One of the many things that Ulysses teaches us is that the mind can be a crazy place, a non-linear labyrinth of seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions and unexpected epiphanies.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a post re-evaluating my longstanding frustrations with Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Towards the end of that post, I argued that while Stephen doesn’t necessarily treat the people who care about him in the best manner, it is understandable why he would be hesitant to trust them given the grief he’d received from people who supposedly had his best interests at heart in Portrait‘s early chapters. It was with this understanding in mind that I typed the following pledge at the end of the post:
In honor of the centenary of the book that ignited my love of modernism and taught me the beauty of internal monologue, I pledge to heed Stephen’s thoughts as much as his actions and to take a walk in his shoes before I become quick to judge his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him.
And as I was typing that last sentence, it happened: one of those gleefully random moments when your brain instinctively shoves a seemingly irrelevant thought into the forefront of your consciousness and leaves you to make sense of the results. My fingers typed “his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him,” and my mind instead projected this line:
For I had come to hate the world / This world that always hated me.
Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Stephen’s non serviam delivered in the weathered, husky tenor of Colm Wilkinson.
Then, because I had just finished writing about Stephen declining Bloom’s offer to stay the night in “Ithaca” (and because my brain can’t ever leave anything alone), I began to tease this comparison out further. “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” the song in Les Miserables where the quoted line comes from, occurs just after the hit musical’s protagonist has been saved by a tremendous act of mercy. In both the musical and the Victor Hugo novel that inspired it, Jean Valjean has just ended a 19-year jail sentence for “stealing a mouthful of bread” and then trying to escape prison, and his paroled life is dominated by society’s rejection of a person forever branded as a convict. Finally, a bishop kindly takes Valjean in and provides him food and a place to stay for the night. Valjean, suspicious of friendly faces in a world that’s always left him for dead, steals the bishop’s silver and flees, only to be captured by the police and returned to the man he wronged. However, instead of pressing charges, the bishop claims that he actually gave Valjean the silver, hands him two additional silver candlesticks, and saves him from going back to prison. The bishop then tells Valjean that he has “bought [his] soul for God” and that Valjean must “use this precious silver to become an honest man.” “Valjean’s Soliloquy” thus features Jean Valjean wrestling with this act of mercy, feeling shame over his previous crimes and the cynicism at their foundation, and resolving to move his life in a better direction.
And the more I continued to think about Les Mis while writing about Ulysses, the more I realized the extent to which this scene in the musical is the inverse of what happens between Stephen and Bloom in the progression from “Circe” to “Ithaca.” Not only is the chronology of the scenes in reverse order (Bloom saves Stephen from the police before he takes him in and offers food and shelter), but Stephen refuses the offer that Valjean accepts. To be sure, Valjean’s acceptance comes with a robbery attached, so Bloom being politely declined is clearly a better outcome than the bishop’s situation. But it’s intriguing to consider the extent to which Valjean’s story begins by accepting redemption from the bishop, whereas Stephen’s story ends by declining such kindness from Bloom. And this line of thought only provoked more questions: to what extent is Stephen an anti-Valjean? Is the Jewish Bloom Joyce’s version of Les Miserables‘s bishop? And what do these issues say about the potential relationships between the ethical perspectives constructed by Joyce and Hugo in these seminal texts?
In many ways, the fact that my mind dwelt so long on this potential connection is unsurprising because I have been an ardent Les Mis fan since my dad introduced me to the musical when I was a teenager. I have played both my CD and video copies of the 10th anniversary concert from which the above clip of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” comes into submission over the past twenty years (which explains why it was that rendition of the song that jumped into my head as I was writing that Stephen post). I’ve seen Les Mis performed on the stage several times and was quick to see the film adaptation of the musical when it came out in theaters. Regrettably, I have yet to finish the actual novel; I was making pretty decent progress through it before fatherhood caused a sharp decline in reading books not named Curious George. Poor Marius has been stuck in limbo living across from the Thenardiers in the pages of my copy for a few years now. But while the novel has been back-burnered to an extent, the musical it inspired has been a mainstay in my life for the past twenty years, so it’s not a huge surprise that two of my literature-related passions would intersect in my brain at some point.
What’s more, I frequently teach Ulysses and Les Miserables together. I work at a Catholic university grounded in the mission of the Sisters of Mercy, and every spring, I teach a one-credit course called the Mercy Experience Capstone. This course invites seniors to reflect on their experiences as Mercy students and how their coursework has prepared their understanding of and commitment to social justice and the specific critical concerns highlighted by the Sisters of Mercy: the sustainability of the earth, immigration, nonviolence, poverty, racism, and the struggles of women and children. My version of this Mercy Capstone focuses on how film adaptations of literary texts serve as another medium for authors’ perspectives on these critical concerns to reach a public, mainstream audience. I have taught this course four times so far, and each time I have begun with the 1967 and 2003 Ulysses films and ended with both the 1998 film adaptation of Les Miserables and the musical.
This is not to say that Ulysses is explicitly driven by social justice concerns, but Joyce clearly has important things to say on questions of nonviolence, poverty, racism, and gender struggles in his epic novel. In fact, one of the results of continuing the Dedalus family’s story into Ulysses is that it gives us the opportunity to see their continued economic decline, forced to pawn books and furniture to get money for food while Simon Dedalus spends what little money he has in bars. Thus, when Bloom sees Dilly Dedalus outside Dillon’s auction rooms in “Lestrygonians,” his reflections enable us to empathize with the impoverished circumstances that Dilly and her family are struggling with:
Must be selling off some old furniture. Knew her eyes at once from the father. Lobbing about waiting for him. Home always breaks up when the mother goes. Fifteen children he had. Birth every year almost …Good lord, that poor child’s dress is in flitters. Underfed she looks too. Potatoes and marge, marge and potatoes. It’s after they feel it. Proof of the pudding. Undermines the constitution. (U pp. 124 and 125, 8.28-31 and 8.41-3)
Similarly, Bloom’s wrestling with the racial implications of the “what is a nation” question in “Cyclops” and Molly’s frequent wondering why men and women are the way they are in “Penelope” provide compelling introductory reflections on the concerns of racism and the struggles of women themselves. So we begin the semester with Joyce’s rigorous examinations of the concepts of race and gender and his portrayal of a Dublin community struggling with violence and poverty, and we use our discussions of the Ulysses films to lay the groundwork for the adaptations of novels by Dickens and Hugo that were explicitly written to make social justice statements. For that reason, Joyce and Hugo have shared neighborly spaces in my brain for the past four years, but it wasn’t until said brain momentarily conflated Stephen with Valjean two months ago that I began to seriously work through the potential parallels between Ulysses and Les Miserables.
And it got me wondering: what connections do people make between James Joyce and Victor Hugo? Joyce was definitely familiar with Hugo (which is unsurprising considering he was familiar with practically everything): he references the belief among some Christians that Hugo was the “king of poets” in a July 10, 1935 letter to his son Giorgio, and there are indeed a healthy number of allusions to Hugo in Joyce’s works. During his conversation with the sodality director towards the end of Portrait‘s fourth chapter, for example, Stephen reflects on the Jesuit influence throughout his life and a specific episode “when some boys had gathered round a priest under the shed near the chapel”:
Some of the boys had then asked the priest if Victor Hugo were not the greatest French writer. The priest had answered that Victor Hugo had never written half so well when he had turned against the church as he had written when he was a catholic. – But there are many eminent French critics, said the priest, who consider that even Victor Hugo, great as he certainly was, had not so pure a French style as Louis Veuillot. (p. 139)
In Allusions in Ulysses, Weldon Thornton sees references to Hugo’s 1877 poetry collection L’Art d’etre grand’pere right before the famous “word known to all men” reference in “Scylla and Charybdis” (U p. 161, 9.425-6; Thornton p. 180) and his 1869 novel L’Homme Qui Rit in the hobgoblin’s speech at Bella Cohen’s brothel in “Circe” (U p.413, 15.2159-60; Thornton p. 360). Finn Fordham also argues that “Hugo’s sentimental melodrama and extreme visions of deformity, of suffering and gigantism, of revolution, crowds and mobs are a pertinent touchstone for both ‘Cyclops’ and ‘Circe'” in his chapter on Joyce and Hugo in James Joyce and the Nineteenth-Century French Novel. He later reads Hugo allusions in the Finnegans Wake notebooks as shaping the road that guides Joyce’s use of Waterloo in his final novel and sees common ground between Hugo’s depiction of Waterloo (specifically his downplaying the battle as a Wellington victory) and both the Museyroom episode in I.1 and the Butt and Taff episode in II.3. And perhaps the most famous Hugo allusion in Joyce’s works comes in the Wake‘s I.8, where the list of ALP’s Christmas parcels includes “three hundred and sixtysix poplin tyne for revery warp in the weaver’s woof for Victor Hugonot” (211.17-8). So Hugo was definitely on Joyce’s radar, as Fordham reads him as “a touchstone and foil for a series of antagonistic and respectful relations between Joyce’s works and epic narrative, the sentimental, bombast, exile and arrogance, the patriotic, the romantic, the republican and the revolutionary” (p. 61).
In terms of other critical scholarship linking the two authors, Patrick McGee’s new study, Political Monsters and Democratic Imagination (2016), links William Blake’s Milton, Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Joyce’s Ulysses as “three significant literary works at critical historical junctures that resurrect and further elaborate Spinoza’s democratic ontology and its political consequences” (p. vii). In establishing the common ground between these texts in his preface, McGee argues:
these visionaries articulate: (1) a concept of power founded not on strength or might but on social cooperation; (2) a principle of equality based not on the identity of individuals with one another but on the difference between any individual and the intellectual power of society as a whole; (3) an understanding of thought as a process that operates between rather than within individuals; and (4) a theory of infinite truth, something individuals only partially glimpse from their particular historical and cultural situations. (p. vi)
There are also critical works by Hugo scholars that find common ground with Joyce. In The Later Novels of Victor Hugo, Kathryn M. Grossman references Northrop Frye’s portrayal of Ulysses as a novel that provides a rare “[conjunction]” of “the four core literary mythoi – tragedy, comedy, romance (quest), and irony” to argue for the “generic grab bag represented by [Hugo’s] narratives” as providing a similar “melange” (p. 23). And in his biography on Hugo, Graham Robb contends that Notre-Dame de Paris creates “the disintegration of the structure under a bombardment of exotic words which invites comparison with Rabelais and James Joyce” (p. 159). Add to this the authors’ love-hate relationships with the Catholic Church, their shared status as exiles casting literary glances back on their homelands, their left-leaning politics, and Hugo’s late-in-life interest in Irish independence (as Fordham notes), and much common ground emerges between the 19th century Romantic French novelist and his 20th century Irish modernist counterpart.
But a key reason I find myself frequently teaching Ulysses and Les Miserables side by side is the common reputation these novels share. I’ve mentioned the backlash to Joyce’s notorious size and impenetrability in several posts, but it seems as though Ulysses may have company with Les Miserables in that regard. In its Bloomsday 2016 article, Time Magazine characterized Ulysses as a novel more admired than actually read, and it used Jordan Ellenberg’s “Hawking Index” to rank the top books most likely abandoned shortly after readers begin them. Ulysses led the list, with Les Miserables right behind it at #2. Along similar lines, Ulysses and Les Miserables frequently find themselves linked in terms of the longest sentences in literature, as Ed Park notes the epic battle between Hugo’s 823-word description of Louis-Philippe and Joyce’s 4,391-word “sentence” in “Penelope.” (Both, sadly, have been bested by Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club.). And a joint search of Ulysses and Les Miserables on Twitter reveals that the thread that typically unites these texts in tweets is their length and difficulty:
It is the gargantuan size and scope of these novels that’s a key reason why Ulysses and Les Miserables find themselves on my Mercy Capstone syllabus. Taking a “supersize me” approach to text selection, I focus my course on film adaptations of large works of literature that relate to the Mercy critical concerns in a variety of ways. This not only enables my students the opportunity to study texts whose size frequently disqualifies them from undergraduate literature syllabi, but it also allows us to examine to what extent the film versions of these texts provide an opportunity for the authors’ messages to reach an audience that might otherwise never access those ideas due to the size of the source material.
I actually came up with the idea for the course while in a movie theater waiting for the film adaptation of the Les Mis musical to begin. As I saw the theater quickly fill with excited devotees of the stage show, I was struck by the presence of such a passionate contemporary audience thrilled at spending the next three hours consuming a 1500-page, 19th-century French novel about poverty. And I began wondering: to what extent do contemporary adaptations of seemingly impenetrable novels enable their important messages and values to take new life in the 21st century? Can such films and musicals be effective sources of social-political activism that allow the agendas of authors like Hugo and Joyce to reach a large public audience that might never have read their novels?
In that regard, Les Miserables has Ulysses beaten several times over. Joyce’s novel may have spawned a popular annual holiday and the 1967 Strick and 2003 Walsh film adaptations of it may have enjoyed some critical acclaim, but Hugo’s work has captured mainstream public attention in a way Ulysses sadly cannot claim to. This is of course due to the internationally beloved musical adaptation of Les Miserables that, according to its official website, has been seen by over 70 million people in 42 different countries. Given the degree to which the novel’s revolutionary politics and concern for the plight of the poor are embedded into its catchy playlist, that’s both a massive platform for Hugo’s social justice mission to access and an effective vehicle to carry his criticism of 19th century French politics into a contemporary international environment still struggling with these problems. To be sure, Joyce has also taken contemporary life on the stage. There are the annual Bloomsday on Broadway celebrations of the author’s work at Symphony Space, as well as Jonathan Brielle’s recent musical Himself and Nora, which I’ve heard nothing but good things about. Perhaps now’s the time to bring Bloom, Molly, and Stephen to the stage and see if Ulysses could catch fire in musical form like Les Mis.
(And as I type that sentence, my mind immediately starts contemplating the Ulysses musical playlist: “Love’s Old Sweet Song” [of course]; “Bloomusalem” [which has been a showstopper at many a Joyce conference]; “Mrkgnao! (The Cat Said Loudly)”; “The Parable of the Plums”; “Bronze by Gold” [the clear “Master of the House” corollary]; “Ben Bloom Elijah,” “Flower of the Mountain” [someone get Kate Bush on the phone] ….
I need a hobby.)
I freely admit to being one of the many Les Mis lovers introduced to Hugo’s masterpiece through the musical rather than the novel. Ever since I discovered it 20 years ago, I’ve felt that Jean Valjean’s journey from degradation to redemption is one of the greatest stories ever told, even if I have not yet finished the novel that tells it. But it’s not just that personal hero’s journey that resonates with me. Instead, it’s the way Les Miserables seemlessly unites the personal and the social-political dimensions of 19th-century France, weaving Valjean’s struggles with Fantine’s exploitation and sacrifice and with Cosette’s mistreatment. More impressively, it accomplishes this all while highlighting these specific tragedies as endemic of a broader societal apathy towards the poor and juxtaposing the bishop’s and Valjean’s charity with the doomed revolutionary aspirations of the ABC Society to hammer home the need for change. One only need look at his preface to Les Miserables to recognize the ambitious political scope of Hugo’s epic:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
And one of the musical’s greatest accomplishments is its commitment to that mission statement, its resolution not to sacrifice the political force of its source material in adapting it into a commercially successful show. It may lack the novel’s digressions on Waterloo, convents, the sewer system, and other topics, but one only has to skim through the lyrics of “At the End of the Day” and “Look Down” (both the opening version and the reprise later in Act I) to hear Hugo’s condemnation of the societal disregard of the impoverished and starving. One only needs a quick listen through the cynicism of “Lovely Ladies” or Fantine’s collapse from “I Dreamed a Dream” to “Come to Me” to grasp the exploitation of women in a system stacked against them. One needs only witness the Thenardiers’ abuse of Cosette and indoctrination of Eponine and Gavroche into lives of crime to see the real dangers children face in Hugo’s France. And while the explicitly revolutionary calls to arms like “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” may garner the most political attention of an inspired audience, it’s the heartbreaking futility of “Drink With Me,” “Turning,” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” that hammer home maybe the greatest tragedy: against a powerful, apathetic social machine dead set on maintaining the order of the status quo, the people who most desire to take up Hugo’s call to arms don’t stand a chance.
Yet Les Miserables still thrives as a call for social justice precisely because of its skill in weaving the Valjean plot with this larger “social condemnation.” The rebellion may be quashed before it fully gets off the ground and France may not undergo any sweeping changes that alleviate the conditions of its mistreated lower class, but the novel and musical still demonstrate our ability to extend a helping hand to “les miserables” through the bishop’s and Valjean’s acts of compassion. In fact, one could argue that the Valjean narrative itself provides the key to heeding the ethical obligation Hugo’s preface outlines. The bishop’s charity towards the impoverished Valjean at the story’s beginning demonstrates a selfless commitment to alleviate “the degradation of man by poverty.” Valjean’s distracted nature may keep him from helping Fantine when she’s fired in Act I, but his shame over that carelessness later commits him to saving her at her greatest time of need and comforting her during her last days.
And one could argue that Hugo’s mission to help children in need is Les Miserables‘s biggest statement. It guides the two major acts of sacrifice in the story (Fantine’s sacrifices for her daughter Cosette’s well-being and Valjean’s pledge to raise Cosette as his own child upon Fantine’s death), and it serves as the backdrop for the true triumph of the musical’s conclusion. Valjean, dying in the days after Cosette’s wedding, tells his adopted daughter “a story of those who always loved you,” finally revealing to her the extent to which he and Fantine have given their lives so that she may live without suffering. He is then guided to heaven by the spirits of Fantine and Eponine (the two other characters most defined by loving sacrifice in the story) as they sing:
Take my hand, I’ll lead you to salvation.
Take my love, for love is everlasting.
And remember the truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God.
And through this gesture, Les Mis‘s main argument is made: amidst a historical backdrop of revolution and suffering, it’s the individual acts of compassion and sacrifice that best reveal our loving obligation to others. It’s why Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine are united not just at the musical’s conclusion, but throughout its entirety, with the oboe that accompanies Valjean’s paroled thoughts linking him to the music of Fantine’s “Come to Me” and Eponine’s “On My Own.”
It’s why “Valjean’s Death,” which rewards Les Mis‘s main character for his lifetime of hardship and sacrifice, is immediately followed by a reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” that replaces the revolutionary idealism of the initial lyrics with a focus on the “wretched of the earth,” an acknowledgment of their suffering combined with an assurance of its inevitable alleviation.
It’s why that optimistic assurance to “les miserables” is visually juxtaposed with the musical’s staging of the spirits of Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine looking down over the surviving Cosette and Marius, who are given new life by their sacrifices (and why that visual is the last thing we see on the stage).
And it’s why the novel and the musical’s legendary logo places the young Cosette in front of the revolutionary flag.
Les Miserables 1999 by Rick Payette, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
It’s even more apparent when we see the original sketch of Cosette that was adapted into the novel’s cover art, with the full-length Cosette mopping the floors of a dilapidated France, a stark image of the poverty she’s raised out of by Valjean’s kindness. The rebellion may fail, but our obligation to those in misery remains in the foreground, and it’s precisely because of Valjean’s commitment to help them that Les Miserables can end on a hopeful note even amidst such bloodshed.
It’s in that ethic of compassion and sacrifice where I see the most common ground between Les Miserables and Ulysses. Of course, as I mentioned above, Joyce’s novel is not an explicitly political statement of social justice. There is no preface that articulates an author’s outrage to the mistreatment of the poor, and neither Bloom nor Stephen is called upon to undergo the spiritual redemption Valjean is. There are also no simple character parallels between the two stories: Bloom shares traces of both Valjean and the bishop but doesn’t embody either completely and we may not get enough of pre-bishop Valjean to properly tease a parallel between his anger and Stephen’s non serviam. There are traces of the republicanism that will eventually lead to 1916 and its aftermath (although Joyce’s nationalists are substantially less sympathetic than Hugo’s rebels), but revolutionary idealism will not be quashed by a more powerful military machine for another 12 years. (However, we could argue that the Ireland Joyce is glancing towards as he’s writing Ulysses provides a possible parallel.) And there’s no sense of a triumphant ending for Joyce’s main character, as the primary reward Bloom gets for his Bloomsday journey is simply to kiss his wife’s rump and climb into bed. At the end of the day, Hugo and Joyce are telling two different stories, and the sweeping, epic tale of compassion and sacrifice that informs Hugo’s mission statement is not what Joyce is interested in.
Or is it? After all, what else could a modernist adaptation of The Odyssey that stars Leopold Bloom be but a “sweeping, epic tale of compassion and sacrifice,” just in another form? If Joyce is writing the everyday epic, a celebration of the extraordinariness of the ordinary, then does Bloom’s June 16th sojourn around Dublin really have to ascend to the historical or political heights of Valjean’s 17-year quest for redemption for there to be common ground between them? In my initial Bloomsday post, I wrote at length about why I loved the characters in Ulysses, particularly Bloom, of whom I stated:
Bloom is not just a bumbling protagonist to laugh at, but one of the most human, empathetic, compassionate people ever created on paper. Practically every action he takes on June 16, 1904 is brought about by his desire to help others. It can be something as simple as helping a blind piano tuner cross the street or as large as helping to provide financial assistance to a deceased friend’s surviving family (an action that oddly places him in that bar to accidentally provoke that barfight; again, only Bloom…). And it’s not just his actions on Bloomsday that demonstrate his humanity, but his thoughts. Indeed, his numerous internal monologues (ironically one of the stylistic devices that has gotten Ulysses branded as elitist) show a person hellbent on seeing the world from other people’s perspectives and trying to understand others as best he can, even if he fails (which he does. Frequently. Hilariously).
Granted, the scope of Bloom’s actions doesn’t reach the heights of Valjean’s, Fantine’s, or Eponine’s sacrifices throughout Les Miserables, but if the motivation is similar, then does it really have to? Couldn’t Bloom’s individual acts of charity towards the people he meets on June 16th be seen as the everyday versions of the compassion behind the bishop’s and Valjean’s epic works of mercy? Aren’t Bloom’s empathy towards the struggling Dilly Dedalus and the suffering Mina Purefoy reflective of the compassion Valjean shows Fantine once he grasps the depths of her tragedy? Isn’t there common ground between Bloom’s desire to nurture the virtually parentless Stephen Dedalus and Valjean’s commitment to raising Cosette as his own? The actions in Joyce’s everyday epic may lack the historical scale and stakes of Les Mis, but the logic behind them is similar. In fact, isn’t Bloom’s insistence that love, rather than, “force, hatred, [and] history,” is “really life” just a Joycean spin on the idea that “to love another person is to see the face of God?”
And it’s that comparison of credos that hammers home the importance of this epic equation. In that Bloomsday post, I argued that “it’s not just individual courtesy that guides Bloom, but a broader sense of compassion and nonviolence that our world could really use right now,” and the same is true of Les Miserables. In fact, I’m convinced that Hugo’s epic gains its greatest moral energy as a comparison of competing ethical perspectives rather than the story of a few compassionate characters. The bishop and Valjean are clearly people to admire, but Hugo’s mission statement really comes alive when we look past their individual acts of charity and see the broader endorsement of love and sacrifice at their heart. That may be why the novel opens not with Valjean, but with the bishop, devoting 58 pages to establishing his ethic of charity and love before we see it in practice when he takes Valjean in. This move not only enables us to understand why the bishop acts the way he does, but it also links him with the fallen prisoner who devotes the rest of his life to following his example. In many ways, the bishop and Valjean are so linked that the latter’s acts of kindness are as much a testament to the larger ethic that guides both characters as they are evidence of his individual redemption.
Similarly, Valjean’s perpetual struggle with Inspector Javert is not simply important from a protagonist-antagonist perspective. In fact, I’d argue that the 1998 Les Miserables film somewhat falters precisely because it focuses too much on Javert’s chase of Valjean, as we can see in the film’s trailer:
To be sure, traces of Les Miserables‘s larger ethical and political themes are present, but this adaptation is largely the story of Valjean escaping Javert, which reduces Hugo’s epic to a French version of The Fugitive. By contrast, what brings this central conflict to life for me is the larger ethical implications of the struggle. Les Mis is not simply interested in Javert versus Valjean, but the broader conflict between justice and mercy that they embody. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law is sacrosanct and that violations of it are irredeemable guide both his relentless, pitiless pursuit of Valjean and his heartless imprisonment of Fantine, blinding him to the person behind the prisoner and locking him into actions that bring misery to one life and death to another. From this perspective, the convict ultimately foils his pursuer not merely by outrunning him, but through displays of mercy towards him that poke holes in Javert’s limited worldview. Thus, when Javert lets Valjean escape and then commits suicide, we are not meant to simply see this as Valjean’s winning his freedom by surviving Javert (which is what the 1998 adaptation promotes by oddly ending with Javert’s suicide and Valjean’s victory). We are also meant to see the promotion of the ethic of mercy that guides Valjean and the bishop triumphing against a limited conception of justice that punishes those most in need of our assistance and unravels in the face of compassion.
And the musical reinforces this view of Les Miserables as a clash of competing ethical perspectives, especially in its handling of the justice/mercy conflict at the heart of Javert and Valjean’s storyline. We see this larger conflict particularly at play when Javert attempts to arrest Valjean after Fantine’s death in “The Confrontation,” as their ensuing argument over whether Valjean’s imprisonment or his need to save the now orphaned Cosette is most important highlight their clashing worldviews (which are literally sung over each other to emphasize this broader ethical debate):
Here is specific evidence of how Javert’s conception of justice is so rigid that it precludes the mercy that would have saved Valjean 19 years ago and is now needed to help Cosette. Despite Valjean stating that “there is none but me who can intercede” for this “suffering child” and that he will return in three days to turn himself in, Javert refuses to budge. Insisting that his “duty is to the law” and that Valjean “has no rights,” Javert ignores Cosette’s plight outright and laughs at the idea of a criminal asking for mercy, convinced that “men like [Valjean] can never change.” Thus, when Valjean tells Javert both “you know nothing of my life” and “you know nothing of the world,” he demonstrates the flaws in both Javert’s individual actions and the broader commitment to pitiless justice that he embodies.
This becomes further evident when Javert has another chance to imprison Valjean as he carries a wounded Marius to safety in Act II. Still reeling from an earlier scene where Valjean had the opportunity to kill him, but let him go instead, Javert chooses to show mercy for the first time in the musical by letting Vajlean take Marius away (essentially accepting the plea he earlier laughed at in “The Confrontation”). What follows is a soliloquy entitled “Javert’s Suicide” that places Javert in the position that Valjean earlier held when he was saved by the bishop (and is even scored using the same music as “Valjean’s Soliloquy” to emphasize the connection):
The formats of these soliloquies are also similar, with both characters fretting over how an act of mercy flew in the face of how they previously viewed the world and struggling to work through the contradiction. However, whereas Valjean had earlier channeled his surprise over the bishop’s kindness into reforming his life, Javert’s limited notion of justice prevents him from doing the same, and he chooses suicide over having to exist in a world where a thief can show mercy to the law. Importantly, by placing Javert in the Valjean role in this second soliloquy, Les Mis by extension places Valjean in the role previously occupied by the bishop, which further unites these two characters in the larger compassionate ethic that guides their actions throughout the story.
And this focus on how individual acts embody larger ethical perspectives is not simply limited to the Valjean/Javert scenes, but comprises how most of the characters in Les Mis are depicted. There may be no extended digressions that establish these worldviews in conflict with each other like in the novel, but the musical soliloquies Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg give to their characters consistently hammer home the larger perspectives they embody. We hear Valjean reflect on how the “eye for an eye” hardness instilled into him by his “lifetime of despair” has been thrown into disarray by the bishop’s charity in “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” and we understand the show’s endorsement of that larger ethic of love and compassion in much the same way that the novel’s first chapter establishes that perspective. We hear Javert sing his tribute to the never-changing “Stars,” and we recognize the unflinching advocacy of legal justice that guides his every action. We hear Thenardier gleefully boast of his “win-at-all-costs” take on the world in “Dog Eat Dog,” and we understand the amoral survival instinct that compels his exploitation and manipulation of those around him. In that sense, Les Mis does tell the stories of a gigantic cast of characters, but their individual interactions with each other also constitute the perpetual clashes of the conflicting ethical worldviews they adhere to, and thus it’s no surprise that the show ends by juxtaposing Valjean’s death with the altered lyrics of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” In many ways, the ending isn’t just evidence of Valjean’s individual redemption, but it also confirms the larger triumph of love over “force, hatred, [and] history” and the need for that ethic of compassion towards the “wretched of the earth” to endure.
It’s only fitting that placing Les Mis alongside Ulysses enabled me to see that larger ethical realm in which the musical operates because Joyce’s novel functions in a similar way. In some respects, it’s ironic that a modernist text that so invested in the internal, the psychological, the individual, and the everyday also effectively offers such a broader dialogue of competing ethical perspectives. Bloom not only demonstrates individual acts of kindness to the people he encounters on June 16th, but his numerous internal monologues frequently posit a commitment to empathy and love that enable him to productively engage those around him, even if that commitment is rarely reciprocated. And maybe an unintended benefit of that lack of reciprocity is that the conflicts that stem from it enable us to witness and weigh these larger thought processes as they clash against each other. So just as we see the conflict between justice and mercy as Javert hunts Valjean, we see a struggle between empathy and nativist monomania in Bloom’s argument with the Citizen in “Cyclops.” An excellent example of how the particular and universal interplay with each other, “Cyclops” is replete with examples of Bloom trying to listen to the Citizen’s patriotic arguments and diplomatically assert his counterpoints, only to be drowned out by the Citizen’s interruptions that are explicitly intended to silence Bloom. The “what is a nation” discussion is a key case in point, with Bloom’s awkward insistence that a nation is both “the same people living in the same place” and “in different places” beautifully demonstrating his desire to accommodate everyone in the face of a Dublin public determined to mockingly reject him (U p. 272, 12.1422 and 12.1428). Thus, Bloom’s later insistence that “all the history of the world is full of” persecution (U p. 271, 12.1417-8), his championing of love as the “opposite of hatred” in the face of such suffering, and his insistence that “Christ was a jew like me” (U p. 280, 12.1808-9) show how his specific acts of empathy in “Cyclops” translate into a larger ethic of compassion and become some of the novel’s strongest defenses of that worldview. In essence, Joyce is ironically positioning the chapter’s Jewish character as its biggest advocate of Christian love and openness to others, all the while satirizing the Citizen’s racist xenophobia through his empty barbs and horrible aim with a biscuit tin.
We see something similar at play in the Stephen-Bloom conversations that dominate “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca.” Of course, this clash of perspectives is substantially less antagonistic and caustic than the other arguments: it’s structured more like a dialogue than a battle and nobody really wins it in any sense. Nevertheless, the characters’ discussion of a host of topics on their way to 7 Eccles Street frequently pit Stephen’s “artistic” individualism against Bloom’s “scientific” pragmatism, and the “Ithaca” catechist’s question, “what two temperaments did they individually represent,” explicitly asks us to view their characters as reflective of these larger mindsets (U p. 558, 17.559-60). Plus, Bloom’s commitment to trying to understand Stephen’s thoughts despite them frequently going over his head throughout these Nostos chapters provide further instances of his empathy at work, which give us final glimpses of the parallactic perspective he’s adopted throughout the novel.
Ulysses also provides glimpses into a variety of other perspectives such as antisemitism (Deasy and the Citizen), Catholicism (Father Conmee), and even a Thenardier-esque ethic of delightful exploitation (hello, Buck Mulligan!). And while nobody suffers the decisive defeat of Javert or the ABC rebels, we do watch many of these perspectives gradually fall by the wayside as we progress through Ulysses, with Deasy’s discriminatory musings clowned by Stephen’s later reflections and the Citizen’s bigotry foiled by Bloom’s compassion. Mulligan and the medicals may suffer no such defeat, but in that sense, they’re a lot like the Thenardiers, the lovable cockroaches you just can’t get rid of. (“Clear away the barricades and we’re still there.”). But through it all, the compassionate parallax that guides Bloom’s chapters and largely informs Molly’s thoughts in “Penelope” endures as the primary constant guiding us to its conclusion. From this perspective, it’s no surprise that people see Ulysses as being both about human beings and about humanity itself: the two inform each other so much that to affirm individual characters is also to affirm the ethics they embody.
In fact, “Penelope” is a great conclusion to a novel that deploys this approach. Of course, we’ve already seen Molly share Bloom’s compassion for others earlier in the novel by giving the coin to the one-legged sailor in “Wandering Rocks,” which is more charity than most of Joyce’s other characters perform (and she doesn’t even have to leave her house!). But Molly’s soliloquy demonstrates the extent to which her narrative connects such incidental moments to a broader ethic. Just like “Cyclops” combines Bloom’s individual acts of empathy with his criticisms of persecution and advocacy of love, “Penelope” frequently combines Molly’s thoughts on specific characters with broader reflections on gender identity and criticisms of sexual exploitation in a way that often links the personal with the social-political. She thinks about her affair with Boylan, for example, and then wonders, “whats the idea making us like that with a big hole in the middle of us or like a Stallion driving it up into you because thats all they want out of you” (U p. 611, 18.151-3). This connects her liaison with Blazes to the larger theme of male exploitation of women that guide her sexual thoughts in the chapter. Similarly, she expresses her irritation over Bloom supposedly staying out all night with the medicals and requesting breakfast in bed, and she also connects this to her larger criticism of men “treating [women] like dirt,” thinking:
I don’t care what anybody says itd be much better or the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes. (U, p. 640, 18.1434-8)
Again, Molly connects a specific irritation to a larger gender problem and sees the broader implications of this masculine disregard for others. Thus, what emerges from “Penelope” is not simply a Marion Bloom irritated at the men in her life, but a broader perspective criticizing multiple forms of gender exploitation that becomes a necessary challenge to the previous sexist thoughts and actions of Mulligan, Boylan, Lenehan, and a host of other male characters (particularly their “wink wink, nudge nudge” jokes at her expense throughout the novel).
Molly’s frequent thoughts of Bloom throughout “Penelope” can also be seen as a snarkier counterpoint to the empathy her husband has demonstrated throughout Ulysses. She may express her irritation over his idiosyncrasies and the “mixedup things” he knows (U p. 612, 18.179), but at no point does she ever really reject them; in fact, she balances those thoughts with her fond reflections of their courtship and of his clumsily walking up the stairs with her breakfast each morning. And her concluding thoughts of accepting Bloom’s proposal on Howth Head represent the culminating point of this approach, as her acceptance of him as a person “who understood or felt what a woman is” provides an affirmation of both her husband and the compassionate ethic that has guided him through the novel (U p. 643, 18.1578-9). In many ways, “Penelope” is both Molly’s deployment of that ethic and a microcosm of the novel’s trajectory: an attempt to understand her husband and the others she thinks about, to work through the larger implications of those thoughts, and to say “Yes” to love as a result. Essentially, the proposal scene can be seen as Joyce’s version of Valjean’s redemptive conclusion, only here both Molly and Bloom are given hopeful endings united by a larger empathetic worldview much like the bishop and Valjean are tied to the broader ethic of mercy they embody. And thus, just as in Les Mis, the end of Joyce’s epic journey is a confirmation of the redeeming power of love.
That’s really where both works gain a great deal of their ethical force: as epics of compassion that use their heroes’ quests for redemption as springboards to highlight the need for empathy and kindness in a world defined by suffering and struggle. In Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel, Victor Brombert notes:
By the time of Les Miserables, he had developed the theory of an epic concerned with the great adventure of mankind, in particular with the destiny of the oppressed, redeemable, and ultimately redeeming peuple, toward whom his deepest reactions remained, however, characteristically ambiguous. In Hugo’s view, all the social and political struggles of the nineteenth century, including mob violence and police repression, occurred within ‘the great epic field where humanity is struggling’ (XI, 867). (p. 99)
Examining Les Miserables and Ulysses side by side reveals both works to reside in that “great epic field,” just in different manners. Hugo demands that we witness the need for individual acts of compassion to aid the victims of “social asphyxia” through Valjean’s quest for redemption, while Joyce grants us access to the minds of Bloom, Molly, and Stephen and allows us to watch these broader ethics emerge through the internal monologues of his characters. Les Miserables may express more explicit political urgency, but both Hugo and Joyce are clearly writing “the great adventure of mankind” through their works, even if the latter sees that adventure as occurring in the extraordinary minutiae of everyday life. Both authors are innately concerned with “the destiny of the oppressed, redeemable, and … redeeming,” even if they express that concern through different approaches. Finally, both Hugo’s France and Joyce’s Dublin can be seen as specific fronts of “the great epic field where humanity is struggling,” and they offer similar battle plans of love and compassion to aid humanity in that struggle. And thanks to Boublil,Schönberg, and Cameron Mackintosh, Les Miserables lives on to continue that epic fight on the 21st century “epic field,” a place where “ignorance and misery” most definitely “remain on earth.” In continuing to call attention to poverty and exploitation and to urge compassionate responses from its audience, Les Mis reveals both the timelessness and contemporary urgency of Hugo’s mission statement and highlights how the novel and the musical still retain an essential usefulness.
Now, I wonder how successfully I can sneak Curious George and the June Rebellion past my son…