“Les Miserables”: A Critique of Capitalism and its Relevance to Chinese People

Au Loong Yu

Translated by Bai Ruixue

Some critics did not like the film “Les Miserables” because of the wretched situation it presents. Released over the Christmas and New Year holiday period, they felt a little bit disappointed. In fact the film version is not so sad after all. You might even say that it has a happy ending. After the reunion with Marius, his son in law, and his adopted daughter Cosette, Jean Valjean ascends to heaven, greeted by Fontaine (Cosette’s mother).  The original novel, however, is much more tragic. The film, for instance, does not give the full account of Fontaine selling her teeth. Fontaine was in fact a blossoming beauty. Upon going home after being forced to sell her front teeth, she was so devastated that she threw her mirror away. In a similar way the story of Jean Valjean is also a lot more tragic in the original than in the film version. The film omits an important part of the plot: after Jean Valjean once again learns that an innocent person has been made a scapegoat for him, he bravely turns himself in to the court and is sentenced to hard labour and life imprisonment. However on rescuing another convict (while at sea) he escapes and again goes to rescue Cosette. It is then after eight years that he meets Marius, his future son in law, in a chance encounter. Later, revolution breaks out and Valjean when among the revolutionaries shows kindness in rescuing Marius from the barricades. Soon after, Marius and Cosette get married and Valjean tells Marius his secret - that he was previously a convict. In the film version Valjean then leaves his beloved daughter as he does not want to incriminate them. But in the original this is not the case.  Marius, upon learning that Valjean was a convict (whose crime was only to steal a loaf of bread), being of noble birth loathes Valjean’s actions and seeks by dishonourable means to drive him away so that he can no longer see his adopted daughter. The novel describes Marius’ psychological state:

“He felt that this person possessed a kind of sacred quality. But he was nevertheless a convict. The convict is not like an ordinary person. In a convict is a being whom the law has already fully deprived. His beliefs are in violation of the law and he therefore ought to be forever punished. After having much interrogated Jean Valjean his final act was to turn away his head. To take a step back.” (p1182 abridged)

It is only later when he learns that Jean Valjean had saved him that Marius comes to regret his own actions and rushes with Cosette to see Valjean one last time. Although there is a bright ending to the film, the final page of the novel ends with the following description of a tombstone:

“There is nothing on the tombstone. There are no letters to be read there. A long time ago four lines had been written with a pencil, but the rain and the dust have gradually made them illegible.”

To even have a convict’s name written on a tombstone would be an embarrassment for a nobleman such as Marius.

That Hugo paints such a tragic picture of Valjean’s life is of course not because he wants to be sensational. Rather it is to offer both condemnation and praise. He wants to condemn a society that forces the poor to steal bread, to condemn the hypocrisy of high society and of class prejudice, while at the same time he wants to praise the life of self-sacrifice of a convict, whose character is much greater than that of any noble or official.

The novel “Les Miserables” was originally written as a social critique. This is stated very clearly in the preface:

“So long as the three great problems of the century – the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of women through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light – are unsolved…books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”

In Hugo’s early years he was a conservative. However after experiencing repeated cycles of revolution and restoration he became a republican and in his novel “Les Miserables” he expresses his political views that society should not only be concerned with the production of wealth but should also be concerned with the reasonable distribution of that wealth. He did not agree with the communist view about the destruction of private ownership, but he was more inclined towards the socialist view at that time of advocating modest improvement:

“…encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong…adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labour, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood…render property democratic, not by abolishing it but by making it universal so that every citizen without exception may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; all in all learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it.” (p710)

His dream would pass through the two world wars and through the intervening wave of world revolution, before appearing in Europe and the United States after World War II. However the European and American welfare state models have been short lived. After less than seventy years there has gradually been a throwback to ‘we only know how to create wealth for the rich and are unconcerned about its just distribution’ societies. This is something Hugo probably never would have anticipated.

Today both the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong are not only still ‘we only know how to create GDP for the rich and are unconcerned about its just distribution’ societies, they are moreover like the rulers of 150 years ago, who thought that poverty and social crime are a result of people of low standards and who lack competitiveness. They do not bother to ask whether the wages of the poor are enough to support families, whether their children can receive a good quality and free education or whether the government and the rich do anything to help the desperately poor. In mainland China the situations is particularly terrifying. The rulers often answer social crimes by themselves committing a state terrorist crime. In the last ‘strike hard’ campaign, many people were randomly convicted and sentenced to death in order to meet targets. A 2009 Amnesty International report showed that China ranked as number one in the world for its implementation of the death penalty, carrying out over 70% of world executions. We do not know how many innocent people have been needlessly killed. Only since the demise of Bo Xilai do we know now that many innocent people were convicted by Bo's Chongqing government. Therefore, for Chinese people, to read the novel today perhaps also “cannot fail to be of use.”

January 15th 2013