15 Feb 2010

Essays on Les Misérables

Les Misérables stands as a shining example of how an incredible novel, when converted to popular media such as a movie or play, can lose so much of its significance that the true messages of the original novel are in danger of permanent loss.  Set in the 18th century, the story centers on experiences and social conditions that the author, Victor Hugo, knew well.  Hugo was witness to the effects of oppressive French laws and society in which ex-offenders were never allowed to redeem themselves, whether the offense was criminal (theft, etc) or social (promiscuity, etc).  Hugo attempted to show how this oppression kindled the flames of social revolution, but also offers a spark of hope in overcoming such oppression through virtuous living.

As a play, Les Misérables seems to center around Jean Valjean (a redeemed ex-convict) who finds himself perpetually pursued by Javert (an over-zealous police inspector) over a stolen loaf of bread.  Along the way, he ends up responsible for the care and upbringing of a young girl, Cossette, who is the daughter of Fantine (a French peasant woman).  The events are further disrupted by the outbreak of the French Revolution with barricades and battles in the streets of Paris, forcing everyone to act for their personal best interested, but in the end love and honorable redemption win-out.  This reflects a preservation of the central plot effectively, yet also represents the major failing of playing to populist media.

When one digs into the novel instead, it is quickly evident that much was lost in its populist media transition.  Interwoven into the midst of the central plot are dozens of social commentaries and exposés on the effects of social injustice and oppression.  This difference begins when we consider the character of Fantine, a single mother who was abandoned by her daughter’s father.  In the play, we know only this point, but not the reasons her daughter is in the custody of the innkeepers.  In the novel, the point is stressed prior to the fight at the factory that this was done due to the unlikelihood of the towns members being able to over look the fact Fantine has an illegitimate (i.e. born out of wedlock) child.  Another point of error in the transition occurs during the attempted robbery of Valjean by the innkeepers when they are encountered in Paris.  In the play, it is the innkeepers own daughter, Eponine, who betrays their intentions while in the novel, it is Marius Pontmercy, the son of a French military officer, who alerts Javert to the plot.

Such discrepancies, though to some seeming minor, reveal many of the lost subplots of the novel that are critical to a proper understanding of the novel’s significance.  Eponine and Marius, for example, both reflect the theme that the background of one’s parentage does not necessarily dictate one’s future.  Eponine’s parents are unethical thieves and scoundrels, but her giving Marius information later on Cossette’s whereabouts (particularly when Cossette is her paramour rival for Marius) shows a counter-intuitive honor about her as an individual.  Marius’ participation in the revolutionist movement when his father is a military officer similarly speaks of his uniqueness in following his sense of right and wrong, rather than following his father’s loyalty to the government, even though he too recognizes its corruption.

The essay potentials of Les Misérables are as dynamic as the novel itself.  From analysis of what societal stereotype each character represents (and yes each of them represent a different one) to how the issues underlying the story (such as poverty and social injustice for those who break social norms) reflect on our modern society, each potential essay, when effectively pursued, can offer the student the opportunity to show their instructors the knowledge and skill they have acquired during the course of their education.  The problem is, not everyone is effectively skilled at writing.

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