I saw Les Misérables on stage with my wife-to-be on one of our first dates and read the book soon after. I watched it again last night with my daughter after a twenty-something-year gap and I think I spotted something new about the story that I have not heard mentioned before. I even went to check the SparkNotes to see if this was some obvious theme that only I was missing but… nope. No one else noticed it but me.
When anyone mentions Les Mis, there are a few themes that immediately pop into your mind: it’s very long and tedious; it’s sentimental kitsch; the songs are awful; the story is an entirely predictable tale of redemption for Jean Valjean; the scene on the barricades is totally unnecessary and out of place.
All those things are true but I think there is something quite profound about how the characters interact with each other. All of the characters (*with one possible exception below!) are very moral according to their own particular version of morality. Of course, since it’s a liberal play/book/movie, all the ‘good guys’ subscribe to liberal conceptions of morality: everyone deserves a chance; kindness will be repaid; poor people commit crimes out of necessity.
But if that was all there was to the story, it would be a very shallow fable about a very liberal morality — we all get to cry for Fontine and boo at Javert — but I suspect that there might be more to it. We have all been missing something quite shocking.
Everyone in Les Mis behaves quite morally—according to their own understanding of right and wrong. Even the baddies.
Jean Valjean gets off to a bad start but learns the power of love and earns his redemption many times over.
The priest believes that everyone deserves a chance and gives Valjean his at great cost to himself.
Fantine gives up every sliver of self-respect to keep her daughter alive.
Javert believes in the Rule of Law above all and it matters not at all to paladin-types like Javert that Valjean has done good in his life. Valjean has broken the law and must be punished. Javert is willing to devote his whole life to bringing Valjean to justice.
The anarchists on the barricades believe the government is corrupt and should be overthrown. The soldiers who gun them down have the opposite view.
The slut-shaming women that get Fantine fired from her job believe that sexual impropriety and non-traditional families are Very Very Bad and should be punished. The Slut-shamers’ beliefs are probably shared by a majority of People Who Consider Themselves to be Morally Upstanding.
The foreman who actually sets Fantine on the road to self-destruction is following an ethical code that has held sway for most of human history and has only recently begun to retreat from the mainstream. In the glorious 50s that conservatives love to reminisce over, most young women would have been suffered the same fate as Fantine. Even today, young teachers can be fired for inappropriate Facebook photos.
The only exception to the ‘everyone is moral’ rule is, of course, The Master of the House but I bet, if you asked him, even he would say that all those other conceptions of morality were invalid and that the only proper behaviour is to look out for your own interests.
[* OK. That last one is a stretch. The Thénardiers are quite evil]
It’s quite something that all these conceptions of morality still have their champions 150 years after Hugo wrote it all down for us. Will we ever figure out which one is correct?