Updated September 30, 2021.
Les Misérables has several shades of meaning in French. Translators say that Victor Hugo’s novel, published in 1862, could just as well be titled The Miserable Ones, The Outcasts, The Wretched Poor, The Victims or The Dispossessed.
But with its emotionally rewarding musical adaptations, Les Misérables is so strongly associated with “rousing score and libretto,” and “epic quest for justice in France” that the title – often reduced to its nickname, “Les Mis” – has lost some of its punch.
PBS delivers a bruising wallop in its miniseries Les Misérables on Masterpiece, led by actors Dominic West and David Oyelowo. The characters’ plights within society and the cat-and-mouse tension between escaped convict Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert unfold without any melodic notes of relief. At times, the production is harder to watch than a horror flick, whether we’re flinching at the storyline’s cruelty, poverty, blood or self-sacrifices.
Hugo wrote about his own time in the 1,500-page tome of Les Misérables, set between 1815 and 1832, but in its preface he wrote a message to future readers for the ages:
“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”
Below are some main characters as seen in the PBS series. Spoiler alert to those unfamiliar with the plot!
The Outcast: Jean Valjean
To the government and society, Jean Valjean (Dominic West; The Wire) will forever be a criminal, more feared for what the ex-convict may have become after 19 years of hard labor than for his original crime: stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s impoverished children.
Long before social aid like food stamps, soup kitchens, or public schools, let alone breakfast programs for children, Jean Valjean’s first offense led to a sentence of five years, which extended to 19 years for his escape attempts.
He grows strong instead of weak after breaking rocks and living in horrible conditions on a disease-ridden prison boat. But dangerous work and the beatings from prison guards have left his face a raw, red collage of sunburn blisters, cuts and scars.
After his release from Toulon prison he must carry a yellow passport that identifies him as an ex-convict, which will hurt his chances for work. Even after a bishop gives him means with which to make a new start, he robs a boy. He will soon achieve success under a new identity, and dedicate himself to being a better man. But for his last crime, he is a hunted man. He continues to see the world as “lies, violence, and cruelty.”
The Wretched Poor: Fantine
Beautiful, naive and illiterate Fantine (Lily Collins) has never known any family and grew up on the streets. She worked her way to Paris as a teenager and supports herself as a seamstress. She is seduced by a playboy student bachelor, who supports their love child until he finishes his studies in Paris and abandons her.
Who can guess how many single mothers and their children fell into abject poverty in the 19th century?
After leaving Paris with her daughter Cosette, Fantine realizes she must part with her only flesh and blood in order to work. Based on a first impression of a family she sees, she entrusts Cosette to the care of the crooked innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thérnardier and sends them money nearly beyond her means, regularly.
But the Thérnardiers keep lying and demanding more payments that Fantine cannot make. She loses her factory job (fired by Jean Valjean for lying about having a child). A traveling merchant convinces her to sell her long hair and her perfect two front teeth, which leads to a horrific scene after which Fantine’s face is often streaked with blood.
She becomes ill and works as a prostitute, and is doubly scorned for her sickly appearance. She is arrested by Javert for assaulting a would-be client who taunts her, but after collapsing, she is immediately taken to the local hospital. Deathly ill, she clings to life only because a remorseful Jean Valjean has promised to bring Cosette to her. He fails and she dies never seeing her beloved daughter again.
The Victim: Cosette
Cosette’s doting mother leaves her with the strangers Monsieur and Madame Thérnardier (Adeel Akhtar and 2019 Academy Award-winner Olivia Colman) shortly after meeting them. Cosette is only about three, but for the next five years, the lazy and cruel innkeepers physically abuse her as their servant and barely provide her sufficient clothing or a place to sleep. She has no childhood aside from her age. Even the patrons of the tavern howl with laughter when Madame chases and beats Cosette with a belt. There is nothing of the musical’s comic relief (“Masters of the House”) when it comes to these evil innkeepers. The good news is, Cosette will eventually be rescued by Jean ValJean.
The Miserable One: Javert
Javert (David Oyelowo; Selma) is a solitary, obsessed law enforcement officer for whom there is only right and wrong. As a prison guard, he admits to “Prisoner 24601” (Jean Valjean) that he was actually born in a prison to criminals. Comparing himself to Jean Valjean, he says with superiority, “Men like us have only two choices: to prey on society or to guard it. You chose the former and I chose the latter.”
He despises Jean Valjean and is confused every time he witnesses Jean Valjean bravely come to the aid of a person in distress. It doesn’t add up in his book.
Javert does not believe in using human judgment in legal matters; there is only the letter of the law. As he rises from prison guard in Toulon to Chief Inspector of Paris, he can take no satisfaction in his achievements while Jean Valjean is free under assumed identities.
But Javert is not a boring, dry figure. He is cruel and takes pleasure in flaunting his power over others. He is unable to acknowledge that some people are forced into criminal behavior by circumstance, not a wicked nature. And his obsession with punishing Jean Valjean blinds his rationality. While a third revolution is stirring in the streets of Paris, he opts to put his officers on the case of finding Valjean.
In a recent appearance at New York City’s BUILD Series, David Oyelowo explained that Javert’s behavior and beliefs are rooted in self-hatred:
“He has a deep sense of self-loathing about his origins (in prison). A hatred for where he came from. He transposes that onto Valjean.”
Watch all six episodes of Les Misérables on Masterpiece using the member benefit THIRTEEN Passport.
More Background on Les Misérables
For a fun crash course in French history that makes clear which uprising we’re seeing in Les Misérables (it’s not the French Revolution) and inserts the events of the novel within a timeline, read the short article, No, It’s Not Actually the French Revolution: Les Misérables and History by Susanne Alleyn.