Book reviews, Culture, On Stage

Do you hear the people sing? One Day More

Recently Tom Hooper’s stunning adaptation of Victor Hugo’s incredible novel ‘Les Miserables’, has brought to light that despite significant technological changes, social issues have fundamentally remained stagnant.

Georgina Campbell

Writing in the backdrop of the French Revolution, Victor Hugo was in the middle of a social upheaval as questions of autonomy, liberty and justice were brought to light.

Where the everyday ‘man’ finally spoke out against the repressive social and political institutions that had favoured those born into opulence.

After the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789, France saw a turbulent period where leaders came, were elected, however none were interested in the rights and conditions of ‘the people’.

Hugo uses his novel to condemn the unjust class-based structure of nineteenth-century France, showing time and again that the society’s structure turns good, innocent people into beggars and criminals.

Hugo focuses on three areas that particularly need reform: education, criminal justice, and the treatment of women. He conveys much of his message through the character of Fantine, a symbol for the many good but impoverished women driven to despair and death by a cruel society.

Ironically, it is not until the factory fires Fantine for immorality that she resorts to prostitution. In the character of Fantine, Hugo demonstrates the hypocrisy of a society that fails to educate girls and ostracizes women such as Fantine while encouraging the sordid behaviour of wealthy men.

We may find the image of Fantine’s hair being aggressively hacked  off particularly heart breaking, but we fail to realise that women worldwide are still selling themselves in order to make ends meat.

Fantine’s story is not dissimilar to those women, who even now, have to resort to prostitution to make enough money for themselves and anyone else they support. Falsely accused, Fantine is thrown out of the factory she worked for.

Her daughter needs medical attention, and in desperation Fantine first sells her possessions, hair, and then her body. Shockingly, women today still sell their bodies because of restrictive socio-economic conditions.

Perhaps what is even more shocking is that 150 years later, prostitution still has not been legalised. Therefore the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and abuse of the 19th Century are still as prominent and a concern to the women of the 21st Century.

As the main protagonist (Jean Valjean) flees to the capital of France, Tom Hooper introduces us to the appalling squalor of Paris with a sweeping shot of hundreds of beggars, of all ages, clinging to the gates which trap them in poverty. Some are barely dressed, whilst others don’t even have the energy to stand.

An estimated 100 million people worldwide are still homeless, as the United Nations Commission on human rights uncovered in 2005. Since then we have had a global recession, incessant warfare, where numerous countries have been torn apart and people’s homes have been destroyed.

Even in the West, the signs of poverty are still lurking in shop doorways, selling the ‘Big Issue’ and busking. They too are tired and hungry, and exhausted from fighting the daily same battles.

Although our attitude has evolved, and we no longer condemn poverty as a life style choice, even Britain, the notorious ‘welfare state’, has one of the highest levels of homelessness in Europe with more than 4 people per 1,000 estimated to be homeless.

Arguably one of the ‘stars’ of “Les Miserables”, is the young street urchin Gavroche. Paris is his playground, and he is prepared at eight years old to sacrifice his life in the revolution, in the hope of a better world.

Like many of today’s children, Gavroche has to grow up extremely fast in an adult world, where his life is dictated by the whims of the older students.

The responsibilities of adulthood and maturing are still embedded in our culture, where children are expected to contribute financial and emotional support to their families before they’ve even finished school.

They are robbed, like Gavroche, of innocence and freedom, condemned instead to a life of hard work and little reward, resulting in an early grave.

Les Miserables” may be a glamorous Hollywood blockbuster with a star studded cast that lost a few pounds and wore false teeth for their roles, but it has shed some serious light on social injustices which still linger in today’s society.

Where honesty and justice are ideals, which many of us still need to grasp. Where women are subjugated to a life of suffering a torment, children robbed of their innocence, and individuals denied the opportunity to better themselves, and leave the misery state of poverty.

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