Life lessons I learned from 'Les Misérables'
Today marks the anniversary of the 1832 June Rebellion, an unsuccessful insurrection of Parisian republicans against the monarchy that’s also one of the key settings for the classic musical Les Miserables. In honor of all things Les Miz, here is one contributor’s look at the lessons she learned from the play.
As the lights dimmed at the Imperial Theatre last month, I was overcome by a sense of release. For a few hours, I would settle into my seat, comfortable at the whim of French revolutionaries, bourgeoisie, and policemen. I wanted nothing more than to breathe in the music, escaping from the stressful mundaneness that surrounded me day after day for an ideal evening in May, where nothing could disturb the spectral transience of art.
Les Misérables is probably my favorite musical. Perhaps it’s not the most adroitly written, or the wittiest, or the most fun, but instead it has this powerful ability to connect with the audience, transporting them to an emotional state that is both a universe away and inside of them. That could be why, when the show first opened in Europe in the ’80s, critics panned while the masses praised. There was something intangibly glorious about the production, and while reviews concentrated on its brooding darkness, the public flocked to the West End to bask in its mastery. Years later, Les Miz still has legions of fans, including me, who love the musical not just for its enchantments, but for the real life lessons it provides. Here are just a few.
Everyone’s life is touched by tragedy, but also by beauty
Thanks to the plot by Victor Hugo — the acclaimed 19th-century author — Les Miz benefits from a hauntingly beautiful storyline with characters that walk the range of good to evil instead of sitting on its opposite ends. From Jean Valjean to Javert and Éponine to Fantine, each personality has wisdom to share, and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score helps the medicine go down softly and sweetly.
Most would argue that the sweeping moral of Les Miz is to act with Christian piety and generosity, but I always thought that was an oversimplification of the musical’s merit. I found enchantment more in the hidden parables than the explicit lessons that the writers wove. As a teenager, I would listen to “I Dreamed a Dream” over and over again. For me, the song wasn’t about losing hope in aspirations, or even compromising desires and falling short of goals. It was a lament about disillusionment with society, a cry to be better to those around us. I was just beginning to realize how selfish our individual spheres could seem, and as I listened to artists croon about betrayal and fear, my eyes brimmed because I knew that as I grew, I would be both the perpetrator and the receiver of pain. It was a sad revelation, one I’m still learning to appreciate.
Sacrificing yourself for someone who doesn’t care about you is a recipe for pain
Éponine also offered advice on relationships, both platonic and otherwise. She represented the one connection we almost all experience, where we would sacrifice our dignity, our happiness, and ourselves for someone who has captured our hearts. Through her, I concluded that one-sided affection can only manifest for so long before mandating its victim’s demise. She took the bullet for one she coveted in exchange for a moment of intimacy. Then, she was forgotten, already replaced by the dazzling possibility of perfection in the unknown, or “love at first sight” as it’s deemed between Marius and Cosette.
What’s right and what’s wrong isn’t always clear cut
Les Miz’s male characters made a much different impression on me, as men often do. Years ago, Jean Valjean and Javert bored me. But recently, I’ve reflected more on Javert, the antagonist whose black and white nature adulterates his better judgment.With his guidance, I consider the underlying biases I harbor within that influence my actions. As a kid, I too forged a dichotomy between right and wrong, its borders distinct and lucid. I too aimed for justice when I didn’t really know what the word meant. I was always in pursuit of some goodness that was out of my reach, maybe because the world is not as clear and light as the stars, and because we must accept its flaws to discover its wonder.
No one is totally good or totally bad
That, to me, is the gist of Les Miz: none of us are angels or demons, but nuanced human beings trying hard to find salvation in some sort of outlet, whether it be love, or justice, or religiosity. We want to be the heroes in our narratives but often emerge as supporting characters or worse, and even if we turn out to be protagonists, it’s after a taxing journey of self-discovery. Jean Valjean both steals and gives. Fantine falls into a state she despises to save a child. Éponine feels jealousy and compassion. Marius is too blinded by glamour and class to see the love in front of him. Cosette is unappreciative of the sacrifices her family has made for her. Javert seeks order and kills innocent schoolboys as a consequence.
We all have our virtues and vices. That’s what makes us sublime, just like Les Misérables.
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