Not Enough Cake To Go Around: Les Misérables and Culture During Revolutionary France

Everyone loves Les Misérables. Even if you’ve never heard of the show, the infectious rhythm of “Do You Hear the People Sing” is probably familiar to your ears. And even though the representation of women is lacking and one-dimensional to say the least, you can’t help but root for the barricade boys and their passionate idealism. Victor Hugo, the original author of Les Misérables (often abbreviated to “Les Miz”), expertly crafted a story that matched the revolutionary period in France with everlasting characters and themes that are still relevant today. However, first in foremost, Hugo wrote Les Miz as a representation of French cultural identity during the early 19th century. Many of the overarching themes such as intense poverty, roles of women, moral ambiguity, and extreme law enforcement were characteristics of French society during the revolutionary period. Hence, by portraying France through the eyes of Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo comprehensively depicts French cultural identity through one of the harshest and most graphic epics of musical theater.

For those unacquainted, Les Miz follows the narrative of a fictional man, named Jean Valjean, as he lives through the revolutionary period in France. The show begins with Jean Valjean being released from 19 years of prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family. Although he is now free, Valjean struggles to find redemption as society has forever deemed him a criminal. After a tremendous act of mercy from a bishop, Valjean starts his life anew, though the police inspector, Javert, attempts to track him down. While assuming his new identity, Valjean is responsible for the termination of a single mother working in his factory, Fantine. Feeling guilty for having fired her, Valjean promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Simultaneously, an innocent man is arrested for Javert suspects he is Valjean, and in order to free him, Valjean must confess his identity to Javert, forcing him to go on the run again. Nine years later, Cosette falls in love with a young student revolutionary named Marius. In order to save Marius, Valjean becomes involved in the June Rebellion (aka Paris Rising of 1832). During this encounter, Valjean has the chance to kill Javert, but decides to spare him, for he does not hold a grudge against the man for doing his duty. Torn between his beliefs about God and his desire to adhere the law, Javert commits suicide. Valjean ends up saving Marius, and Marius and Cosette marry. Valjean dies in peace soon after. (Though I left out many of the details that make this show so great, I tried to make this summary as concise as possible.)

The women in Les Miz primarily take the role of caretakers and love interests that support the men of the show, restricting their autonomy, but also mirroring the role they played in French society. Fantine, though not a love interest, is a prime example of the sparse roles imparted to women in Les Miz. For the majority of Act One, Fantine struggles to find work to pay for the care of Cosette. Single mothers were quite taboo, as stated in the song “At the End of the Day,” and men were expected to make most of the income, limiting the jobs available for women. At the beginning of the show, Fantine is secure with her job as a factory worker, but once fired, her opportunities for occupation become highly restricted, leaving her to make money working as a prostitute. Fantine’s fall into poverty reflects the lack of control women carried in France. Fantine’s burdens are paradoxical: forced to sell her jewelry, her hair, and her body to scrape up money (for she has no other options), yet still a social obligation to support her child. However, Fantine is not the only woman in the show to sacrifice her life to the patriarchy. Éponine (not mentioned in the summation above) conveys a strong love interest for Marius in “On My Own,” even though he is in love with Cosette. In this pursuit of hopeless love, Éponine disguises herself as a student revolutionary in order to find Marius but is fatally shot while crossing the barricade. Éponine’s death represents the shallow aspirations held for women in France. Éponine’s purpose is to be worthy of a man’s love, but when he does not love her back (Marius loves Cosette instead), her life becomes meaningless.

Extreme law enforcement plays a pivotal role in the storytelling of Les Miz, but also serves as a representation of French government and aristocratic oppression towards the common Frenchman/woman. As mentioned in the summation, Javert’s role in the musical is that of tracking down Jean Valjean for breaking parole. Valjean, having served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, does not want to go back to the backbreaking labor he would have to endure for even longer than before. Because Javert can send people away for decades, he carries immense power over the people of France. This large power gap, along with a severe lack of checks and balances, is a purposeful attempt by those in charge to keep the bourgeoisie and lower class from revolting (this was the revolutionary period after all). Furthermore, committing a crime carries even greater consequence than just prison time. As Valjean finds out after his release, society forever marks him as a criminal, making it virtually impossible to find work. French business employers were unwilling to associate themselves with socially undesirable criminals. As if the last 19 years of “rehabilitation” were meaningless, Valjean must either starve or steal food again, which would send him back to prison. The French government designed this extreme law enforcement system to iniquitously keep crime rate low, as it would not only incentivize people to not commit crimes but would also ensure that those desperate enough to commit the crimes would never leave prison. Luckily for Valjean, however, the bishop bails him out with enough money to escape Javert and start a new life.

Analogous with extreme enforcement of laws, oppression of the French people also manifested itself in the form of intense poverty. The wealth distribution in France was astonishingly large (again, revolutionary period–it was pretty bad). Poverty also plays a central role in Les Miz. The show begins and centers around Valjean escaping from poverty, but other examples include Fantine becoming a prostitute, the Thénardiers scrounging for cash throughout the show (“Master of the House,” “The Robbery,” and “Beggars at the Feast”), and the students starting the June Rebellion. In fact, every conflict in this show stems from the immense poverty faced by the French people. Victor Hugo ridicules many facets of French society while consistently referencing the negative effects of poverty. Correspondingly, Hugo’s depiction of poverty in Les Mis conveys the futility of attempting to change the system that had impoverished so many.

The dichotomy between Valjean and Javert provides the main conflict for the show as well as a parallel dichotomy in moral beliefs–ultimately conveying a challenge of authority. Valjean and Javert possess starkly different moral compasses. Interestingly, both characters’ moralities are defined by “Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development,” a psychological theory on the different levels of morality (I’m a psych major, so prepare for this to get a bit nerdy). Javert’s moral development is “Conventional,” specifically the “Law-and-Order Orientation,” for he blindly accepts and strictly enforces laws, considering only their importance in maintaining a functioning society. Valjean’s moral development, on the other hand, is “Postconventional,” specifically the “Universal-Ethical-Principal Orientation,” for he disobeys laws that are unjust and follows the principles of equality, dignity, and respect. In essence, Valjean has a higher level of moral development, for is not blind to injustice, but also because he feels guilty for breaking his principles. An example of this guilt takes place when Valjean confesses to Javert about his true identity in order to save an innocent man from going to prison in his place. Although Valjean could have been free from Javert’s pursuit for the rest of his life, his guilt to uphold his principles of equality, dignity, and respect forced him into confession. The point of this long explanation of morality is to interpret Victor Hugo’s agenda for French prosperity. Javert, a man who has done nothing but his job, followed the law as it was written, and conducted himself in accordance with his moral compass, is not viewed by the audience as a hero. Javert’s role as the antagonist in Les Miz is a strategy by Hugo to convey to his audience, the French people, that this level of morality is insufficient and incorrect. Instead, he makes Valjean the hero, a man who consistently breaks laws, but fights for what is right (based on universal ethical principles). Les Miz is a plea from Hugo to French people to mature their moral reasoning, to not submit to the absolutism created by those in power, and instead, fight for their rights (Monroe et al.).

Victor Hugo’s revolutionary (pun intended) novel turned musical encapsulates the cultural identity of revolutionary France, for it speaks directly to French people. Hugo’s depiction of intense poverty, coupled with the strictly enforced laws, as well as the limited rights allotted to women, accurately illustrates revolutionary France. As well, Hugo’s novel acts as a message to all French people: to start thinking beyond a “Law-and-Order Orientation” towards a “Universal-Ethical-Principal Orientation.”

Source:

Monroe, Ann, and Joel Amidon. “Education, Society, & the K-12 Learner.” Lumen, courses.lumenlearning.com/teachereducationx92x1/chapter/kohlbergs-stages-of-moral-development/.

Hamilton: Contradictions that Create a Community

In 2016, Lin Manuel Miranda’s unique form of musical storytelling made Hamilton the sight to be seen on Broadway. Everyone soon fell in love with the novel “hip-hop musical” that shared the old, yet often neglected story of one America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Specifically, how the mere immigrant orphan from the Caribbean rose to power to become Washington’s right-hand man, as well as one of the most respected figures in America’s political founding. By contrasting a dated story with a more contemporary music genre and progressive, off-race casting, Miranda’s retelling of Hamilton’s life reaches a greater audience. This outreach to a larger audience is due to the community Miranda creates on stage. The community of Hamilton is of white men (played by actors of color) in an era where women have little to no rights (where female actors are given primary roles in the story) where honor and integrity are held in the highest regard (though everyone acts upon shady, power-hungry incentives). This constant juxtaposition between Hamilton’s community and the outside community is what makes Hamilton such an endearing protagonist, unifying the audience behind him.

The two acts of Hamilton are very distinct from one another in regard to the sense of community. Even though the same actors are in both acts, Hamilton’s changing community, as well as the audience itself, are unified against different threats. In act one, Hamilton’s community exists of his rag-tag group of friends that are united in their fight against the British monarchy. This creates a standard for anyone hoping to join Hamilton’s circle. Specifically, they must be supportive of the American revolution. This comes to play in the reprise of “The Story of Tonight.” Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s close friend in the first act, is in love with a married woman: “It’s alright Burr. I wish you’d brought this girl with you tonight, Burr / You’re very kind, but I’m afraid it’s unlawful, sir / What do you mean? / She’s married / I see / She’s married to a British officer / Oh shit.” Hamilton reacts less to the fact that she is married, and instead to the fact that she is married to a British officer. The relationship is not taboo to Hamilton until he learns that she is part of a different “community” on the side of the British. Act two is less direct in this approach. Hamilton is more isolated in act two for none of his friends (except Burr) are around him anymore. Ironically, the actors that play his friends Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan (Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan respectively) play his main political adversaries in act two. Not only is this to subvert your expectations as an audience member, but also to create a rival community to Hamilton that still remains familiar. In parallel to act one, Hamilton is at war with Jefferson, a man with previously established wealth and power who easily accumulates votes–a socioeconomic foil to Hamilton. Hamilton’s community is reestablished as the Federalists, with the understanding that the Democratic-Republicans are the main adversary. The Democratic-Republican’s community often discriminates against Hamilton. In “Cabinet Battle #2,” Jefferson publicly remarks, “He knows nothing of loyalty / Smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty / Desperate to rise above his station / Everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation.” Similarly, the juxtaposition between Burr’s patient nature and Hamilton’s aggressive political activism in songs like “Wait for It” and “Non-Stop” further define those who can fit into Hamilton’s community. That is to say, the words and actions of rival communities create assumptions for Hamilton’s community, which become associated with ideals like “new money,” progressiveness, and impulsivity.

Hamilton’s discrimination is not limited to socioeconomic factors. The line “Arrogant immigrant, orphan / Bastard, whoreson” and variations of it are often repeated throughout the show (this example was taken from “Your Obedient Servant”), mainly through Burr’s narration. Ironically, though all of the historical characters portrayed in the show are white, most of the Hamilton cast are actors of color. This juxtaposition between what we hear the characters saying and what the characters look like not only points to the idiocy of discriminating against race, but also puts the community of Hamilton into a more contemporary setting. The community within Washington’s cabinet often disregards Hamilton due to his Caribbean lineage, even though he is smarter than most all of them. The audience shares in Hamilton’s frustration, subconsciously pushing Miranda’s progressive ideals of race onto the audience. In this sense, the audience shares a community with Hamilton, one centered among racial equality. Further, back in act one, Hamilton surrounds himself with societal outcasts, namely Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan, because he feels he is an outcast himself. It is no coincidence that as Hamilton’s connection with Eliza Schuyler, a woman from a well-established family, grows stronger, and his relationship with his outcasted cronies diminishes, he gains power in the outside community, leaving his old one behind.

Another interesting dichotomy that creates community is the representation of women in Hamilton. Women in the 18th century did not carry much of a voice. However, in Hamilton, the women of the show take much more control over the story. This idea is best seen in the song “The Schuyler Sisters.” Perhaps the most famous line from this song is when Angelica tells Burr, “And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” Miranda purposefully breaks historical accuracy in order to better establish the women in Hamilton’s community. In opposition to the traditional ideals of complaisance and agreeableness, Angelica and Eliza (and Peggy!) are striking and passionate. This is also in part due to the acting choices by Angelica and Eliza’s actors: Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo respectively. The two actors play the Schuyler sisters in a more progressive and modern manner. They actually take agency within the story, further establishing a contemporary community within an old story, which invites the audience to share in this sense of community. The women are just as revolutionary as the men and they actively make choices that affect Hamilton’s community. For example, when Hamilton publishes The Reynold’s Pamphlet, the audience is encapsulated with Phillipa Soo’s intense and engaging rendition of “Burn,” forever changing the dynamic of the community we see onstage. Eliza’s decision to leave Hamilton tarnishes his legacy and conveys that she can be independent of him. Similarly, it is Eliza, not Hamilton, that carries on their family legacy in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Phillipa Soo creates depth to Eliza that gains sympathy and further support from the audience to the community in Hamilton.

Finally, honor plays a large role in the building of community within Hamilton. Three duels take place over the course of show, all with the intention of defending and accusing the honor of those involved. The first duel is between Charles Lee, an American General whose cowardice was responsible for the death of hundreds of troops, and Hamilton’s good friend John Laurens. Hamilton challenges Lee to the duel after Lee audaciously blamed his failures on George Washington. Therefore, Hamilton is defending Washington’s (and subsequently, his own) honor. The second duel was between Hamilton’s son Philip and a blabbermouth named George Eacker. Hamilton supported the duel with his son in order to protect his honor. And finally, the last duel was with Hamilton himself, defending his own honor against Aaron Burr. In all of these cases, Hamilton was defending his honor and legacy. Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy creates a relationship, a community, among his inner circle that is an “open-book.” Everyone in Hamilton hopes to be well-remembered, but Hamilton’s legacy holds more validity, for he keeps himself honest throughout the show. The audience trusts the account of Hamilton’s life because they learn to trust Hamilton himself. Whether in regard to the duels or The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton is honest, while the outside community is not. Burr usurps Philip Schuyler’s (Hamilton’s father-in-law) position in the senate and, along with Jefferson and Madison, tries to blackmail Hamilton. Again, Hamilton’s community is contrasted with those against him, which goes to unite the audience on his side, despite his flaws.

There’s no doubt as to why Hamilton was such a success on Broadway. Of course, Hamilton’s music and acting are prestigious, but more than that, Miranda creates a community on stage that the audience can easily relate to. Miranda expertly bridges the gap between an old story and a modern world by including contemporary social issues such as racial discrimination, women’s rights, and integrity. He accomplishes this via his writing and casting choices. Hamilton’s cast is made up of a majority of actors of color. Similarly, though not as historically accurate, he gives the women in Hamilton agency and depth. Beyond that, Hamilton continuously unites the audience behind an unlikely protagonist: an “Arrogant immigrant, orphan / Bastard, whoreson,” by creating a likable community onstage around Hamilton that is readily supported by the audience, and contrasting it with other communities, rivals, with less appealing characteristics.