I adore Les Miserables. I really do. I’ve seen the musical theatre production twice, I’ve read the book, I’ve owned various audio recordings such as the 10th and 25th anniversaries, I’ve seen an older movie, and last night I saw the new musical movie. (Excellent, except for Russell Crowe who just doesn’t suit Javert at all.)
But when I think too much, I have several problems with the story. Sigh. Fortunately I know my love for the music will continue to override the problems caused by overthinking things.
If you don’t know the story, don’t read on.
Firstly, Jean Valjean was never a bad man. His original crime was minor, and committed only to save his starving nephew’s life. Certainly prison changed him, and the way he was treated as a parolee made him feel victimised and defensive. But those things could have been changed by any gentle and compassionate treatment, he would not have required religion to become a new man. The story does tend to emphasise the role God and religion in people’s lives, but I really feel that every single character would have or could have behaved exactly as they did without religion.
Secondly, there are issues with the way women are treated. Fantine is ok; she committed an indiscretion in her youth which she accepts without regret, and works hard to pay for – that is, she gets a respectable job to support her child, and doesn’t seek charity. She is self-reliant, as much as possible for a woman at that time.
But my main problem lies with the Cosette/Eponine dichotomy. Cosette is just such a frustratingly nothing character. She’s pretty, she’s priviledged, and… what? Is she smart, funny, brave? We have no idea. Eponine, on the other hand, is full of character; she is courageous and idealistic and compassionate, she’s useful and street-smart, and she pushes back against what she feels to be wrong even when that means rejecting her own parents. So what happens? Eponine dies tragically while doing what she feels is good and right, fighting the good fight on the barricade, and Cosette survives and gets the guy by moping around in her rich papa’s nice house.
To add to this, even if we presume that Cosette has some personality and worthy qualities, how would Marius know that? Up until Valjean rescues Marius from the barricade, Marius and Cosette have seen each other twice, and only conversed once. Marius and Eponine, by contrast, know each other well and speak frequently; he must be aware of her qualities just as she is aware of his. One is left to presume that Marius prefers women who are attractive and useless, which lessens the appeal of his otherwise respectable character. So the great love story is really the story of a chauvanist and his prize.
Yeah. I think too much.