This podcast is an invitation, in 60 episodes or so, for you to read Les Misérables with me.
Let me explain why.
In 1862, Victor Hugo began his masterpiece Les Misérables with the following single-sentence preface:
"So long as there exists, owing to law and custom, a social damnation that artificially creates hell in the midst of civilization and complicates destiny, which is divine, with human inevitability; so long as the century’s three problems, the degradation of men by the proletariat, the degeneration of women by hunger, and the atrophy of children by darkness, are not solved; so long as, in certain places, social asphyxia is possible; in other words, and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and deprivation exist on earth, books of this nature may not be without use."
I can’t help but feel as though, in the United States today, a book such as Les Misérables “may not be without use.”
But, of course, we have a book such as Les Misérables: it’s Les Misérables. We have it in the original French, for those who can read it that way. For those who can’t, we have countless translations into English, abridged or unabridged. But most of all we have adaptations into media that modern-day Americans are more inclined to digest than they are a 1500-page novel, and collectively (although not always individually, I’ll grant) we love each and every one of these. In the US today, the most popular, arguably, are the musical theater adaptation and its own film version. The former premiered on Broadway in 1987 and ran there for 6,680 performances before closing in 2003, with revivals 2006-2008 and 2014-2016, and tens of thousands of performances by US touring companies, to say nothing of its worldwide popularity, or performances of excerpts and the sanitized school musical version. This musical theater adaptation warranted its own cinematic adaptation (which, I think, is better described as an adaptation of the book via the musical), directed by Tom Hooper and starring Hugh Jackman, which made $18.1 million at its opening day box office on Christmas day 2012, $148,809,770 overall in North America alone ($441,809,770 worldwide), and garnered three Academy Awards, eight total Academy Award nominations, three Golden Globes, and four BAFTAs. As a result of all this, Les Misérables permeates popular culture. Memes based on the story make the rounds of social media without seeming remotely erudite or literary (and weirdly often, having to do with the 2004 movie Mean Girls):
In short, Americans have got “Les Miz.”
But the money it makes, the glibness of the Internet memes, the way we dress up in our Theater Clothes and fill our bellies with a special-occasion meal in the City before we go to the theater to see it, cry when Fantine dies in Act I, grab an overpriced drink and snack at intermission, cry when EVERYONE dies in Act II, and then maybe console ourselves with a late-night dessert or a nightcap before we head home…. Maybe we don’t get “Les Miz.”
This is not really our fault. “Les Miz” and Les Misérables portray something that is foreign to us both historically and culturally. First off, it happens in FRANCE. We can’t even pronounce Montreuil-sur-mer, and we’re iffy on character names like Thénardier, Enjolras and Feuilly. Plus, it takes place in a period of French history that we don’t know much about. It’s not the French Revolution--we know that, or at least we should, because of the dates projected on the scrim. It’s some confusing period a few years later, so although we definitely hear the people sing, it’s really unclear what we’re hearing them sing about. Plus, they’re actually singing--it’s sad, sure, but it’s also so beautiful, the way Fantine sings perfectly on key with with a robust Broadway voice until the moment she dies of a lung disease. And besides, the “century’s problems” that we do recognize are those of the Nineteenth Century: people don’t often die of consumption like Fantine anymore. Children don’t generally get abandoned in the street like Gavroche. Schooling is public and mandatory, and we have a social safety net, imperfect as it may be. The police and the National Guard don’t gun down protes-- OK, but people don’t get locked up for ridiculously long sentences for one very small crime, then carry the burden of that incarcera….
Oh, right. Huh.
The human misery that is described in Les Misérables is in some ways unique to post-Revolutionary France, and there is no question that Hugo was thinking first and foremost about his own time. But in other ways, that misery is universal. When people lack resources, they become desperate. Desperate people become predators or prey, sometimes both. Widespread desperation and discontent, deep-rooted problems in systems that people feel they can’t escape, these are the powder kegs that lead to social and political unrest. At the threat of instability, those in power crack down in the hope of preserving their position. Crimes, both individual and collective acts of desperation, are punished more harshly, especially if they are committed by “Others,” and those who are thenceforth and forevermore seen as criminals, if they survive at all, are unlikely to advance their position in society. And they become desperate, and it all starts over. This cycle is every century’s problem.
Just as suffering took forms in Hugo’s time that seem distant to us today, the forms it takes for us would be foreign to him. The grimmest places in our society are no longer plagued by tuberculosis, but instead by more new diseases and by more types of addiction than Hugo could ever have imagined. Visible child abandonment is no longer common, but child abuse and neglect rage on behind closed doors, even as we permit ourselves to imagine otherwise. Our poorest can generally avoid starvation, send their children to school, and access something that passes for medical care--that is, unless they have reason to fear that showing their faces at a school or hospital will cause more problems than it solves. Our social norms no longer support overt distinctions among classes of people--we have no titled nobility, no class we call “peasants,” and most Americans like to think of themselves as “middle class”--but there is little denying that we are not all treated equally, that we cannot all necessarily expect the same sorts of interactions with the police, banks, schools, landlords, and other institutions that contribute so much to our fate. As we’ve solved social problems in the century and a half since Hugo was writing, we’ve invented new ones at a stunning rate. And as we’ve done so, we’ve used them to create the social, cultural, and political divisions that ravage our public life, separate families and friends from each other, and close us off to kindness.
So, it seems to me that there is no time like the present to spend some time thinking about Les Misérables, and that is what this podcast is here to help you do. It is intended to make more of what the book has to say more accessible to more people. I am an academic, but this podcast is meant for general audiences, for anyone curious enough to pick up the book and start reading. Specialists, in fact, might find my comments a bit dull. But so far as I’m concerned, that’s ok--they have other ways to read and digest this book, and probably already have. But if you’re someone who’s interested, maybe because of the musical, but you’re daunted by its length, or its foreignness, or both--this is for you. I won’t assume you know any French, or anything about French literature, history or culture. I’ll provide that information, plus some interpretations, and I’ll draw out some themes that I think will enrich your experience with the book as we progress--but of course, none of it will be exhaustive. There’s always more to say about a book like this, and if you think I’ve missed something, that’s what the comment sections on each post are for!
That said, I will quite intentionally avoid discussion of the specifics of today's politics. There are certainly ways to apply Hugo's ideas to the debates of the moment, but on most issues, trying to pin Hugo down to a plank in a party platform is a disservice to his complexity. My hope is that by reading this book on its own terms, we’ll find more complex and expansive ways to think about the problems of every century, including our own, and of social life as a whole. I firmly believe that fiction can pick up where reality fails in helping us think through the toughest questions, and I hope that by the time we finish here, you’ll feel the same way.
So, will you join me?
This is me, Briana Lewis, Associate Professor of French at Allegheny College. I’ve been teaching, researching, and writing on Victor Hugo and Les Misérables since the mid-'00s. I've been podcasting since.... just now, when I started this podcast.