01.18.2013

Les Misérables and Its Critics

There’s nothing new about dismissive critical attitudes towards Les Misérables. Whatever the incarnation (text, musical, film), the enlightened response to Victor Hugo’s tale has been condescension. The hostility at first ranged from George Sand’s “Too much Christianity,” or Baudelaire’s “A vile and inept book,” to Rimbaud’s mother blaming it on corrupting her son.

The Vatican, of course, banned the “socialist tract,” which was publicly burned in Spain. Leading critics engaged in with the ultimate critical insult: silence. But when the book was first published it was a massive public success. Thousands of copies were sold to those who could afford the installments and lending libraries sprouted up among workers who couldn’t.

Move forward 120 years and a similar bifurcation between critics and audience opened when Les Misérables became a mega-musical in the early 1980s. What began as a concept album composed by French songwriters was staged in a Parisian arena in 1980 for a half million spectators. Five years later, a much modified version of these songs — now with English lyrics, a tighter plot and a heftier dose of religion — would open in London to mostly negative and hostile reviews, but the run sold out in a few days. By now 60 million have seen the musical, nothing close to a blockbuster film’s audience, but an impressive number given the ticket prices demanded by the genre.

There have been as many as sixty film versions of the novel shot in countries as diverse as the USSR (1936), Mexico (1943), Egypt (1944), Japan (1950), and India (1955). The musical itself has even been sung in Icelandic and Mauritian Creole.

How do we explain this popularity in the face of critical disapproval? Over the years critics often object to the work’s technical or formal flaws — a thousand page novel with hundred-page historical digressions on the history of the Parisian sewer system; the plot is melodramatic; the music is cloyingly bad; the mega-musical is an empty spectacle; the closeups are awkward and embarrassing.

A handful of the top film critics today mockingly write of the show as if it were dandruff to be brushed off their sweater. But this focus on form or outright dismissal avoids the necessary work of explaining what is so compelling in the story itself.

What is usually elided in conversations about this show is that one of its defining characteristics is the foregrounding and embrace of an attempt at violent revolution by a group of students with guns. Their rebellion ends in bloody failure but the attempt is honored, not mocked. Forgotten in the tedious critiques of technical nit-picking and whining over the melodramatic plot and its Christian quest for forgiveness, there is a central political problem at the heart of the work which places one man’s quest for redemption against the crucial backdrop of a society under revolution.

Fans describe the story as a universal one of “eternal truths” and societal “archetypes”, but Jean Valjean’s problem is his relationship with a government that not only misuses and perverts its power, but facilitates and reproduces a society that is perversely stratified. Granting that Jean Valjean’s saint-like quest for personal salvation forms the redemptive core of the story, what if the global popularity of this work also echoes the perennial frustration with government’s interminable persecution of innocents and its obsessive zeal for crushing liberatory movements?

The perennial hostility of critics would then remind us more of the nervous murmurs and outright hostility of elites whenever the masses begin to congregate, build barricades, camp out and demand a better world. The tears of the audiences would not remind us that the “people” are easily conned into weeping over a melodramatic spectacle that apes the gospels, but perhaps allows a vicarious vision of rebelling against unjust rule while remaining true to desire and love.


Appearing as it did in 1862, Les Misérables was perhaps the last great literary masterpiece to achieve a wide readership among all classes of society. In the 19th century as the population and literacy grew, the association of literature and the elite began to unravel and an era of art for the masses began.

Although fin-de-siècle history would see gifted authors move towards more technically demanding styles (perhaps to reaffirm an elite audience), Victor Hugo and his Les Misérables would stand as that novel that embraced the “people” as both subject matter and audience to the maximum degree. The convicts, the prostitutes, the revolutionary youth, students and working-class would not only form the plot of this work, but a large percentage of those who would read or at least hear the story read out loud.

And yet, Les Misérables is as its title tells us a story about the poor and downtrodden, but one that begins with a fifty-page digression on a Christ-like bishop and ends with a vision of bourgeois marital conformity and saintly death. The novel was published in 1862 in an era of European radical retreat after the eruption of the revolutions of 1848. Marx also used the quiet of these decades to complete his first volume of Capital in peaceful exile, which was published in 1867.

In a similar way the musical adaptation was conceived as during the Left’s retreat in the 1970s and staged in 1980 as May 1968 became an embarrassing memory that many renounced. The blockbuster English language musical of course found a huge audience in the free market of Thatcher’s England in 1985 and Reagan’s America in 1987.

Many of Les Misérables’ contradictions  and the divergence of responses can be teased out by examining its author. In an epoch of societal contradiction, one would be hard pressed to find a greater contradiction than the life of Victor Hugo.


The apocryphal quote goes: “Any man who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no head.” Victor Hugo’s trajectory didn’t follow this pattern. How else can one describe the transition of a young poetic prodigy who celebrated the post-Napoleonic monarchical restoration with paeans to the ultra-royalist Charles X into the lonely graybeard calling for the amnesty of Communards after the nascent Third Republic had butchered tens of thousands of the miserables who made up the Paris Commune in 1871?

In the middle of these two dates is, of course, the mess of 19th century France. To follow Hugo’s journey is to follow the contours of this history and to see the dialectic in motion.

If Hugo became the towering oak of French literature, the acorn from which it grew contained an initial contradiction. The Oedipal triangle of his parents is almost a parody of French history: Hugo’s father, the irreligious, bombastic Napoleonic general who campaigned in Italy and Spain; Hugo’s mother, a monarchist who would travel with her children over mountains to these far-flung battlefields to extract large amounts of money from the philandering general. Their marriage was over, but the monetary union was not. Her children would be well-educated.

The career of the literary wunderkind could be measured by the transition of his audience from that small coterie of monarchical insiders dazzled by and jealous of Hugo’s poetic power, to a mass audience of the millions who bought his prose novels which the critics and insiders derided for their grotesque brush strokes and outsize popularity. This transition in audience also parallels Hugo’s political journey from a conservative and slightly reactionary momma’s boy pleasing his monarchic supporters, to the politics of freedom and redemption of the universal author.

The career of a young poet quickly co-opted with prize money and pensions soon transitioned into the writer of short Romantic novels and plays. One of these early efforts is Bug-Jargal which tells a sympathetic story of the leader of a slave revolt in San Domingo, and shows the young Hugo already flirting with an allegiance towards history’s outcasts. Hugo eye-witnessed the 1832 student revolt in Paris that he documents in Les Misérables and it provides an interesting glimpse of the thirty-year-old author of controversial Romantic masterpieces such as the play Hernani and Notre Dame de Paris: Hearing gunfire and curious, Hugo rushed to witness a short skirmish, but found himself caught between the bullets of the revolutionaries and the army, inhabiting that impossible median between extremes.

It would be the revolution of 1848, however, which saw one of the first widespread explosions of urban working-class unrestwhere Hugo would have his first taste of revolutionary battle. Hugo had spent the 1840s consolidating his preeminence as an author, beginning a political career and also intensifying his life-long habit of visiting prostitutes. When the revolution broke out in early 1848 and toppled the “bourgeois monarch” Louis-Philippe who had ruled since 1830, the Second Republic tentatively began with a provisional government to which Hugo was elected in early June. As a moderate uneasy with the potential for “anarchy,” Hugo’s idea in early 1848 had been for a Regency to take the place of the deposed monarch.

As the young Republican government attempted to bring order to an unstable situation it exacerbated the anger of workers by closing the National Workshops that had been temporarily employing 100,000 Parisians. The workers erected towering barricades as poorer neighborhoods seethed with the resentment towards yet another oppressive government, nominally a “Republic.”

With its legitimacy challenged, the government quickly decided to crush the resistance. Hugo voted to declare a state of siege and allow General Cavaignac full powers, but his desire for order and decorum would not end there. He actively spent three days (now known as the “June Days”in the fog and fire of war. He directed troops and canon, urged on soldiers, charged barricades and used his oratorical power and determined will to crush the workers’ revolt. Baudelaire of course was fighting from the other side of the barricade, on the right side of history.

Hugo in June of 1848 made the fatal mistake of most well-meaning liberals. In the heat of revolutionary upheaval, these transcendent types, horrified by the specter of the underclasses taking power into their own hands, decide to restore order at all costs. Accustomed to traditional forms of power and frightened of witnessing the overturning of privilege, the well-meaning liberal decides to stop the slide into deeper revolution at any cost. The problem of course is that once the subaltern have been shot dead, their neighborhoods invaded and triturated and countless others repressed and jailed, there is no social force remaining to fight the forces of looming right-wing reaction.

In this way law-and-order liberals become the handmaidens of dictatorship. And in the case of Hugo, the 1851 coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte would be a defining event, one that led to his twenty-year exile on the channel islands of Guernsey and Jersey. The man who took up the sword against his fellow citizens in 1848 would spend the next three years before Napoleon III’s coup watching civil liberties disappear and press censorship steadily increase. Eventually his journalist sons would end up in jail and Hugo in the sunset of the Second Republic found himself on the side of the barricade that only years before he had invaded and destroyed in the name of order and civilization.

Other liberal representatives of the dissolving Assembly would die on the barricades of December 1851. But Hugo, for all his hatred of the new emperor would avoid heroic death and choose exile. His actions during the 1848 upheavals remain the contradictory act of a man embracing his father’s martial spirit in the name of a republican order and dignity, an attack on the people whom he would spend the rest of his career attempting to dignify.

Hugo spent his exile writing Les Misérables, collections of poetry, and experimenting with spiritualism. After the French army’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, however, Hugo made his way back to a Paris he had not seen for two decades. He returned as a hero and lived through the Prussian siege of the city by eating fauna from the zoos. The opinions of the miserables themselves towards the author of Les Misérables on his return to Paris vary. But even if the short-lived proletarian periodical La Mère Duchêne would devote the front page of its first three issues to maligning Hugo’s monarchic past and bourgeois pretensions, a subsequent issue published multiple letters from worker-readers disgruntled at the dismissive tone of the articles.

Future Commundare Louise Michel spent her twenties dedicating her poems to Hugo (“I believe in you as in destiny itself”) and visited him when he returned, calling herself Enjolras, who in Les Misérables is the leader of the student rebellion. Hugo would successfully work for her release from prison in December 1870 and later dedicated a poem Viro Major (Greater Hero) to her after reading a poem which she dedicated to her fallen comrades.

The history of the Commune, and the 35,000 men and women murdered by the French army under the watchful eye of their Prussian victors is one of the more tragic events of French history. Not entirely unlike the July days of 1848 but with crucial differences, once again we have a newborn Republic proving its ability to govern by bloodily crushing the more radical demands of workers. With the victorious Prussian army having encircled Paris, the provisional government desired a speedy peace with the Germans, promising them a huge war debt and the territories of Alsace and Lorraine.

Hugo was initially elected to this Republican government, but quickly found himself isolated on the Left. After a humiliating defeat and the unexpected birth of the Commune, the French Republic found a scapegoat in radicals, but Hugo refused to take part in this. He left for Brussels, wanting to avoid his association with a government on the verge of obliterating modern history’s first autonomous urban government, but also too famous, proud, and bourgeois to take the leap into the unknown and join in the messy but revolutionary experience of the Commune itself.

If Hugo was too lofty a personality to respect and fully defend the political legacy of the Commune, he would at least spend the subsequent years fighting for the political amnesty of the Communards and activists who had escaped the bullets of a cynical regime, but in danger of life in prison. Even in Brussels from which he began his campaign for amnesty, Hugo’s apartment was besieged by a rock-throwing mob of well-dressed Belgians calling “Death to Jean-Valjean!”

The fragile and nervous French government worked to expel him from Belgium. He relocated to Luxembourg and continued his critique of the Third Republic which desired legitimacy and would eventually last until 1940, but could only do so by using the techniques and tactics of a police state: suspending the rule of law, continuing a state of siege and terror to ensure the inviolability of property and the profits of financial markets (which performed beautifully; the war debt was paid off early).

The post-Commune Republic was eager to forget and repress the memory of the bloodiness of the new democracy’s arrival and Hugo found himself in the position of permanent critic, however, one can never say that Hugo ever found himself Sartre-like, actively supporting the violence of revolution. If revolution usually entails the weakening and eventual disappearance of the moderate center, Hugo’s transcendent quest to fill this gap was a quixotic, but perhaps natural wish for a prolific artist who slowly traversed leftward across the political spectrum.


Hugo’s experience of revolution is not going to explain the vicissitudes and disparities of reaction towards his prose masterwork Les Misérables and its many incarnations. But it allows us a glimpse of a consciousness under transition, willing to have his convictions under a constant process of revision.

The experience of Les Misérables undergoes a similar process of extremes colliding from different societal and political vectors. Whatever one’s opinion of the artistic merits of the novel, musical or film, which certainly are different projects under different cultural regimes, one would be wrong in failing to acknowledge the duty it undertakes to embrace a vast breadth of society, from the miserables on up. Les Misérables stands in-between — in between the rich and the poor, the good and the bad, the guilty and innocent, the red and the black, the poetic and the purple, the Right and the Left.

But it also stands in between revolutions. In between 1848 and 1871, and as a musical in between 1968 and today. Perhaps the dichotomy of critical response is a result of it occupying this revolutionary in-between: Looking back in nostalgia or relief, looking forward in fear or anticipation.

So what to say of this film in 2012 in our era of renewed radical consciousness? Hugo’s later novels like Les Misérables and the neglected Quatrevingt-treize may have been the jump-the-shark moments of the nineteenth-century novel with his hyperventilated style and overwrought plots, but they have the merit of foregrounding and engaging (in a non-Dickensian way) with revolution, that hinge on which human history turns. From his lofty aerie Hugo left an artistic legacy that forces the spectator to wrestle with central struggles of modern life.