From Page to Screen · les miserables

Les Mis as a Musical: Introspective Solos

Les Miserables is a long book filled with everything imaginable, ranging from detailed character backstories and historical background info to intense action sequences and suspense. However, I think some of the most moving scenes are those where a character is left alone with their own thoughts and confronted with some internal dilemma. In the musical, these moments are often transformed into solos, some of which are among the most memorable pieces of music in the show.

For example, the chapter Javert Derailed follows Javert away from Valjean, who he can’t bring himself to arrest, to the Prefecture de Police and the Pont au Change. It focuses on his inner thoughts as he goes over the dilemma of what to do about an escaped criminal who spared his life. The whole chapter is only a few pages long, but it is powerful and haunting to read.

Another very similar section is the one in which Jean Valjean has just met the Bishop and struggles with how to react to his act of mercy. Like Javert after the barricades, Valjean sees two paths before him and has to choose, when before he believed he had no choice at all. He chooses to abandon Jean Valjean and create a new identity for himself. These two songs in the musical share the same tune and have lyrics that are a reflection of each other.

Valjean experiences several moral dilemmas that he must decide on his own, without the help of any other character, since no one knows his true identity. For instance, when he discovers that another man is about to be condemned in his place, he spends the remainder of that day debating what to do, weighing his moral obligation to speak up with his desire to avoid going to prison. This ends up being the song Who Am I? in the musical.

And, of course, there’s Fantine, whose fall from grace is stretched out over a long period of time in the book but summed up in a few powerful minutes of song with I Dreamed a Dream in the musical.

Even the solos that don’t come directly from the novel speak to the powerful emotions the characters are feeling. For instance, Marius does not really have an Empty Chairs at Empty Tables moment in the novel, and Eponine’s point of view is not explored enough for her to have an equivalent to On My Own, but the emotions in the songs ring true at those points in the story and fit with the pattern of deep, heart-wrenching, introspective solos that reveal a character’s inner turmoil.

The characters in Les Miserables are solitary people. They do not confide in many, if any, of the people around them, and aside from a few intense action sequences such as the police chase through Paris, the attack on Rue Plumet, or the barricades, many of the struggles they face are internal ones. Perhaps this is why Les Miserables works so well as a musical. While it would seem silly to have characters in a modern play monologue about their deepest secrets, it seems perfectly natural for them to sing solos about their thoughts and feelings in a musical.

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Les Mis Re-Read: Somewhere Beyond the Barricade …

One thing I noticed about the barricade section of Les Miserables is that, aside from Les Amis de l’ABC, almost every major character who is there is there for some reason other than the revolution. Marius is there because he would rather die than live without Cosette. Eponine is there to die with Marius. Jean Valjean is there to save Marius’ life. Javert is there as a spy. The reader is introduced to a large number of revolutionaries who are there to fight for their cause, but they are supporting characters whose barricade serves as a backdrop for stories to unfold that have little to do with the revolution. And yet, its placement in the story – the place where all the separate storylines converge and reach their conclusions – is critical, and it has a great deal to say about one of the novel’s most important themes.

Les Miserables is a complex novel with many themes, but one of the biggest ones is injustice. Almost every character in the novel has experienced some great personal struggle as a result of the injustices in their world – either legal ones, such as overly harsh prison sentences, or societal ones, such as extreme poverty or cruelty.

  • Jean Valjean spends nineteen years in prison for stealing bread to feed his starving family, and is then pursued by the law for the rest of his life.
  • Fantine is abandoned by her lover and loses her job when she’s revealed to be a single mother. She is forced into prostitution, which is the only way she can provide for herself and her daughter.
  • Cosette is entrusted to a cruel foster family. She does not have enough to eat and is dressed only in rags while the Thenardiers’ daughters are spoiled.
  • Eponine is forced into a life of crime and extreme poverty by her parents.
  • Gavroche is a homeless street urchin even though his parents are still alive.
  • Marius is forcibly separated from his father for political reasons and thrown out of the house when he questions his grandfather’s views. He ends up very poor and struggles to provide for himself but refuses to take money from his family or friends.
  • Even Javert, who is usually the one enforcing unjust justice, was born in prison and was the son of criminals. He chose to become a prison guard and eventually a police inspector because he believed he would never be able to be part of “society” and did not want to be a criminal.

Injustice runs through the entire novel, and each of the characters at the barricade have experienced it to some extent. While Jean Valjean and the Bishop both do their best to help as many people as they can, the novel paints a picture of a society where it’s all too easy for an individual to slip through the cracks, as Fantine does in Montreuil, and where the law cannot be trusted to be just.

Enter Les Amis de l’ABC, a group of revolutionaries whose goals are A) to get rid of the monarchy and replace it with a republic, B) to create a world in which everyone is equal under the law, and C) to promote education as a way for poor children to better themselves. They are, basically, the answer to the question of why, if things are so bad, nobody tries to change anything. They do try to change things, and they end up dead.

In a way, they are victims of injustice as well. They are some of the most privileged characters in the book, being mostly university students from rich families, and they do not face the disadvantages that Jean Valjean, Fantine, Eponine, etc. experience. However, they feel they have no choice but to resort to violence to make their voices heard – the novel makes it clear that even Enjolras, the passionate leader of the group, has qualms about this and yet views it as a necessity – and in doing so, they end up dying for their cause without accomplishing much toward their goals. That’s an injustice in its own right.

And against this backdrop, almost every other storyline is resolved, for better or for worse. In particular, Jean Valjean – who has spent the entire novel becoming more and more like the Bishop – risks his life by going to the barricade to save Marius, a virtual stranger, and while he is there, saves his longtime enemy Javert as well. He does his best to help defend the barricade despite refusing to kill and tends to the wounded while the battle rages on around him. His heroic actions are all the more impressive in such a bleak and hopeless situation.

The scenes at the barricade are important because they emphasize the injustice of the novel’s setting and the futility of trying to change it. However, they are also important because of the contrast between Jean Valjean’s actions and the hopelessness and violence taking place around him. The good that he is able to do even in such a situation emphasizes the idealism in the parts of the barricade section that talk about the future.

In a way, although no character seems to realize this, Jean Valjean represents everything the rebels are hoping to accomplish. He was born a poor peasant and became a criminal because he was desperate and starving, but he went on to become a successful businessman, a philanthropist, and an utterly selfless person willing to die or return to prison for the sake of doing what he knew was right. When Victor Hugo talks about the insurrections of the 1830’s and 40’s, and in particular about the one featured in his novel, he defends them as being necessary and justified, but he paints them as a tragedy. He uses large amounts of the barricade section talk about a future where war and violence, along with starvation, poverty, and inequality, will be a thing of the past. Some of this is too idealistic. The cannon was not in fact a weapon so horrible it brought an end to war, and the twentieth century was not a peaceful utopian age. However, within the character of Jean Valjean, that transformation from poverty and oppression to anger and violence to peace and kindness and selflessness had already taken place.

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Les Mis Re-Read: Javert

It’s hard to believe that I’ve made it so far into Les Miserables and had so little to say about Javert. At the point where I am right now, the barricade has fallen and Javert has helped Valjean take Marius – or what he believes to be Marius’ corpse – to his grandfather’s house. He’s wandered through the streets of Paris trying to cope with the events of the past day, which have thoroughly shattered his worldview, and has made his way to the Seine, where he commits suicide.

What I think is most interesting is how little of his internal monologue is actually about Jean Valjean. Or at least, while Jean Valjean as a person and the question of whether he’s good or evil does occur to Javert, it’s almost a side-note. He is forced to realize that Jean Valjean is both a criminal and a good person, and while the realization seems to break him, he doesn’t deny it. His dilemma is over what to do with that information, a dilemma which forces him to doubt his life choices and deeply-held beliefs.

He sees himself as having two options: to do his duty and arrest Jean Valjean, or to listen to his conscience and let him go. He does not seem to have ever considered that right and wrong could exist as a separate entity from the law, or that the law might not always be right. He believes in justice, but he believes that just and lawful are always the same thing, and this is the first time he’s discovered a case in which they are not.

Or … is it? I think it’s important to note that one of Javert’s final actions before committing suicide is to write a letter to the Prefect of Police, his superior officer, which is basically a long list of complaints and suggestions. Among other things, he suggests allowing prisoners to wear shoes and sit in chairs, preventing gendarmes from discussing court proceedings in public, and eliminating various abuses of power within the prisons. This is not the first time he’s disagreed with the law, only the first time he’s been forced to make a decision about it – and once he realizes he can’t bring himself to arrest Valjean, he seems to feel the need to voice all the other opinions he’s been holding back out of complete submission to authority.

Hugo mentions that Javert has never thought much about God. He sees the church as an authority and therefore respects it, but “the police force had been his true religion. He had a superior officer, Monsieur Gisquet; he had given no thought to that higher superior, which is God.” In this chapter, he wrestles with a newfound awareness of mercy, kindness, and faith, which he had never considered important before but which Jean Valjean embodies and offers to everyone he meets, Javert included. However, he has lived his life according to laws and rules, and he cannot reconcile this with a faith that might lead him to defy the law in the name of something more important.

In this way, he is unlike almost every other character. From Jean Valjean and Fantine to the Bishop to the rebels at the barricade, nearly every character in Les Miserables who attempts to do the right thing prioritizes morality over legality, while a few disregard both morals and laws. Javert is the only character to live purely according to the law and seems to have no sense of morality independent of the strict rules he expects himself and all others to follow. When he becomes aware of such a thing, it is overwhelming for him. He cannot choose between two choices he sees as right, and he cannot cope with the one that seems more right is the one that goes against everything he has lived for.

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Les Mis Re-Read: “The Twentieth Century Will Be Happy”

There’s a lot of idealism in Les Mis, despite the constant death and misery. In a speech to encourage the defenders of the barricade – who at this point know they are going to die – Enjolras makes a speech about progress and the future. He talks about the end of warfare, freedom of religion, education for all children, no more hunger or poverty, a time when all people will be free and equal.

“Our nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy.”

Wow. The twentieth century was a lot of things, but happy is not the word I’d choose for it.

It’s not that we haven’t made progress, or that good things haven’t happened. But many of the basic problems Hugo presents, which we are assured will be resolved by the twentieth century, continue to be problems in the twenty-first.

One of the best and worst things about Les Mis is that, no matter how much time passes by and how much the world changes, the themes it explores are universally relevant. Perhaps not in quite the same ways. Perhaps there are things in there we’ve moved beyond – in modern democracies, we at least don’t have to resort to violent revolutions in order to change things. But that utopia Victor Hugo seemed sure was right around the corner is a long way off, and most people today would probably call it a pipe dream.

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Les Mis Re-Read: The Women Left Behind

When they first build the barricade, they believe they have a chance of winning. After all, the Revolution of 1830 was a success – sort of – just two years before. But by the end of the first night, it’s obvious they will not win, and they decide on a “protest of bodies” – in other words, they decide to fight to the last man rather than surrender. But they also decide, in the words of the musical, not to “waste lives”. Some people can stay to fight to the death, and others can leave and survive.

The problem is that nobody wants to leave.

Seriously, every person on the barricade wants to die there, knowing there is no hope at that point for their revolution to be successful. It takes multiple speeches and a direct order to change their minds – and even then, they start volunteering each other to leave instead of themselves. That’s … Incredible? Frustratingly noble? Almost impossible to actually believe?

What I really wanted to talk about, though, is one of the speeches I just mentioned.

“Those supporting a family by their labour have no right to sacrifice their lives – it is an act of desertion. Those of you who have daughters or sisters – have you thought of them? Who will feed them when you are dead? It is a terrible thing for a girl to go hungry. A man may beg, but a woman has to sell.”

You know what this makes me think of? Fantine – which is probably exactly the association it was meant to bring up, because the character speaking goes on: “There is a market in human flesh, and it is not your disembodied hands, fluttering over them, that will protect them from being drawn into it.”

And even later:

“We pride ourselves on the fact that [women] are less educated than men. We prevent them from reading, from thinking, from concerning themselves with politics. Will you not also prevent them from going to the morgue tonight to identify your bodies?”

This makes me think of the song “Turning” from the musical, in which the women of Paris mourn for the men who died at the barricade. They miss the point, yes, describing them as “schoolboys, never held a gun” – but they sound more like grieving family members than anything else. They don’t understand and perhaps don’t care why their loved ones died. They just wish it hadn’t happened.

“Turning” is to the same tune as “Lovely Ladies”. Let that sink in for a moment.

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Les Mis Re-Read: Symbols of the Revolution

Each of the students who fight at the barricade has their own distinct personality. However, one thing I’ve noticed as I read is that there’s an inverse relationship between how realistic and human a character seems and how symbolic their role is; those who are more symbolic are also more idealized. The group can be divided into two general categories: those whose main role is to give names, faces, and personalities to rebellion of June 1832, and those whose purpose is to represent the principles of revolution and the ideal world Victor Hugo was advocating for in his book.

Marius, Grantaire, Joly, Lesgle, and Jean Prouvaire are characters first and foremost. They have their quirks and their faults. They are a romantic daydreamer whose beliefs evolve throughout the story, a drunken cynic who doesn’t believe in anything, a hypochondriac medical student, an extremely unlucky but cheerful young man, and a sensitive poet capable of great bravery, respectively. Their personalities do not necessarily define their role in the rebellion, and they are easy to imagine as real people one might encounter on a college campus. They are each drawn into the revolution for their own reasons and stand in for the many real people who fought in it, but they’re characters before they are symbols.

Courfeyrac is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, he’s the symbolic “center” of the group. While Enjolras is the leader, it is Courfeyrac who represents the group itself and holds them together, not just as a political organization but as a group of friends. On the other hand, he’s not idealized the way that Enjolras and Combeferre are. In fact, he’s compared to Tholomyes; the two of them are described as “a type of individual that constantly recurs in the seats of learning”, although Hugo does add that he’s a better person than Tholomyes. He’s a very humanized character, a twenty-something guy who chases after women but would hopefully not do to them what Tholomyes did to Fantine, shows extreme generosity towards his penniless friend, believes in the revolution as much as any of them but does not seem to mind that Marius’ political views are different from his, and might have someday grown into the role of a bourgeois gentleman but instead dies a rebel at the barricade.

Bahorel, Feuilly, Combeferre, and especially Enjolras each stand for something much greater than themselves. They are still characters with personalities, but they are symbols of the revolution first and foremost.

Bahorel “enjoyed nothing more than a quarrel except a rebellion, and nothing more than a rebellion except a revolution. He was always ready to smash a window, strip a street of its cobbles and then overthrow a government, just to see what would come of it”. While the other characters resort to violence at the barricade because it is necessary, he does so because conflict is in his nature. He is the violence of the revolution personified.

Feuilly is an orphan who has educated himself and works for a living, representing – in a group of wealthy students – the many poor workers who fought alongside them. He cares deeply about the whole world and is just as strongly moved by injustice abroad as in France. He stands for the universality of the group’s revolutionary ideals and the need for a global rather than limited perspective.

Victor Hugo says upfront that Enjolras and Combeferre are symbols: “At the side of Enjolras, who represented the logic of revolution, was Combeferre, representing its philosophy”. Combeferre is gentle and intellectual, believing in peaceful change but willing to resort to violence if necessary, and representing the hope for a better future, while Enjolras is the revolution, in all its harsh, violent glory. Unlike his friends, who mostly share his beliefs but also have lives outside of politics, Enjolras lives and breathes revolution, devoting his whole life to it. Hugo is suggesting that both are equally necessary in a situation like the one depicted here, one to rally the people to fight for their freedom, the other to ensure the new world they create is better than the one they’re destroying.

Les Miserables did not necessarily need ten unique rebel characters, each with their own personality and their own perspective on revolution. The musical gets by with only a few, a change that was probably necessary to cut over 1,000 pages down to three hours. However, the individual characters symbolize and personify the rebellion from all different angles. They are not simply a group of faceless, doomed idealists; they are people the reader has come to know and sympathize with over the course of the story, and in some cases, they are symbols of the revolution itself.

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Les Mis Re-Read: Let’s take a moment to appreciate Cosette

In the musical, Cosette is not much of a character. She’s important to Fantine, Jean Valjean, and Marius, but she has so little personality that she’s hard to care about for her own sake – especially once she’s grown up. Cosette in the book is a different story. She’s developed more as an individual, instead of just Jean Valjean’s adopted daughter and Marius’ beloved.

Cosette is a child brought up without any love or kindness who tells lies without a second thought and spends what little free time she has chopping the heads off of flies with a toy sword. She works hard to make sure the inn always has plenty of water, knowing that if they run out, she will be sent out alone in the night to fetch more. She envies Eponine and Azelma for the simple fact that they’re allowed to be children, while she’s the same age and forced to work hard all day. Her childhood is so traumatic that she blocks it out almost completely once she grows up.

She grows into an awkward teenage girl brought up in a convent who has no knowledge of the outside world. She has received an education but has not been taught to think for herself – and yet she does anyway. She’s described as ugly, but she’s really not; she simply she pays no attention to her appearance and makes no attempt to dress fashionably. Jean Valjean arranges for them to leave the convent so that she won’t become a nun without knowing what she’s giving up. While he hopes she will choose to take her vows, she quickly sees enough of the world to know she would rather live in it than return to the convent, especially once she falls in love.

Cosette is a lot smarter than the people around her give her credit for. When she decides to start paying attention to fashion, she masters it easily. When she realizes that her father is spoiling her and neglecting himself, she convinces him to keep a fire going in his room by going to visit him frequently and gets him to eat better by promising to eat the same food as him. When Marius and Jean Valjean try to keep secrets from her, she walks right into the room and insists on joining their conversation. As she tells Jean Valjean:

“And now you must take my side against my husband … Be cross with him. Tell him I can stay here. You can talk in front of me. You must think I’m very silly. Business indeed, investing money and all that nonsense – as if it were so difficult to understand! Men make mysteries out of nothing …”

Cosette is compassionate. As a small child, she cut up flies with her toy sword for fun, but when she is older, she refuses to try to catch butterflies for fear of harming them. She is horrified when she sees a group of convicts being sent to the galleys of Toulon, the same place where Jean Valjean spent nineteen years. He assumes she would be disgusted to learn he was once one of them, but she would probably be more heartbroken for him than anything else. She is kind and gentle to everyone she encounters, even the Thenardiers, who at that point she does not remember or recognize.

She’s also braver than she seems. Even as a child, she was not afraid of the strange man in the yellow coat – Jean Valjean – and did not scream or cry when they were escaping the police together, keeping quiet as Valjean instructed her to. For a girl brought up in a convent, she is not afraid of the outside world and embraces it without losing her innocent nature. She doesn’t know what love is or what her feelings for Marius mean, but she figures it out on her own. She is not frightened to hear noises in the garden when she is left home alone, and Hugo describes her as “more like a lark than a dove”, with “a wild but courageous heart”. It’s true that she doesn’t put herself in danger the way many of the other characters do, but whenever danger is present, she faces it bravely.