Les Misérables: Beyond the Barricades

Marius Pontmercy and the students in Les Misérables who took to the barricades exemplify a spirit of justice many of us can embrace. Outrage and anger are normal responses to injustice, and taking to arms is a natural result of frustration and a lack of options. The attitude may go back to the idealization of knighthood, King Arthur and the Round Table; it helped motivate the American and French Revolutions of the 18th Century. The crusading, idealistic spirit isn’t confined to young people, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when we’re young.

Their passion is distilled in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?”:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

The students act from genuine compassion for the Poor, they want to set things right and don’t see any chance for justice in the present system. Historically, the June Uprising of 1832 came less than two years after a rebellion that forced King Charles X of France to abdicate, installing a king who’d worked for a living when an exile during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, and it was hoped his experience would provide leadership more sympathetic to ordinary people. France had gone through some hard times, lots of crop failure and poverty, and the new administration hadn’t come very far in setting things right. In these young men’s lives, their father’s generation fought Napoleon’s campaigns to unify Europe, and their grandfather’s generation fought the Revolution that stood for Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. The students aren’t poor themselves: they all come from affluent families themselves, if not minor nobility, and they can see the problems of their times with great clarity. Compassion and passion are their strong suits, however their lack of vision is as much their undoing as it was Javert’s. They don’t understand anything about tactics, and most of their plan is based on assumptions unsupported by experience. All they know to do is take up arms for their principles, and almost all of them get killed because violence is the only solution they see.

The only thing that spares Maurice is his love for Cosette. His love for her grounds him in reality, makes him see the world beyond the barricade, helps him adjust to life again after the battle is lost. When it seems she’s leaving, never to return, he’s ready to throw his life away: this is a story repeated often through history. Losing Hope is necessary to throw your life away. Even though his love for Cosette seems rather superficial in the musical, it moves Jean Valjean to find him wounded on the barricade and bring him to safety. It doesn’t kill Maurice’s desire for justice, but gives it a context.

The most obvious problem with the students is they have nothing to offer except generalities. Freedom isn’t a magic wand that cures all ills. The American experience of the past decade overseas should be enough to prove this point. and American history of 1781-89 should supplement that if needed. Idealists, the students have the right vision of what the world should be, but no plan to get there except unseat the regime. The Poor are with them in the beginning, as they would side with any movement that offers them a better life than they know without much reflection. Gladly, the Poor sacrifice their furniture to build the barricades in the hope their lives will be better. They realize the students aren’t from their class, and their trust only goes so far: when the students’ cause becomes hopeless, the Poor abandon them. People are able to survive in horrible circumstances, and at times most will choose survival first.

Real change calls for more than just anger; it takes a thorough analysis of the situation, a plan for implementation, a willingness to adapt, a message that persuades and stable leadership: in short, it takes reason and persuasion. Emotions are great motivators, but emotions don’t last and aren’t enough in the end. The students build the barricades: trapping themselves in their mindset, and dying when their dreams can’t come true. Even when we find ourselves on the barricades, emotions may keep us going but they can also kill us when they keep us from seeing and thinking straight.

Barricades limit options. You can stand on a barricade, go around it, or fight your way over it. There’s no way to surrender to a barricade: you’re either for or against it, a barricade can’t change your mind. If you’re on a barricade, you’ve got to defend it because that’s your only hope, and you have to hope your adversaries will run out of ammunition, food, or will power before you do. If you run out of any of the above, you’re done for. Your adversary always has more mobility, and always knows where to find you. Win or lose, the barricade will have to come down sometime, because you can’t keep a barricade up forever.

The answer to poverty or any other injustice isn’t to build barricades. The students’ mistake was to answer injustice with violence. Too frequently revolution is followed by a new ruling elite seizing power greater than the previous regime, with the base injustices left unaddressed. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a story that’s been enacted repeatedly in the past 50 years around the world. There may be no perfect political or economic system, but we are not excused from confronting injustice and seeking to end it, or else we should forget trying to be good people and give in to all our selfish desires without thought of the consequences to others: we should all be Thénardiers.

Heaven is not a barricade, nor located behind one. The movie’s ending is a great misconception of heaven in more ways than one. Heaven isn’t something we earn for thinking the right things or having the right beliefs, or even for being a nice person. Heaven comes through God’s Mercy, it’s a gift of God period. The soldiers who died in the streets, the sons of the middle class who were following orders, were not beyond redemption: they should have been in the last scene as well. The argument could be made that even Javert could have been found there (but that’s another topic). Heaven is accessible to all, or it isn’t the Heaven we believe in.

The way to justice is best accomplished through peace; the way to justice is best achieved through conversion rather than confrontation.  Christianity didn’t conquer the Roman Empire through armed action of any kind, it converted the Empire. There are times to stand and fight: the wisdom to recognize when those times are unavoidable is rare. The price of war is high, as we see in this story and every other war story, so it should be used only in extreme cases when all options are gone when it should be waged. The Scouring of the Shire, a scene from The Lord of the Rings that didn’t make the movie, is a just war where evil is expelled without vengeance from the victimized. Acting from emotional passion means innocent lives are lost and crippled with no real lasting good effect. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t seek to destroy the individual racist, but convert him so he could share the celebration of freedom.

“Do You Hear the People Sing” is a rousing anthem that’s gotten stuck in my mind. The better version of this song is the Finale:

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

The Tomorrow we look for is the rising of the Son. This world may never be free from Evil, but as we work for Peace and Justice, we need to see the world beyond the barricades as our model and make it a practical goal as much as we can. Building a world of God’s Justice doesn’t start with building a barricade to fight from, but building Hope that all can embrace.


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