A Marxist Reading of Les Misérables

By: Priya Sankaran

We live in a land governed by law, structures, and institutions– all things we consider to be marks of a civilized and just nation. However, as the year 2020 has shown us, all that glitters is not gold. Under the shroud of this “virtuous” system, there is deeply entrenched inequality that affects the poorest, most marginalized people of the world. 2020 has further shown us that there comes a breaking point in society, where the most oppressed finally rise up against the powerful in order to create meaningful change.

Theories of Marxism detail this phenomenon. Within the context of Marxist philosophy, which proposes the abolishment of capitalism and class structure, the upper class of a society aims to hold economic power by establishing their status quo as natural and unchallengeable.The success of the dominant class (bourgeoisie) is in making their ideologies accepted and internalized by others, not necessarily through violence, but with the implementation of social institutions that subjugate the lower class (proletariat). Social institutions include government, religion, and other systems in society. 

The 2012 film musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables, is a story that follows this Marxist narrative arc, as it portrays a class struggle between an oppressed working class and elite bourgeoisie during a time of political instability and spurring revolutionary sentiments in 19th century France. Les Misérables features the justice system and its enforcers as the predominant social institution that seeks to suppress the vulnerable. This musical follows the struggle of Jean Valjean, a poor ex-convict, as he attempts to rebuild a dignified life following his release from prison. Despite his commitment to a virtuous and altruistic path, Valjean cannot conceal his identity indefinitely and must face his past. In the end, he, along with the French proletariat, break free from their struggles and move towards freedom. 

In Les Misérables, the criminal justice system and its proponents are social institutions in place that legitimize the authority of a powerful ruling class by subjugating convicted peasants. Legality is not a reflection of morality in this case, as Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Throughout the film, he is chased by Javert, played by Russel Crowe,a puritanical prison guard turned police inspector who is staunchly bent on upholding the law.

The opening song of the film, “Look Down”, unveils the ways in which a restrictive justice system demands order and obedience from its prisoners, often compromising the prisoners’ autonomy and enforcing a state of silent conformity. In this scene, hundreds of battered prisoners are clad in tattered red and grey robes, with chains restraining their necks and bodies.The prisoners are all males with unkempt beards, shaven heads, and filthy, blood-stained faces. They are separated into rows and are laboriously hauling a giant ship to shore with their bare hands. The costuming and makeup of the prisoners conveys a look of homogeneity. The prisoners begin to sing “Look down, look down/You’ll always be a slave/ Look down, look down/ You’re standing in your grave.” With each beat of the song they grunt and pull the ropes in unison. This gives the effect that the prisoners are all cogs in a machine, commodities that are being used as a form of mass production, which is characteristic of capitalism. The prisoners are essentially a mechanized force that must work on command. The camera then pans up to Javert, who is wearing a blue uniform and a smug look of authority. He is standing hundreds of feet above the prisoners which shows him literally and figuratively looking down on them. Thus, there is a clear imbalance of power. As a pawn of the elite ruling class and its laws, Javert is invested in imposing strict regulations on his prisoners. He monitors the prisoners as they labor on, keeping an eye out for any sign of defiance. Behavior exemplifying contention or provocation, the very qualities that characterize a person’s agency, threaten the homogenous balance maintained by Javert. 

As the prisoners sing, Javert catches the eyes of Valjean, who peers up at him with contempt. After the prisoners finish their task, they begrudgingly walk back to their prison doors. Everyone except Valjean, that is. Javert sifts Valjean out of the long line and orders him to retrieve a fallen French flag. The flag is enormous and heavy, but Valjean completes his task without complaint. There is irony in that Valjean, an unjustly victimized prisoner, is literally carrying French ideals of liberty and democracy on his back, all while suffering under an oppressive system. Javert then sings “Now prisoner 24601/Your time is up and your parole’s begun/Follow to the letter your itinerary/This badge of shame you’ll show until you die”.

These lyrics reveal three key ideas about Valjean’s and Javert’s role in society. Firstly, Javert never calls Valjean by name, but rather a five-digit number which strips him of any individuality. He is understood as a piece of inventory that Javert must check up on. Secondly, when Javert hands Valjean the papers he must carry with him for the rest of his life, he is highlighting the immutable nature of Valjean’s identity. No matter how virtuous or redeemable Valjean becomes in the future, he is tainted by his past inferior identity. This is another method through which the bourgeoisie can keep the masses under their control, without any possibility of social mobility. Lastly, Javert and the ideas he represents- dutifulness and strict adherence to the law- reveal how unforgiving the judicial system is as a social institution. In particular, Russel Crowe’s singing (if you can even call it that) represents Javert’s extremely rigid nature. He sings plainly without emotion, almost as if he’s shouting.This relays a sense of  robotism and monotony. Although Valjean is a slave to the elite class, Javert is a slave to the system of law. He is so blindly engrossed in his duty that he is unable to see the cruelty of his own actions. Thus, Javert’s characterization shows how such repressive, un-empathetic social institutions can operate so powerfully. 

Another key concept of Marxism is the idea that a power struggle between the dominant ruling class and the oppressed working class ultimately leads to a revolution by the proletariat to create a new society where class structures are abolished. When looking through a Marxist critical lens, Les Misérables highlights conflicting interactions between French elites and the poor working class through the reprise of “Look Down” and the inevitable revolution is characterized through “Do you hear the people sing?” The reprise of “Look Down” features different lyrics to the initial rendition, “Look down and see the beggars at your feet/Look down and show some mercy if you can.”  During this scene, hundreds of impoverished men, women, and children have surrounded the luxuriant horse-drawn carriages of the rich. Unlike the first rendition, they do not silently accept their destitution. Instead, they directly confront their oppressors. A brave little boy, Gavroche, goes so far as to jump in a carriage himself. He sings with passion “This is my school, my high society/Here in the slums of Saint Michele we live on crumbs of humble piety.” At this point in the musical, the working class has broken out of their false consciousness. False consciousness is a false sense of understanding the proletariat have regarding the reality of their situation. The proletariat often do not realize that they are being exploited by the bourgeoisie. Marxist philosophy argues that the proletariat must break through their false consciousness to fully understand their oppression and work towards achieving a classless society, often by overthrowing the government. This song thus represents that moment of breaking free.

Finally, the song “Do you hear the people sing?” marks the incumbent revolution of the proletariat. In particular, the final reprise of the song showcases the new power that the proletariat hold. Although it is a fictional scene in which Valjean has joined the revolutionaries in the afterlife, it still conveys a sense of new beginnings. The proletariat are standing atop a monolith of broken wood pieces, patched together like a mismatched quilt. Dozens of French flags of various sizes sway in the wind as the people sing. The film ends on an optimistic note, suggesting the possibility of a better future for all people. 

In conclusion, the film adaptation of Les Misérables is a representation of Marxist philosophy, depicting the journey of a marginalized working class that breaks through the establishment of the exploitative ruling class. In particular, we see how the criminal justice system as a social institution is employed by the powerful in an attempt to subjugate the lower class, generally by restricting their autonomy and individuality. However, once the working class recognize their oppression, they are able to revolt and make strides toward their freedom. 

Soup or Salad? West Side Story and American Multiculturalism

“America is a melting pot”. 

We’ve heard this all our lives; America is a country that melts together immigrants of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds into one emergent American culture. But this vibrant nation isn’t a monotonous, homogenous soup. No, America should actually be a multicultural salad. A beautiful conglomerate of different cultures and peoples that remain distinct and separate to each other. A harmonious medley of individual ethnic communities that live peacefully among each other. But this salad metaphor isn’t completely accurate either. So then, what is America? 

In Jerome Robbins’ musical West Side Story, the Sharks are a group of brown-skinned, Puerto Rican immigrants who are forced to confront the ugly realities of their inferior rank in American society. The musical features a constant racial tension that taints the relationship between the Sharks and the Jets, a gang of white teenagers who are mostly second generation European immigrants. Although both groups strive towards achieving a common American Dream, the Puerto Rican ethnic identity of the Sharks precludes them from claiming equal space in the American public sphere. The Sharks’ interactions with the Jets, Lieutenant Schrank, and other Puerto Ricans reveal that an idealistic multicultural society is far from reality. Watching West Side Story in 2020 invites us to consider if the experiences of immigrant people of color have truly changed since the 1950s. 

The song “America” is a reflection of the conflicting realities of immigrant inclusion and exclusion in this country. This musical number features an ensemble performance from the Sharks that unapologetically defines their vibrant Puerto Rican ethnic identity. Notably, this distinct immigrant identity is established as the Sharks highlight the glories and downfalls of the American Dream. 

Firstly, “America” makes a statement on the unique flair, drama, and energy that exudes from Puerto Rican immigrants.The song takes place on a barren rooftop of New York City. Looming metal beams make criss-crossing structures over a backdrop of dimmed city lights and nearby brick buildings. The costuming of the Sharks shines in stark contrast to this dark and muted set design. Shimmering shades of lavender, bright red roses, and pink ruffles adorn the hips of the Puerto Rican women. Their hair is permed to perfection, eyeliner accentuates their expressive eyes, and golden hoops dangle from their ears. The men have their hair slicked back and they are dressed in prim dress shirts and pants of burgundy, purple, and grey tones.  Before “America” starts, Bernado, the leader of the Sharks, is holding his girlfriend Anita in his arms. He kisses her head playfully in the midst of other affectionate couples. The atmosphere is flirty and fun and soon after the guys and gals split up to begin a dance battle of sorts. 

When the Sharks begin dancing, their bodies fill the screen. Their movements take space. Anita’s movements are especially bewitching. When she moves her arms, they reach far above her head. When she bends her back, her head reaches for the ground. She is sassy with her expressions, turning at angles to face the camera, chin down and eyes looking up. The women’s dance movements are accompanied by claps, whistles, and cheers from the men. Even though both groups are on opposing sides, there is still exchange happening. Each side takes turns to let the other express themselves. The men tap across the rooftop diagonally, meeting the women in a corner of the stage. Then, the men dance backwards, eyes facing the women, and hands leading them to the front. In this way, the expression of their Puerto Rican ethnic identity is defined as welcoming, energetic, and rooted in love. Despite the arguments, the men and women still laugh, smile and flirt with each other. They invite each other to dance, enjoying each other’s company. Thus, “America” allows the Sharks to affirm their Puerto Rican identity through music and dance. 

“America” additionally makes a statement on the fraught nature of assimilation and integration for immigrants. While the women envision a rose-tinted American Dream, the men sulk on the harsh realities of racism and poverty instead. The song’s lyrics play off this tension and they follow a feisty back and forth between the men and women. Colliding lyrics include “Free to be anything you choose/Free to wait tables and shine shoes” and “Life is all right in America/If you’re all-white in America.” Thus, the women’s naive optimism regarding the American Dream is sharply cut short by the men’s cynical realism.

Ultimately, “America” shows how inclusion and acceptance is conditional. Equality is contingent on the color of your skin, the language that you speak, the accent of your voice, and the land from which your ancestors came. These ideas go against the concept of meritocracy that America prides itself in. If you just work hard enough, all your dreams will come true. If you still don’t achieve them, you probably didn’t deserve it in the first place. Despite their perseverance, the Sharks can never raise their heads with pride and dignity in West Side Story. Their place among the lower rungs of the racial hierarchy are a significant deterrent to their acceptance as equals. 

West Side Story also depicts the overwhelming presence of law enforcement in the lives of immigrants. Police largely dictate the movement of the Sharks, deciding the spaces they can and cannot occupy. Their freedom is much more limited than the Jets’ because of racial and cultural bias from the police. Characters like Officer Krupke and Lt. Schrank have unbridled authority to determine who is a threat and who is not. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks are more frequently targeted. In particular, the character of Lt. Schrank regularly spews racial hatred towards the Sharks.This behavior is an extension of the racist American judicial system at large. The fact that this “racist cop” phenomenon has continued to seep its way into contemporary American life is what I find most disturbing. 

Lt. Schrank is a megalomaniac of a cop. He revels in his power to suppress and provoke the Puerto Ricans. He looks at the Sharks with disgust as he claims, “As if this neighborhood wasn’t crummy enough”. He seeks to incite hatred when he advises the Jets to leave before the Sharks “turn this whole town into a stinkin’ pig sty.” Thus, Lt. Schrank is an additional deterrent to immigrant integration. If the Sharks’ existence is governed at the hands of such corrupt agents of the state, their failure to be accepted as equal citizens comes as no surprise. 

One of the most poignant scenes of the film is when Lt. Schrank encroaches on a meeting between the Sharks and the Jets at Doc’s local drugstore. Lt. Schrank screams “Clear out!” to Bernado’s face. He mocks Bernado, claiming “It’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What do you got?” Bernado’s expression quickly changes to resolute defeat. He musters whatever dignity he has left and snaps abruptly, indicating to his members to leave with him. One by one, each Shark walks with stoic acceptance to the door. Ironically, they exit the scene while whistling to the tune of “My Country ’tis of Thee”. Bernado’s shoots one last glance towards Lt. Schrank before he shuts the door. This scene highlights, again, the futility of the Sharks’ efforts to gain an equal footing in society.

Doc’s local drugstore is also the setting for another gross abuse of power. Near the end of West Side Story, Anita goes to meet the Jets so she can relay a message from Maria to Tony. Anita’s character is quite different to the innocent, virginal female character like Maria’s, which is often idealized in media. Anita is a Puerto Rican woman who openly expresses her sexuality and enjoys her social freedoms. When Anita finds herself alone among the gang of Jets, her freedom is immediately threatened. These white males mock and intimidate her. They charge at her, lift up her skirt, and touch her without consent. As a woman of color, Anita already bears the brunt of patriarchal abuse. But her immigrant, Latina “exoticism” further objectifies her, making her even more vulnerable to abhorrent sexual violence. Anita escapes the Jets after being stripped of her dignity, her voice, and her respect as an autonomous woman. 

Perhaps the most critical aspect of West Side Story is its utmost relevance to today’s world. This musical reveals current themes of the immigrant experience which center around denial, permission, and expulsion. The bitter truth is that a story from 60 years ago continues to expose the conditional realities of belonging and exclusion for people of color in America. Why is it that the Sharks need to erase every distinguishable part of their ethnic identity in order to be seen as American? In a modern, globalized world, multiculturalism is a natural byproduct. Yet, systemic exclusion seems to be a part of the fabric of this nation. It is important to untangle these repressive knots of society in order to truly ‘let freedom ring’.

A nightmare on Saigon street: Orientalism and the American musical

Priya Sankaran

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. But what if life drops bombs from the sky instead? What if life is living in a war-torn country, where your people are murdered, your nation is plundered, and you can’t wake up from the eternal nightmare that is your reality? Making lemonade seems pretty absurd then. 

The backdrop of Schönberg and Boublil’s musical Miss Saigon is this very nightmare. Life is a rigged game for Kim and the Engineer, whose fates have been decided from the onset of the story. You see, when your existence as an Asian refugee of war is held up against frameworks of white supremacy and imperialism that has ravaged your country, there is no winning. Miss Saigon’s heavy usage of Orientalist tropes characterizes Kim and the Engineer as the racialized, inferior “other” whose freedoms are inextricably linked to the white man. On top of the racialization of Kim and the Engineer, there is an additional gendered difference between the two. An underlying layer of regressive, misogyny taints Miss Saigon, making Kim’s role as a helpless, sacrificing mother markedly distinct from the Engineer’s role of unbound male sleaziness. On the other hand, the Engineer’s character is still subject to emasculation as an Asian male, despite the overarching patriarchal structure of the musical. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals that Orientalism and notions of an exoticized East serve to maintain Western hegemony and domination. 

Schönberg and Boublil present Kim to the audience as a 17 year-old girl who, after losing her family to the Vietnam war, is forced to prostitute herself as a means of survival. She is taken in by the Engineer, a Eurasian pimp, and joins the nightclub “Dreamland.” “Dreamland” caters to American GIs, specifically drawing on their male sexual fantasies of the exotic Asian female. In the song “The Heat is on in Saigon”, bikini-clad prostitutes are groped, prodded and thrown around like meat. They are degraded to such a position because they have no choice: their objectification and prostitution could be the ticket to their freedom. Kim stands in stark contrast to these women. Eva Noblezada’s portrayal of Kim involves using soft, feminized body language such as looking down and displaying shy facial expressions. Noblezada also sports a bewildered, innocent face throughout the show. Noblezada does not sexualize her body by exaggerating movements of her hips or chest, as the other women do. This acting choice reflects Kim’s most “appealing” quality: she is virgin. Chris, the white American GI/savior, who is jaded by his frequent visits to “Dreamland”, sings “I used to love getting stoned/ Waking up with some whore/ I don’t know why I went dead/ It’s not fun anymore.” Yet, Kim’s virginal naivety draws him in like bewitchment. Kim is extremely desirable in the eyes of Chris because she is weak, pure, and so obviously in need of saving. Assuming a position of civility and responsibility, Chris takes it upon himself to “protect” Kim. 

Next, Kim’s character as an Asian female, in particular, exacerbates her lack of agency and individuality. Because of her intersecting identities, she is bound to the meek, submissive Asian stereotype in addition to the existing ideas of female inferiority. Kim’s various interactions with other characters in Miss Saigon always follow this pattern. She is either a sacrificing mother to Tam, devoted lover/wife to Chris, subservient “sister” to the Engineer, or forced to sell her body through prostitution to men. Kim’s existence as a female is securely attached to all the males in her life, even down to her son. The song “Sun and Moon” highlights Kim’s dependency and need for a male to make her complete. Lyrics like “You are sunlight and I moon/Joined here brightening the sky” reveals a binary metaphor of the Sun and Moon, which are opposing elements like the East and West. Notably, the East and West are not part of an equal relationship. Orientalism is rooted in European white perspectives of white superiority and civility. The West invariably patronizes the East and the Orient is defined as the contrasting image to the West. If the West is civilized, powerful, and dominant, then, by default, the East must be savage, powerless, and submissive. Kim and Chris take on the respective roles of East and West. Sure, it takes two to tango. But in tango, one person leads and the other follows. There is an inherent power imbalance, so Kim and Chris’s relationship is not as wholesome or fulfilling as the song “Sun and Moon” suggests. The caveat of invoking binary language is that the value of each individual person is only recognized when in conjunction with the other. As a female, Kim must be perpetually tied to Chris for her existence to have value. Chris is concurrently tied to Kim, as her savior and protector. The only scene in Miss Saigon in which Kim displays agency is when she decides to take her own life for her son. But was her suicide truly her own choice or was she coerced by unfortunate circumstances beyond her control?

Next, in examining the character of the Engineer, the casting choice of Jon Jon Briones is very telling. Physically, Briones is a small, scrawny Filipino man of short stature. Although the Engineer’s career as a pimp affords him power, his physical features are not traditionally masculine when viewed from a Western perspective, and thus it renders him as less capable and visible when compared to his American counterparts. Miss Saigon portrays the Engineer as a selfish, sordid man, neurotically obsessed with leaving his destitution for America. However, unlike Kim, the Engineer is not punished for it. In fact, Miss Saigon adds a charming, comedic quality to his character. 

The Engineer is introduced to us as a ruthless pimp and owner of the nightclub “Dreamland”. In the opening act, he assaults several prostitutes, physically and verbally abusing them. He slaps them, grabs their breasts, rips apart their clothing, and screams at them. The Engineer’s freedom depends on his selling of vulnerable women and he works viciously to achieve that. In terms of acting choices, Briones plays the Engineer with incredibly dynamic facial expressions, moving his eyes, eyebrows, and mouth to portray intense emotions of fear, lust, anger, and compulsion. The Engineer compensates for his lack of physical masculinity through the exaggerated, over the top acting, which can be understood as a defense mechanism. In addition, Briones’s diction when delivering the Engineer’s dialogues has a nonchalant, arrogant tone. These acting choices ultimately paint a picture of a lewd, egocentric man, going to any length to achieve the American Dream. He manipulates Kim, seeing her son as a tool to get a US visa. Clearly, the Engineer is not a good person. When compared to the angelic Kim, the Engineer certainly looks Satanic. Yet, his toxic masculinity is celebrated. Throughout Miss Saigon, we hear the audience laughing and applauding the Engineer, which implies that the writers glorified his toxic attributes in a way that appealed to the audience. Most importantly, the Engineer is able to express his agency and power as a man on several occasions, most notably through the song “The American Dream”.  

“The American Dream” reveals how the Engineer imagines his future life:  a life of luxury, grandeur, and riches. The song features showgirls adorned in shimmering costumes, flashy male dancers in bright blue suits, and an extravagant car. A giant golden head of the Statue of Liberty looms in the background as the Engineer envisions opulence, capitalism, and freedom ahead. As the song progresses, we see the Engineer getting more unhinged and consumed in his fantasy. At the end of the show, the audience is left to speculate on whether the Engineer ever achieved his American Dream. Unlike Kim, a self-sacrificing mother who chooses her death, the Engineer has an open ended conclusion. In the end, his privilege as a male protects him.  

To conclude, Miss Saigon’s juxtaposition of Kim and the Engineer makes two generalizations of the Asian male and female. The Asian male is a chauvinistic opportunist that exploits women. The Asian female is weak and subjugated under the Asian male. Therefore, both seek liberation from the civilized West. In this way, Miss Saigon justifies acts of imperialism and US intervention in global wars as necessary for the moral good of humanity. There is irony in that the perpetrators of war and sexual exploitation, like Chris and the Engineer, are left unscathed at the end, however. Ultimately, Miss Saigon reveals how power derived from gender, race, or sociopolitical conditions, affords privileged people the authority to exercise their will over others. Understanding the nature of power relations is integral in understanding the context of a story, particularly when examining who writes the narrative, and for whose benefit the narrative is created.