Foils and Stars in Les Mis

The comparisons between Javert and Valjean are innumerable: I’ve heard comparisons between the two ranging from the Old Testament and New Testament, to the change affected by taking responsibility for actions (and indeed, the newest movie version highlights the religious comparison in particular — perhaps a post yet to come on that. But what is interesting are all of the mirroring foils, perhaps unintended but present, nonetheless.

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Russell Crowe as Javert and Hugh Jackman as Valjean (2012)

But the parallelization of characters continues throughout the work. Enjolras and Marius are perhaps the clearest foils to one another, particularly as shown in “Red and Black.” While some like to see Cosette and Eponine as foils (and, in fairness to those, there is a symmetry to the characters: one dark and one light, both youthful, one born to poverty and rising to wealth, the other born to wealth and falling to poverty — and both, forever bound by their love for Marius) I prefer to see Fantine and Eponine as being foils. Cosette, pretty, sweet Cosette, is never more than a prop for the story. Cosette is the embodiment of hope, but she is never, ever a character.

les-miserables-marius-and-enjolrasEddie Redmayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras (2012)

The two student revolutionaries appear to be extremely similar at first glance: both devoted to their cause, both educated young men (and thus presumably of some wealth, as played again the time). Enjolras is clearly in a higher position of leadership, and acts almost like an older brother to Marius. While some read Enjolras as a plot point — a characterized fact to the revolution — he works better as the stasis against Marius’s changing philosophy: a kind of Javert to Marius’ Valjean.

Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the end of night at last

The initial words, sung by Enjolras, are nothing more then a rallying cry — there’s no depth to them, nothing but rhetoric, and it is debateable how much meaning there is to them. It is still pure political philosophy. While there’s no doubt that Enjolras believes in the cause, it is his later words that make it clear how dedicated he is:

Do we fight for the right
To a night at the opera now?
Have you asked of yourselves
What’s the price you might pay?
Is it simply a game
For rich young boys to play?
The color of the world
Is changing
Day by day…

The new movie version adds some additional depth to the character: look to his face when the people do not rise to join the students in the revolution: there’s a sense of recognition of impending doom. This Enjolras recognizes that he is a fighting a lost cause, and that his death will be in vain. Nonetheless, his devotion to the cause, and to those with whom he fights, overrides any personal desires. He has, in fact, no desires outside of the revolution: like Javert, he is bound by duty. And like Javert, that duty fails him, and ultimately leads to his death.

By contrast, look to Marius character, who at the beginning is fully in line with the cause: but the moment they resolve to go to war, that determination wavers. The moment he sees Cosette, it falls to the wayside.

Had you been there tonight
You might also have known
How the world may be changed
In just one burst of light!
And what was right
Seems wrong
And what was wrong
Seems right…

Cosette is not his beloved — she can’t be, having seen her once and met her for but a few minutes. What she is, however, is a way out — she becomes his hope and salvation. When he believes that she is lost, he once again commits to the cause — and when he finds her again, we hear no more of the revolution. This is not to say that Marius is less brave than Enjolras — perhaps the opposite. He is committed to the cause for love — love of his fellow students, of the older brother represented by Enjolras. He does not have the steadfast faith in the cause itself, but rather an ever-changing ideology and philosophy born of those around him, born of love and change.

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Lea Salonga as Fantine (left) and Eponine (right)

Which brings us, finally, to Fantine and Eponine. Unlike Javert and Valjean who are deliberate foils, and Enjolras and Marius who are subtle, perhaps unintentional foils, Fantine and Eponine have no apparent connection. They never meet in the musical, are of different ages, and serve starkly different roles. Yet, in looking at them, they have the same core and different manifestations — identical to their other pairings. Both were born to modest means, and fell to abject poverty (Fantine when her father left her, and Eponine along with her villainous parents). Fantine plays the static role here: she determines, before the story begins, that she lives solely to support her daughter, and her story arc follows her fall as she does just that. Unlike Javert, she willingly gives up her own moral code: but her guiding cause is her ultimate defeat. She cannot stop supporting Cosette, even when it leads her to prostitution, consumption, and eventual death.

On the other side is Eponine. There are, of course, a variety of methods of playing Eponine: as a sympathtic lover, as a young girl with a crush. But perhaps her most understandable portrayal is of someone who doesn’t fit in, not anywhere. She has, somehow, grown up too good to live in the underworld with her parents. Neither does she fit in with the hyper-masculine world of the revolutionaries. She and Fantine both are the production’s outcasts, the ones with no family and no support. She is the incarnation of Fantine in the latter Act — the character who suffers for love, without any return. But Eponine is willing to change and adapt: she switches between carrying messages between Marius and Cosette, to hiding love letters, to fighting beside him on the barricade. Where Fantine felt that she had to follow the highest calling — to give her daughter a life better than her own — Eponine chose to suffer alongside Marius, instead.  Just as with Javert and Valjean, and Enjolras and Marius, neither woman is more right or good — they are simply different manifestations of those moral codes that run within all of humanity.

Ultimately, that is what the musical is about — it is not about Valjean’s redemption, which is accomplished in the first few scenes, nor about Javert’s (for what does he have to redeem himself, after all? He who commits no sin). It is most certainly not about the French Revolution. It is these slight comparisons in characters, in creeds, in which there is no good or evil, no wrong or right, but a sense of finding belonging in another person, and finding the hope in the darkness, whether that is the sense of direction brought by the stars, or the love of another.

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About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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