January 19, 2013

Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" Brought The Lives Of The Poor Out Of The Shadows

Meghan Behrent has written a timely piece at socialistworker.org called "A World Beyond The Barricades" about the importance of Victor Hugo and his novel, "Les Miserables".  The following are excerpts from that article.
As a writer Hugo captured the revolutionary spirit of his age and inspired generations to come. In particular, his masterpiece, Les Misérables, captured the struggles, heroism and humanity of those who had been condemned to marginality.
American socialist Eugene Debs, who was given the middle name "Victor" in honor of Hugo, read Les Misérables over and over throughout his life, both in French and English. The brutalization of poverty--the theme of Hugo's masterpiece--was something he never forgot.
Louise Michel, the inspiring revolutionary, female incendiary and leader of the Paris Commune, called herself Enjolras after the student leader of the revolution at the heart of the novel.
 Gavroche is arguably the most memorable character of the novel. The younger brother of Eponine, son of the Thenardiers, he is essentially cast off by his family and left to fend for himself. He lives on the place de la Bastille in the stomach of the plaster cast of a giant elephant--a monument planned but never actually built by Napoleon I. He, thus, literally lives in the belly of the decaying beast of empire.
He makes the streets his school with humor, defiance, resilience, courage and generosity. A child himself, he takes in two younger children to care for--unbeknownst to him they're his younger brothers. When revolution erupts he rises to the task. Try as he might, Marius cannot get him to leave the barricades.
His death is one of the most moving scenes of the novel--and the musical. Refusing to be cowed by the immense force of the entire state apparatus, he climbs the barricade, and in full view of the troops proceeds to gather the unused ammunition from dead soldiers. As the troops begin to shoot at him, he defiantly continues, singing all the while.
Gavroche's death is a searing indictment of the violence and inhumanity of the state. At the same time, it is an incredible tribute to the courage of the working class, and a reminder that children are not just passive victims of a brutal history, but, at times, it's heroes.
 Hugo is never anti-capitalist nor a revolutionary hero. Rather, he has a vision of a humane, beneficent and thus, illusory capitalism. He was a bourgeois revolutionary and a reformist at heart--but he was a reformist in an age when revolutions were often needed to win reforms.
Nonetheless, Les Misérables leaves behind a powerful legacy of the poor and oppressed rising up to fight for what rightfully belongs to them. It's an homage to working-class heroes who have been erased by history--much like Valjean who at the end of the novel is buried in an unmarked grave with a handwritten note on his tombstone later erased by time.
Hugo celebrates, romanticizes and makes heroes of prostitutes, convicts, homeless children and all people who in the face of the catastrophes, brutality and misery of modern history, choose to resist--or, at the very least, defiantly shout "Merde!" even when there is nothing left to salvage.
Writing to an Italian minister in 1862, Hugo gave voice to the universality of the themes and ideas expressed in Les Misérables:
You are right, sir, when you say that the book Les Misérables is written for all people. I don't know if it will be read by all, but, I wrote it for all. It speaks to England as much as Spain, to Germany as much as Ireland, to republics that have slaves as well as to empires that have serfs. Social problems know no borders. The wounds of the human race, those great wounds which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map.
Wherever man is ignorant and despairs, wherever woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of a book to instruct him and a hearth which to warm him, the book Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: "Open to me, I come for you."
Today, as 150 years ago, such works are still necessary.
Beyond the barricades, Hugo points the way to another world, one in which, one hopes Les Misérables will continue to exist but solely as a reminder of a terrible time when women were forced to sell their bodies to support their children, people were locked in jails for trying to feed their families, and all the best of humanity was squashed by an inexorable pursuit of profit.
Beyond the barricades, one can only begin to imagine the new art, new literature and new life such a world could create.

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