Is Crime or Dishonesty Ever Okay?-Les Misérables

Les Misérables is a book written by Victor Hugo that is set between the years 1815 and 1832. Since the release of the book in 1862, it has been adapted into a broadway musical and a movie. But I’m not here to talk about the history of Les Mis and why you should definitely see/read it (which you should). No, I’m here to talk about one (of the many) elements of crime and dishonesty in the movie adaptation, which just so happens to be in the first few minutes as to not spoil too much of the story.

(If you would like to follow along with the music, the song is called “Look Down”.)

First off, some background. The first scene is of prisoners serving their time under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert, the main antagonist in Jean Valjean’s story. Keep in mind that this whole first scene is in song, like most of the movie. When the prisoners are all leaving, presumably to their barracks or for food, Javert calls for Valjean and they sing back and forth. This song is very important to the story, as it describes why Valjean is in the prison, the reason being for stealing a loaf of bread and breaking a window pane to feed his nephew. This is the first instance of crime in the story. Valjean served 19 years for this crime, five for stealing the bread and the rest for running from the authorities. At the end of the song, he goes on parole but because he served, he must carry around a yellow ticket-of-leave with him, which makes finding a job or place to stay impossible. Now to you this may seem like a bit much for stealing a loaf of bread but in 1800’s France, in a time of great depression, this was a heinous act. But we have to ask ourselves, “was this crime justified?” In my humble opinion I would say yes because if you were put in the same position, either steal bread or let your sister and her son die, I’m willing to bet that you would do the same. The running from the authorities is not as justified though. But, to accurately form an opinion on the matter, I would need to know what exactly caused him to run. Did he not want to be captured? Or was there a bigger reason as to why he ran for such a time that would warrant fourteen extra years to his sentence?
I hope this post has inspired you to think about crimes in a different way, that way being from the perspective of the person committing the crime. If you would like to talk more about Les Misérables or crime in general, feel free to comment and I will get back to you as quickly as I can.

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4 thoughts on “Is Crime or Dishonesty Ever Okay?-Les Misérables

  1. Hey there! I just wanted to answer your question about why he got so many years for running. In the brick, it explains that four times during his sentence he tried to escape. Each time, he was caught and sentenced to an additional three years, except for the second time, when he resisted rearrest and so was sentenced to five (three for running, two for resisting.) So that’s how he got 19 years: 5 for stealing the loaf of bread, and 14 for his four escape attempts and resisting arrest. Hope that clears it up!

    I really like your analysis here. I think the issues are quite complex and it’s very hard to give a simple yes or no as to whether crime is ever justified. Certainly, however, that is an important theme explored in this story. I realise that you are talking about the musical here, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book at all, but one thing I’ve always loved about the book is that there are so many characters who embody different motives for crime, ranging from justifiable to reprehensible.

    Of course, first and foremost we have Jean Valjean (who, interestingly enough, came to the conclusion that his theft was not at all justified, although I think his author and us readers tend to be a lot more forgiving). He stole out of desperation, and though he struggled thereafter to live an honest life, his past kept coming back to bite him.

    There are characters who engage in crime simply because of a combination of laziness and greed. For example, the Thenardiers, who didn’t make their living by honest means even when they owned an inn. Another interesting example is the murdering, thieving dandy, Montparnasse, who is young and fully capable of work, but prefers to be idle. There is a scene in the book where Valjean offers to help him get set up in an honest line of work, and Montparnasse responds only with disdainful sarcasm. Clearly, he has chosen his criminal lifestyle, not turned to it for a lack of other options.

    Then there is Gavroche, who is portrayed as pretty much innocent by Hugo, and who engages in a kind of Robin Hood-esque thievery. Though he has nothing, he’s always looking to help others. What makes his good-heartedness especially remarkable is that he was cast aside by his parents and raised by the Parisian streets.

    There are so many more examples I could talk about, but I’ve already prattled on for quite long enough! Sorry for rambling so, but I find this topic so fascinating, and I love Les Miserables very much.

    Thank you for such an intriguing post!

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I was so happy to see that someone had commented on my work and with so many more examples! Thank you for clearing up why he got so many years added to his sentence, I had seen some things floating around but I didn’t want to say in the post if I wasn’t 100% certain. I have seen the movie countless times and in it you don’t really get to know the characters that well so I was very intrigued while reading your examples and about why they partook in crime (and now I have an urge to stop procrastinating my reading of the book. I’ve only just met Valjean.) Again, thank you for commenting!

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  2. You know, as daunting as the book looks, it’s actually not a difficult read once you get into it. Hugo knew how to pack a book with subtle humour, complex characters, and realistic dialogue/thought processes. I’ve read smaller books that I had a harder time finishing. I hope you’ll make more thoughtful posts like this one on the book when you’ve read it, as I’ll be interested in your take on things! And in the meantime, more posts like this on the movie. I haven’t read much analysis on that.

    The nice thing about Les Miserables is that whether you read the book or watch the movie or go and see the musical, the heart of the story is there. Which is good, because it’s such an important story, but not everyone has time to read such a big book.

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