Editor’s note: The following was written by Hypable reader Kami McArthur.
Some stories withstand the test of time. They’re unforgettable, they change individuals, and they work on multiple levels. Les Misérables is one of those stories.
And I’m dissecting it as a fan, and a writer, to get a good look at its innards, to see where and how it succeeds as a story.
Evokes Strong Emotions
Strong stories affect our emotions, significantly. Bestselling author David Farland, who has taught such prolific writers such as Stephenie Meyer and Brandson Sanderson, states in his book Million Dollar Outlines that strong stories score high on the “Emotional Richter Scale.” For example, if you’re creating a comedy, it shouldn’t just make people chuckle; it should give them a split in their sides from laughing their heads off.
The best stories draw us in, making us so emotionally invested in the characters and conflicts that we feel as if we are living the narrative ourselves.
Les Misérables scores high on that emotion scale. It’s not just sad, it’s tragic. Sure, it’s sad that Fantine loses her job, but it’s tragic she has to live in the gutters, compromise her self-worth, and give up her dreams on behalf of her daughter, who must live in shocking conditions herself. Likewise, when Valjean finally finds salvation, we as viewers aren’t just happy, we’re euphoric, to the point that we’re crying.
Evoking strong emotion is important in storytelling because it’s in that moment the story has the most power to leave an indelible mark on the audience.
Contains Powerful Themes
Great stories do more than stir emotion. They change us. Every time I finish Les Misérables, I promise myself to be a better person. Les Misérables has themes of love with Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Eponine, sacrifice with Fantine and the revolutionaries, redemption with Valjean, and adversity with most the cast; but the strongest theme I see involves mercy. Les Misérables teaches that mercy is more powerful than justice.
Because the Bishop was merciful to Valjean, allowing him to start a new life rather than go back to prison (justice), Valjean becomes a better person. He goes on to improve the lives of those around him.
Javert, on the other hand, basically personifies justice. He’s a strong character, but in the end, Valjean’s mercy triumphs Javert’s justice. Javert is unable to shoot Valjean after Valjean spares his life. The event has such a strong impact on Javert, he commits suicide. Mercy changes people, changes lives, in ways justice, however important, can’t.
Tells of Both Truths
Les Misérables incorporates both worldly truths and absolute truths. Worldly truths tell the truth concerning the world we live. Absolute truths tell of truths that are ideal and transcend this life. For example, “life isn’t fair,” and “Panem et Circensu” are worldly truths, while “love conquers all” and “it is our choices… that show what we truly are” are absolute truths. While most stories tend to build around one type of truth, Les Misérables seamlessly combines both. It explores social issues, such as the living conditions of the poor and the inequality of humankind, while simultaneously exploring mercy and salvation.
Incorporates All Five Types of Conflict
In storytelling, there are five types of conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. society, man vs. nature, and man vs. God. Les Misérables covers all five.
Man vs. man is the most obvious — just look at Valjean and Javert. We see plenty of conflict there. Man vs. self occurs when Valjean learns that another person will be sent to prison in his place; he has to decide whether to keep his alias or reveal his true identity. Fantine also has internal conflict over selling her body to provide for Cosette.
Man vs. society is illustrated with the revolutionaries. They are fighting against their society for freedom and equality. But this conflict is also evident when Valjean starts his parole and can’t find any work or shelter. He’s struggling against society too. Man vs. nature happens when Fantine succumbs to death and when Valjean has to struggle through the sewers.
Man vs. God is shown when Valjean is angry with God while on parole, and then, after the Bishop, when he strives to gain forgiveness. Similarly, Fantine goes from loving God, to not believing in God when in prostitution, to finding God again through Valjean.
Has Epic Appeal
Les Miserables works as an epic. Again, in Million Dollar Outlines, David Farland explores several ways a writer can give her story an epic feel. One way is to have a diverse cast of characters. Les Miserables has males, females, adults, children, rich, and poor, and each category of character is important to the story. Even little Gavroche is vital to the plot. He helps the revolutionaries on several occasions. When Javert poses as a spy, Gavroche reveals him for what he is.
We also follow many characters through a large portion of their lives, which is another way to make a story feel epic. We follow Valjean from his forties to his death and Cosette and Eponine from their childhoods to marriage and death, respectively. Epics tend to have a higher appeal.
Explores Complex Character Relationships
Les Misérables is loaded with complex relationships, which makes the story feel more realistic, adds dimension, and rounds out characters.
When Valjean takes in Cosette, he is awakened to what it means to love and to be loved. Their relationship is so precious to him that he doesn’t want to damage it, so, he refuses to tell Cosette about his past, afraid she would think less of him. Valjean gives other excuses for not telling her, but they’re cover-ups.
I get the impression that Cosette wouldn’t care too much about his origins — after all, he stole bread to save a child. Valjean is far more self-conscious of his past than Cosette would ever be. He greatly values her opinion of him. This makes Valjean’s death scene more powerful because he hears Marius, one of the only people who knows his life story, tell Cosette that he is saint. Not a thief. Not a convict. A saint.
But even then, Valjean still can’t bear to tell Cosette his backstory. He asks her to read it after he has passed away.
Valjean and Javert have a complex relationship as well. They don’t hate one another on a personal level. True, Javert’s perceptions of Valjean are spoiled by stereotypes, but in reality, Javert doesn’t like Valjean simply because he evades the law. Likewise, Valjean holds no ill-feelings toward Javert, because he understands Javert is just doing his duty.
Another intriguing aspect of their relationship is that they flip-flop in authority. Javert has authority over Valjean in the galleys. Valjean has authority over Javert as the mayor. They flip-flop all the way to Javert’s death.
Provides Foils for Comparisons
In literature, a foil is a character that provides a comparison for another character. So, for example, Valjean and Javert foil each other. They’re opposites. We understand Valjean’s mercy better because we can compare it to Javert’s justice.
Les Misérables has some more nice foils. Cosette is the most innocent character in the story, but yet comes from a completely corrupt and offensive place. She is foiled by Eponine. As children, Eponine is cherished while Cosette is valued as dirt. When they are adults, it changes. Valjean and Marius cherish Cosette, while Eponine is all “on her own.” In fact, her parents aren’t even shown grieving over her death. Instead, her dad is in the sewers stealing from corpses.
Perhaps the best foil of the story is of Cosette and Fantine. Fantine hoped for a happy life with her significant other, but he took advantage of her naivety and left her when she was pregnant. Fantine eventually turns to prostitution — the exact opposite of her dream. In contrast, Cosette finds authentic love with Marius, and they get married. Essentially, Cosette fulfills Fantine’s dream. This foil is even more powerful since Cosette is Fantine’s daughter, and Fantine sacrificed her life for her.
Here is one last poignant comparison to think about: Valjean emerges from the sewers saving a life, while Javert jumps in to end his own.
Implements Character Growth
Almost all the best stories have character growth. I’ve already mentioned some examples of how the characters in Les Misérables grow and change. But here is the most obvious: Valjean transforms from hard-hearted convict to God-fearing martyr (at least a martyr in spirit).
Plays with Perceptions
Les Misérables takes advantage of perceptions. As I mentioned before, Javert’s perception of Valjean is influenced by criminal stereotypes. Other characters view Valjean differently. The Bishop sees him as a brother. Cosette views him as a caring yet secretive father. But Les Misérables goes beyond other characters’ perceptions. It also explores how Valjean sees himself. Hugh Jackman pinpointed it well in one of his interviews. He said that Valjean is striving to be a good person, but constantly sees himself falling short. As an audience, we get a perspective of Valjean that is somewhat different than all of these. Incongruent perspectives make this story more interesting.
In closing, I know there are plenty more aspects to explore in Les Misérables. But hopefully this article gave you a better understanding of how this story is constructed, or at least increased your appreciation of it.
Please share any of your insights on Les Misérables in the comments.
Visit Kami’s blog to read more from her!