By Leonard Adame
One of the main characters in Les Miserables, though not listed in the credits, is Cupid. That little love god, who somewhat looks like the Michelin Man, enters about halfway through the film, shoots his arrows invisibly across the scene, ultimately puncturing the hearts of Cozette and Marius, imbuing them with love and salvation.
I mention this because Valentine’s Day is invading us once again, a time when people send blood red hearts and little drops of chocolate that resemble muddy bon-bons to one another, promising undying and faithful love. Well, Marius (the young fiery revolutionary) and Cozette (Fantine’s orphaned daughter who’s raised by Jean Val Jean) do fall breathlessly in love amid one of France’s 19th-century revolutions. The film could be called Love among the Ruins Revisited.
But if love can survive as canons are fired point blank at rebels, I suppose Hugo’s point or two is that though people can rebel all they want against tyranny, that rebellion is ephemeral while love is, of course, eternal. Revolutionaries can make speeches outlining the king’s sins and the queen’s infidelities and the fact that most people were starving to death and had no hope or way out of their miserable existence. They can expose the monarchists’ addiction to decadence, orgies and banquets, preferably at the same time.
Revolutionaries can also expose that exorbitant monarchical raunchiness costs money—lots of money. They can prove that the money was raised by taking it from the poor dying on the streets and the peasants drudging in the fields to raise the food served at royal banquets. For their endless labor, peasants barely got enough to survive. The urban poor got nothing and died on sidewalks. The revolutionaries can proclaim also that this isn’t pretty stuff.
But what becomes more important is the love that Marius and Cozette find for one another.
Perhaps the film is too short to tackle the enormous problems of social inequity, discrimination, classism and corruption among the anointed.
The second half of the film then is about love. Marius and Cozette presumably represent the birth of a new society, one in which the poor and the governing class put together a new and equitable society that’s fair to everyone. In short, a democracy.
Perhaps their marriage represents the Catholic church’s sanction of the new social order, though (and the film doesn’t reveal this) it also engaged in the enslavement and impoverishment of the people. Perhaps Val Jean’s dedication to Cozette represents a reminder that Christ sacrificed all for the love of people so that they can find redemption.
Val Jean, though his crime was the equivalent of the concept of Just War, stole bread to live. As a result, he is persecuted by Javert, himself a tormented man ashamed of his birth heritage. Javer thought to redeem himself for his lowly beginning by dedicating himself to ensuring that justice prevails, even if he does distort that concept self-servingly.
Sacrifice and redemption are big in the Catholic tradition, and it seems Hugo, in his exposing corruption of the monarchy, paints this business of soul saving from a decidedly Catholic angle. Maybe that’s the only way he could have gotten published.
But to look at this story optimistically, we should remember that love often calls for sacrifice. We need to subsume our needs so that others, children and grandchildren perhaps, can be safe and loved. Perhaps we need to feed the homeless, advocate for their rights. This calls for sacrifice. But if people approve of Christ’s sacrifice, and the fact he taught that we can redeem ourselves, then don’t we have to put others before ourselves. Jean Val Jean did that, and in the end he found redemption.
Seems to me that’s what Valentine’s Day should be about. And I think Cupid would be proud.
Leonard Adame has retired from teaching college English. He now plays drums in various bands, takes photographs, reads mystery novels to a fault and has published poetry in college anthologies. He most enjoys re-learning about human beings from his grandkids. Contact him at email@example.com.