A Discussion Is Good… A Quarrel Is Better.

In 1862, a man published a novel. Now, on its own, this is a remarkable personal feat, but rarely has implications for the rest of world… and certainly doesn’t remain relevant past its point in history. This novel was different. This novel discussed history, politics, religion and love…more importantly it discussed a situation which appealed to the history of France itself.

Les Misérables tells the story of two people: Fantine (and eventually her daughter, Cosette) and Jean Valjean… a grisette and a convict. Victor Hugo’s unnamed narrator takes us through approximately 20 years of French history, detailing the politics and society of the 19th century. The ideas of love, or rather what is love, combined with catholicism and political society, creates a tale of fortune, despair, kindness and political intrigue. Post-Napoleonic France was not the sort of place that Voltaire or Robespierre ever would have envisioned, and Hugo uses the blatant corruption, espionage, and political turmoil heavily to show a world of the non-manor born.

 

In the end, we learn that Valjean is not a bad guy, Cosette learns what love is, and eventually a daughter is told the story of where she came from…. but it’s unsatisfying. Not only is it not happy, but it’s not really an ending, rather is the story of how one girl got her beginning.

Victor Hugo’s novel was made into a musical in 1980, with long successful runs in Paris, London and New York (in fact, you can still see the stage versions in both New York and London). In 2012 it was converted to screen (not for the first time) starring a rather impressive number of high profile actors (i.e.: people whose names we recognise). A novel written in 1862, about a particular political time in early-19th century France, has commentary on society and politics which seems relevant even today. What does it say about the course of human history when a story is still relevant enough to be a box office hit 150 years later? What is it about political history that seems so intriguing, when we see it acted before us? Hugo’s novel was relevant in 1862 because it dealt with a period in French history that anyone over 30 would remember… today, however, it seems as if little has actually changed.

A story about a man in 19th century France should play as that… a story from the past. Instead, we find relevance and connection to today’s political and climate. It is interesting that any connection can be made to the 21st century, yet Les Misérables has remained so popular that a major Hollywood motion picture, based on the musical, was produced. Perhaps that says something about the future of humanity, when, in 150 years, society and politics has altered so very little that we can identify with Fantine and Valjean.

The world did not end on 21 December 2012 as the internet predicted, Skynet doesn’t exist, and the world is not ruled by Terminators or computers or aliens. Yet, if Hugo’s characters were transported to today, how different would the world truly look to them? Aside from technological advancement, and 24 hour news coverage, how different would they find the society and politics of the 21st century? Perhaps what makes Hugo’s novel (and the subsequent musical versions) so relevant is that the political landscape hasn’t truly progressed. It’s certainly difficult to find a novel written 150 years ago that seems relevant to society today. Yet Hugo managed it…. and interestingly enough, singing prostitutes seem to make it seem even more real.

[I had originally intended to publish this on Christmas Eve, but I’m not really a ‘run with the bulls’ kind of girl… so, instead, I gave the movie a little time to become removed from its release date, and fade slightly into the holiday past, before publishing this particular post.]

[As with most popular political novels of the 19th century, it was not popular with critics. Les Misérables had enormous critical response, but most of it was negative. Critics, it seems, are rather opposed to things which challenge preconceived notions, or dwell on past politics. This seems to be a trend throughout history… when you write something that challenges accepted views of politics and history, you risk negative reception… Hugo, like many before him (including Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Rattigan) learned that first hand.]

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