Thursday, January 24, 2013

Spilling Ink: LES MISERABLES, Character Corner

by Susan Mesler-Evans

As a new recurring feature in Spilling Ink, I will be doing a piece called Character Corner, where I take the main characters of a work, look at them, discuss what their deal is, and talk about what makes them great or what makes them suck. For my first Character Corner, I’m looking at the work Les Miserables, originally a novel by Victor Hugo. It got turned into a well-known musical of the same name, and this Christmas got released as a movie, and a pretty damn good one at that. This is a pretty big project to tackle for my first Character Corner, as Les Mis is about three hours long, spans over two decades, and, of course, has a crapton of characters. I’ll try not to spoil anything, but I will say this: most of the cast dies. If you like a character in this thing, there is a good chance that they’re doomed. Not surprising, considering it’s about a revolution that you’ve probably never heard of and ended with a lot of people dying.

So let’s begin.

Jean Valjean: When the story begins, our protagonist, Valjean, is a slave as punishment for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nephew, then trying to escape from his sentence. He’s released, but is on parole for the rest of his life and can’t find work anywhere because of his criminal record. A bishop takes pity on him and gives him food and a place to stay for the night, which Valjean repays by... stealing the bishop’s silver. When he’s caught, instead of having him thrown back in jail, the bishop covers for Valjean and says he gave the silver to him as a gift. Touched by the gesture, Valjean, who was already a pretty good person in the first place, decides to stop stealing, gets his life completely together, and becomes one of the best, nicest people in France. And this all happens in the first ten or fifteen minutes. Really, you could make an entire musical based off of that alone, but instead it follows Valjean through the rest of his life, where he becomes mayor, helps a prostitute named Fantine and saves her child Cosette from certain death (more on those two later), and tries to hide his true identity (an ex-convict) from those around him, especially Inspector Javert (he’s up next). Valjean makes for a great main character. He’s undoubtedly a good guy, but he’s still complex. There’s a scene where an innocent man is mistaken for him and Valjean must make a choice: confess and go back to prison, or keep his mouth shut and live a peaceful life. This is where we see what Valjean is really made of.  

Inspector Javert: The antagonist... sorta. He’s a bit of an asshole at times and doesn’t seem to accept the fact that people comes in shades of gray, not just black and white. For the most part, he just seems to be doing his job. Javert spends most of the show chasing Valjean and attempting to have him thrown back in prison for breaking his parole, despite the fact that Valjean really has changed, is doing all sorts of good, and, oh yeah, saves Javert’s ass multiple times. Javert likes to think he’s a force of good, but the truth is, he’s just as morally ambiguous as anyone else, and is really a force of the law. That’s not bad, but it’s not as clear-cut as Javert would like to think. As the story goes on, he begins to question whether or not an ex-convict can actually be a good person, and if he might be a bad one. Like Valjean, he’s a very complex character, and it’s very easy to feel sympathy for him at times. He’s good but not nice, and just wants to do his duty.

Fantine: My favorite character, and the female protagonist of the first half-hour or so of the show. Then she dies. (Like I said before, pretty much everyone dies in Les Mis, especially the characters you like.) But let’s look at her life. After an affair results in Fantine having a daughter, Cosette, Fantine leaves Cosette to stay with an innkeeper and his wife, in exchange for sending them some money each month. When it’s discovered that she’s an unwed mother, she is wrongly accused of being a prostitute and fired from her job at a factory. This, ironically enough, actually forces her to become a prostitute in order to provide for Cosette. She sends Cosette all that she possibly can until she finally dies of consumption, her dying wish being for Valjean to take Cosette from the innkeepers and raise her himself. The reason I love Fantine is because she is selfless, loving, brave, and just kind of awesome. She pretty much goes to hell and back in order to provide for her daughter, as most mothers would. Even after her spirit is pretty much completely crushed, she keeps on going because she knows Cosette needs her to keep going, and, in a way, that’s even braver than fighting in a battle or killing bad guys. Right when you think she’s about to give up completely, she picks herself back up and keeps doing what she has to do. Death is literally the only thing that can stop her from taking care of her daughter, and even then, she uses her last breath to make sure she’ll be taken care of. Awesome.

The Thenardiers: Don’t ask me what Fantine was thinking when she left Cosette with these two, but my guess is that she was really desperate. In Les Mis, most of the characters are good people who occasionally (or frequently) do morally questionable things. The Thenardiers are the exception to this rule. They are the only characters in the show that one could definitely lable as being bad, bad people. One could argue that they’re not totally bad, just desperate, but the way they treat Cosette does not make a great case for them. Which is probably why they get one of the most fun villain songs ever. Since they aren’t given first names, we’re just going to call them Thenardier and Madame Thenardier. Thenardier owns an inn, where he lives with his wife and children, though the only one we see a lot of is their daughter Eponine, who’ll we’ll be discussing in a minute. Not only do they scam and steal from their patrons quite frequently, but they treat Cosette as a slave, Madame Thenardier blatantly favors her own daughter, Thenardier abuses them, regardless of whether they’re his own children or not, and later, they both steal valuable items off of fresh corpses. Charming. They aren’t really main characters, but they do play an important role in contrasting Cosette’s life with them and her life with Valjean. They’re the scavengers of the world, valuing their own survival over justice, their own children, and everything else.

Cosette: The poster child of the film, the musical, the book, and every other adaptation, ever. She spends the first seven or so years of her life working endlessly for the Thenardiers, having only her escapist fantasies for comfort. Then, Cosette’s entire life does a complete turnaround when Valjean agrees to take her in, rescuing her from her life of misery and caring for her and loving her like his own child. In turn, she loves him and views him as her own father.  They live happily for several years, until the revolution begins to heat up and Cosette gets caught in a love triangle with Marius and Eponine. You’d think that with all that happens to her, Cosette would be a pretty interesting character, but, well... No. No, she’s really not. She’s more of a plot device than anything, sort of there for the plot and other characters to mess around with. Other than loving Marius and being Valjean’s adopted daughter, there’s really not much to her. She’s innocent and pretty and nice, which is all well and good, but those qualities on their own make for a pretty boring character. I can still forgive her, though, because her relationship with Valjean is really cute, and I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

Marius:  On the other hand,  I can’t forgive Marius. He is quite easily the most boring character in the show, disregarding his amazing song towards the end, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. He’s a student and a member of the revolutionary group Friends of the ABC. He’s also Eponine’s childhood friend. Eponine clearly has the hots for him, but Marius doesn’t seem to reciprocate. Given how obviously Eponine tries to hit on him, I can’t decide if Marius is either a huge jerk for not just directly telling Eponine he’s not into her, or really, really dense. I’m going with the second one. After he meets Cosette (“meets” is a strong word--they gaze at each other from across the way for about three seconds), he immediately declares that she is his one true love, they have a duet, and then Marius goes to fight at the barricades when he believes he’ll never see her again. Other than that, there’s really not much to him. The political stuff he’s involved in is much more interesting than the whiny lovey dovey crap.

Eponine: Okay, technically one could say that Eponine isn’t much better than Cosette, since a huge chunk of her character revolves around her love for Marius. But there is a huge difference between Eponine and Cosette: Eponine does things for the man she loves. She acts as a go-between for Marius and Cosette. She fights at the barricades so she can die with him. Yes, she does rather selfish things so she can be with him, but in the end, she does decide she wants Marius to be happy, even if that means he has to be with Cosette. Does she do stupid things? Yes, but so do all teenage girls. Naturally, Eponine is immensely popular with that demographic. She’s become the symbol of teenagers who are unlucky in love everywhere.

Those are the main characters I’m covering in this Character Corner. Les Mis has a cast of thousands, so it’s impossible to cover them all. If you’d like to know more, go see the show or movie for yourself. It’s well worth three hours of your time.