This summer I wrote an article on how to keep the “unfamiliar light” aflame in the teaching of Les Misérables. What follows are my favorite parts:
VI. Problems and opportunities
This last point reveals the main problem of studying Hugo’s commitment to revolutionary ideals in Les Misérables: it is inconsistent. Despite the militant preface and the moments where people help each other, Les Misérables ends with a comforting vision of Christian death en famille. Parts of Valjean’s dying speech sound like the words of a wealthy industrialist, not a repentant ex-convict: he dies happy, knowing that his son-in-law now owns not only his fortune, but also the manufacturing secrets that made the Montreuil-sur-mer factory such a success. Through their tears, the Baron Pontmercy and wife Cosette embrace the bourgeois happiness this will bring. As Brombert notes, “not a word is said about social conditions, while private property is justified, indeed sanctified.”*
Faced with this disappointing ending, the teacher has some choices. One can explain it as a result of Hugo’s socio-spiritual milieu (Brombert), side-step it by labeling Hugo a “divided person” (Ewing), or turn it into a discussion of privilege. Although economic privilege is at stake here rather than race, the basic principles could easily be extended to the American case. Consider Kristof’s bleak article on the working class in the American west. It concludes on a decidedly Hugolien note: “the essential starting point is empathy.” For a more political discussion, consider the explosive revelations found in White Privilege: “The economic power system is not invisible—everyone knows that money brings privilege. But the myth persists that all have access to that power through individual resourcefulness. This myth of potential economic equality supports the invisibility of the other power systems that prevent fulfillment of that ideal” (Wildman and Davis). By narrowing his vision to one exceptional person, Hugo brushes the unfairness of capitalism and privilege under the rug.
The author seems to have lost his nerve by the end of the novel, and the recent adaptations have done even more to muffle the political potential of Les Misérables. Critiqued for its “push-button emotionalism” and “lurid melodrama” on opening night, Les Miz has nevertheless been packing theaters around the globe since 1985 (Nightingale and Palmer). Can one blame Tom Hooper, director of the 2012 film, for following such a lucrative lead?
Faced with this media onslaught, students might be invited to rewrite the end of Les Misérables. Maybe they could make it answer to the preface. Perhaps Marius might remember his father’s sacrifice, or see the ghosts of Enjolras or Éponine lighting a path forward? Using creativity may be the best way to restore urgency to Les Misérables. It might allow some students to feel brotherly love, if only in the classroom. What happens next will be up to them.