'Les Miserables' Makes Case for Complexity

Our polarized country could learn from 'Les Miserables.'

Les Misérables, the musical and now blockbuster movie, is a kind of Rorschach test. Some people see it primarily as a story of faith and redemption and others as a battle of good and evil in a class-driven society.

Others clasp on to the love stories – father and adopted daughter, the love triangle of Marius, Cosette and Éponine, the all-sacrificing mother Fantine. And then there are the moviegoers who don’t understand why all those characters have to keep breaking out in song.

But for me, one of the most resounding themes is the triumph of complexity over rigidity. French Police Inspector Javert sees Jean Valjean as bad because he stole a loaf of bread, served 19 years for his crime and then, upon his release, broke parole when society spat on him – literally and figuratively.

The rigid Javert, who keeps up his hunt for the fugitive Valjean, cannot alter his precepts to accept that the ex-con might be a good man who did a desperate thing to feed his sister’s son and another desperate act to survive on the outside. There is no room in Javert’s consciousness to imagine how the wretched poor might be driven to steal as Valjean did or sell their bodies as Fantine did.

The climax of that storyline comes when Javert is incredulous that Valjean has a chance to kill him and doesn’t. The inspector can’t reconcile his worldview with receiving mercy from a convict. Javert sings: “There is nothing at all that we share, it is either Valjean or Javert.”

It is this inability to see shades of gray (not the “Fifty Shades” that are giving modern female readers the vapors) that makes him the ultimate tragic character.

He has plenty of company in 21st Century America. The polarization of our country is reinforced with every election, every crisis, every Fox News and MSNBC broadcast.

And it manifests itself here in the Patch comment section when arguments devolve from reasoned debate into name calling on issues such as gun laws, the presidential election or the fiscal cliff.

In the first episode of “The West Wing” after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the cast deviated from the regular plot lines to do a show called “Isaac and Ishmael” in which a bunch of school kids are caught in lockdown at the White House because of a terrorist threat.

Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman talks to the teens about terrorists and then tells them to remember pluralism:

“You want to get these people? I mean, you really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Keep accepting more than one idea. It makes them absolutely crazy.”

Since we survived the Dec. 21  it looks like we’re all going to be stuck with each other for a while. Let’s resolve to look harder for common ground and practice civility even as we argue vigorously for our positions.

Although it’s hard to say what the future will bring, it looks like this is my last column for Patch. Thanks for reading. Good luck in 2013.

Allan Bach January 03, 2013 at 12:09 PM
I noticed your statement about the last column for Patch. Though I'll miss your column, I hope you're not ending your writing and that I'll see you elsewhere. I agree with you about the comments posted on Patch and believe, if the commentators were face-to-face, it would be different. I wish you the best as you move on.
WILFREDO G. SALCEDO, Sr. January 03, 2013 at 12:15 PM
Nice food for thought...(This classic has been prequelled/sequelled so many times already)...I agree..The country, nay, the whole world is "devolving" into obscurity after we are done with it with pollution, wars, guns, interpersonal insults...We can only hope for more civility in years to come.
Lanya January 03, 2013 at 01:46 PM
To your point, and from the perspective of Victor Hugo, I believe Javert's character was unable to see those "shades of gray" because he symbolized the French aristocracy at the time being completely aloof to the needs of the common people, which led to the French Revolution. So you're right - Javert would be in good company in our day and age!
Mary Youtz January 03, 2013 at 06:36 PM
Very sorry to read that this is your last column for Patch! You have such a way with words, Margie. You will be missed!
Margie Peterson January 03, 2013 at 09:39 PM
Thanks Allan, Wilfredo, Lanya and Mary. It has been often gratifying and always a learning experience. Carpe Diem.


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