Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables has been made into numerous theater and film productions. The current film, starring Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean appears to be the most realistic rendition. What most reviewers fail to mention is how this story continues to be a profound critique of the world we live in today. In order to see this relevancy we need to take a look at the story.
As a child Jean Valjean saw his sister’s child starving to death in France during the early years of the 19th century. This prompted Valjean to steal a loaf of bread. The police arrested Valjean and he served 19 years in prison. Five of those years were for stealing the bread and 14 years were added on to that sentence for several escape attempts. The authorities released Valjean on parole, but he needed to violate that parole in order to find employment.
After several years Valjean changed his name, became the owner of a factory, and the Mayor of the town where he lived. A police inspector named Javert discovered Valjean’s true identity and dedicated himself to apprehending the escaped convict.
In the meantime, a woman named Fantine, who worked in Valjean’s factory, hid the fact that she was supporting a child that was born out of wedlock. When her co-workers discovered Fantine’s secret, they pressured a foreman to fire the unwed mother.
Fantine then did whatever she could to continue supporting her daughter Cosette, but eventually died because of the life she needed to live. At this point, Valjean cares for Cosette as if she were his daughter.
In the midst of this story the French Revolution erupts. Young people begin to see how a completely new political system was necessary and they organized to overthrow the military. In the process, the revolutionaries arrested Police Inspector Jabert and sentence him to death.
Valjean was given the task of executing Jabert, but he has mercy on his nemesis and allows Jabert to escape. This act transforms Jabert and he realizes that his core values of police enforcement were all wrong and he commits suicide. Jabert says that Valjean’s act of mercy, in effect, killed the essence of who he was.
As of the year 2011 there were 50.1 million people living in the United States who are food insecure or hungry. Many states have a three-strikes and you’re out law that mandates sentences of 25 years to life for those who are convicted of three thefts. Most of the prison population consists of people convicted of drug related offences that do not necessarily harm anyone but the user. These are some of the reasons why the United States has more prisoners, per capita, than any other nation in the world.
During the last sixty years the United States government has made it a practice of going to war against nations that are some of the poorest in the world. Many of the residents of these nations such as Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan experience the same kind of poverty as we see on the pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Millions of people in those nations have perished because of these wars.
The government, the media, as well as corporations encourage working people to blame our problems on other workers who do not measure up to corporate standards. Along these lines, we see the media searching for individuals on public assistance who manage to receive more money than the horrendously meager allotments they receive. This same media has no serious problem with the trillions of dollars allocated to the owners of banks that are “too big to fail.”
Unlike Police Inspector Jabert, the political officials in the United States haven’t come to the realization that their core values are one big lie. No, Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton actually believe that enriching the affluent will, in some way, benefits the millions of people who will go to be hungry this evening. They also believe that the best way to aid people in some of the poorest nations in the world is to kill them.
Victor Hugo understood that the answer to the problems of 19th century France could not be solved by appealing to the political officials of that day. No, things reached the point where the people took to the streets and attempted to organize a movement to solve the problems of their day.
Given the enormity of the disparity of wealth in the world, Victor Hugo’s ideas appear to be just as relevant today as they were over one hundred years ago.