his by right and that good men will fight to the death to protect their lives and the lives of those they love. Our firearms, our rifles, are our freedom.  If we give up one, we give up the other.  Moral men, good men, must always maintain the ability and will to fight to the death to preserve their rights and freedoms and if the day should ever get so dark that human life becomes impossible, good men must be willing and able to strike back and fight to restore the necessary conditions of human life.

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