THE BLOG
12/21/2012 01:27 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Finger Pointing And Flag Waving: What Does Les Misérables Stand For

At 150 years old and counting, Les Misérables is one of literature's most extraordinary success stories.

Victor Hugo's tale of the convict Jean Valjean's road to redemption through the revolutionary society of nineteenth-century France was an instant hit whose appeal remains impressive today.

When Hugo began to publish his mammoth 1400-page novel in serial form in the spring of 1862, the excitement was not dissimilar to this month's buzz around Tom Hooper's film of the wildly popular 1980s stage musical. Alongside his Belgian editors Albert Lacroix and Hippolyte Verboeckhoven, Hugo had orchestrated a characteristically savvy publicity campaign to capitalize on his international reputation as France's greatest living writer.

Lacroix was in fact prepared to pay Hugo a staggering 300,000 Francs for the publication rights (the equivalent of around $2.2 million today), but the investment was well calculated: appearing simultaneously across the world from Rio de Janeiro to St. Petersburg, Les Misérables was a bestseller. In Paris, the first two volumes sold out within three days.

One month later on May 15, when the next volumes appeared across the city and Gustave Brion's influential sketches of the principal characters adorned store windows everywhere, one bookstore was overrun by a crowd which had been gathering since the early hours of the morning on the rue de Seine.

One year after the initial publication, Charles Hugo adapted the novel for the stage to satisfy the ever-growing public fascination with his father's work. The play marked the start of a cultural phenomenon which has seen Les Misérables become one of the most adapted works in literary history: celebrated artists such as Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, Jean Gabin, Claude Lelouch, Liam Neeson, and Gérard Depardieu have all helped bring different visions of the novel to life.

Of course, none are quite as beloved as Alain Boublil's and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical. Indeed, the almost thirty-year West-End franchise of 'Les Mis' promises the new film's producers a major return on their $61 million budget, no doubt surpassing the considerable 70% profit margin that Lacroix enjoyed in the decade after the novel's publication.

Les Misérables has however received its fair share of criticism across this 150-year period. Contemporary responses to both Hugo's writing and the new film reveal a trend of apprehension regarding the story's mixture of social indictment and unashamed sentimentality.

Baudelaire may have publicly expressed admiration for Hugo's achievement, but in private, and like numerous other writers of the time, he felt that 'this book which is in everyone's hands' lacked artistic consistency. Flaubert found the stirring poetry of Hugo's novel to be cheapened by its political concerns, whereas Zola conversely believed the accusatory politics of the novel to be devalued by its romantic flourish.

Today, a number of critics have expressed similar unease with the range of Hooper's film: Justin Chang at Variety worries that 'this impassioned epic too often topples beneath the weight of its own grandiosity', while Todd McCarthy at the Hollywood Reporter feels that the film is 'far less about the rigors of existence in early nineteenth-century France than it is about actors emoting mightily and singing their guts out'.

Such reactions might have done well to remember comments made by George Sand after Hugo sent her a signed first instalment of the novel. 'You are not simply the wicked Dante creating Hell', she wrote to her old friend, 'but also the wise Virgil showing us the way to Heaven'. In effect for Sand, Hugo instinctively understood that life is a mesh of harsh reality and human hope. Facts and feelings, the prosaic and the poetic, could not be disentangled from one another in order to focus on one strand alone. Hence the role of the artist was to explore these knots of truth rather than unpick them into something more comfortable or smooth for the reader.

Hugo was motivated by the realization that what defines us is, ultimately, the freedom that comes from being part of the universe's creative nature: the transformative energy of all life which converts day into night and night into day. Through this natural 'flux and reflux', which he likened to the movement of the ocean, all of us are made indeterminate.

The contrasts between convict and hero, misery and resilience, tragedy and triumph, are blurred and ever-shifting, and it is this recognition which both empowers Jean Valjean and overwhelms his nemesis Inspector Javert. Thirty-five years before Les Misérables appeared, and when he was about to conquer the literary scene with works like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a young Hugo had looked to Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, and Cervantes for inspiration in channelling this diversity of human life into his poetry, plays, and fiction.

He decided that art's power lay in its capacity not to fix the world in place but to dramatize its endless transformations as the sign of a natural, even metaphysical, freedom. As an arch-Romantic living in the shadow of the French Revolution, Hugo believed that no society could be truly democratic unless its art was mindful of this vigour. This is why Les Misérables interweaves the social and spiritual threads of human life, creating an experience at once gritty and grand. The story is necessarily both sobering and soaring so as to draw us into the exhausting yet exhilarating nature of what it means to be human in a boundlessly creative world.

That meaning was especially urgent in Hugo's mind when he published Les Misérables. In condemnation of the Second Empire and its ruler, Napoleon III, Hugo was entering into the second decade of a nineteen-year exile in the Channel Islands and was confirming his status as an icon of Republicanism.

Set between 1815 and 1833, his new novel anticipated the exploitative egotism of France's new regime since its inception in the 1850s. The sewers of Paris into which Valjean plunges to escape the barricade symbolize both the moral filth and hidden human waste of a financially evolving society obsessed with self-worth and material gain. When the grandfather of the novel's student hero Marius bemoans the rottenness of France's bankers and industrialists as the ugly truth beneath an alluring veneer of wealth, the country's literary grandfather was making his own voice heard. As long as self-interest determined social attitudes and injustice overpowered equality, to recall Hugo's preface, the dehumanisation of men like Valjean, the degradation of women like Fantine, and the abuse of children like Cosette would persist, whilst authoritarians like Javert and villains like Thénardier would thrive.

Combined with its core belief in the strength of human compassion and self-sacrifice to overcome these ills, the social consciousness of Les Misérables struck an intense chord with readers in the 1860s, especially against the backdrop of the unification of Italy and the American Civil War.

It is an effect which Tom Hooper evidently wishes to emulate, maintaining the novel's interplay of coarse truth and epic emotion so as to chime with both the despair and the desires of a world characterized by the 99% and the Arab Spring.

When more than 80% of the world's population lives in countries with ever-widening income differentials, when one in three women are physically abused, and where every second child on the planet lives in poverty, Les Misérables still sings a painful but powerful song.