Les Miserables and Social Injustice

My wife and I have long been fans of the musical Les Miserables, so yesterday we took two of our children to see the recently released movie with Hugh Jackman as the lead character of Jean Valjean. We were not disappointed and enjoyed the movie immensely. Of course, a few people have noted some of its imperfections, yet on the whole, it is a very moving experience and fills in a few details that the play could not.

As an aside, I also enjoyed the dramatic movie made a few years ago with Liam Neeson in the role of Valjean. As for the recent musical version, I would encourage you to see it , whether you have seen the play, early dramatic movie or not. If you have seen the play, you will be even more moved by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing how life has killed her dreams. The music is so wonderful, sometimes the everyday tragedy  of social injustice shown in the play is overshadowed. If you have not seen the play, you will also find it enjoyable as did my teenage children.

I wanted my kids to see it for its storytelling and musical beauty, but it was also very good for them to see what poverty and injustice looks like. They have accompanied me on occasion to help with homeless families, but to see it from an omnipotent perspective like this fills in the back story and context for those in need. I mention this as Les Miserables, when translated to English means “The Miserables.” It also is reflective of a world we still live in, even in the United States with over 50,000,000 people in poverty.

There are many stories to be told in Les Miz, but to me there are three main themes of social injustice that resonate today. First, Fantine personifies the lot of many in the movie and in real life here in the US, that many live paycheck to paycheck, especially those in impoverished settings. It won’t give away too much of the story to say Fantine loses her factory job and has to turn to a life of prostitution to provide for her daughter. In the US, 47% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That includes many who are beyond poverty levels, meaning even the lower middle class have just enough money to make ends meet. Those in poverty are living on a wing and a prayer trying to make ends meet, with a significant majority paying more than the needed 30% of their income for housing and utilities to maintain a reasonable standard of living. It should be noted that 40% of all homeless people in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment in the US. To further illustrate this tragedy, of the homeless families the non-profit agency I volunteer with help, 89% are single parent women as head of household.

Second, another social injustice theme is the one between Valjean, an ex-convict who paid dearly for stealing a loaf of a bread and the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe in the movie) who relentlessly chases him for breaking parole. A quick sidebar, Valjean could not get a job with his “scarlet letter” of papers he had to carry with him. However, Valjean repays the kindness and decency afforded him by a priest (played by Colm Wilkinson in the movie who was the original Valjean on the London stage) by doing the right thing and treating others like he wants to be treated. The injustice is the fervent belief by Javert that a thief is always a thief and could not change. What Valjean demonstrates and later tells Javert “you are wrong and always have been wrong.” Valjean, like many, is conflicted with trying to do the right thing and taking advantage of the circumstances to hide from the law. By doing the right thing at great personal sacrifice and cost, he shows Javert you can change. He also learns the priest’s lesson of treating one another with decency and dignity. “There but by the grace of God, go I,” was not said in the movie but lived by Valjean.

Third, and most powerful, is the overwhelming discontentment by those in poverty. There are many more than just Fantine who are exposed to the extreme poverty of the streets. The movie does far more than the play ever could to show the filth and sickness brought about by living in such conditions. If you had a job, it was more about economic slavery, working a tireless, repetitive factory position. You dared not complain or you could be let go or “sacked” per the movie and replaced by another. If you did not have a job, without significant welfare help, people had to beg, borrow and steal. Or, in Fantine’s case, she first sold her possessions, her hair, her teeth and then her body as a prostitute.

Scrolling forward to today’s time, I have written two posts about Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” This could have been the title to “Les Miserables.” One of the misconceptions noted in the Smiley/ West book about poverty, is poverty is not due to a lack of moral virtue. It is not defined by people who do not work hard. Poverty is the lack of money, period. The homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. They work hard trying to make ends meet and do the best they can. In these earlier posts, I have encouraged people to also read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. She lived the life of minimum wage jobs in America on purpose to see if she could get by. Her major conclusion – minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty.

If you are earning at that level, you are beholden to a life of eating cheaper poor food, the inability to afford healthcare, jobs where you are on your feet all day which affects your health and a general lack of sleep as you try to be a worker of multiple 15 – 20 hours jobs and being a parent. And, you dare not complain, as someone else can be brought in right behind you. In Les Miserables, this is why the people rebel. They “have-nots” are tired of being taken advantage by the “haves.” This is also a major lament I have with LIbertarians and many Republicans. We need some regulations to keep things fair. Otherwise, employers who tend to chase cheap labor, will always find someone cheaper to use and let you go. We need some laws to keep things fair for the worker. If you want to advocate a true Libertarian life, go read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Robber Barons treated people just like the “haves” do in Les Miserables.

This is all about social injustice. Unlike people who perpetuate stories about welfare queens, etc. painting many with a broad brush of a few, we need to help people in need. I am all for empowering people to succeed. I am all for giving people opportunity to succeed. Yet, they have to climb the ladder of success. There are many who are not given this opportunity and are shunned as undesirables. They are treated with disdain and without any decency. Let’s lift others up and give them a chance to succeed. Like Valjean, let’s be enablers of success for others. I believe in the words “a community’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its less fortunate.” The less fortunate could also be termed “The Miserables” or in French, “Les Miserables.”


53 thoughts on “Les Miserables and Social Injustice

    • Thanks Hugh. I am trying to sneak up on a few with the Les Miz angle. I have spoken to two church groups about homeless families recently and the statistcis seem to resonate. Take care, BTG

  1. Good post, and sadly, even if some of those who need to read these kinds of posts do read them, they still won’t see themselves, or won’t do anything to change the situation. The rich are aware, they just don’t care.

    • Thanks Barney. There are some big hearted people out there, so they are the ones we need to reach. My only way to reach some people who do not want to lift a finger to help impoverished adults, is to say well let’s focus on the kids then. They did not choose to be homeless or in poverty. If we break the cycle with the kids, they benefit and society benefits as you have a tax paying, productive citizen. I go back to the 2nd place Intel Science Award winner in 2012 was a homeless girl. It is an uphill battle with some. BTG

  2. I have so much to say, but probably too much. Let it suffice that your post moved me to tears, and I have read some of what you mentioned. One of the biggest issues with minimum wage jobs and single mothers is the welfare system. Some want to believe that they are living off of the government unrightfully on welfare, but some of the academic reading I did on motherhood and welfare this semester absolutely refutes that view. I say, where are the men?!? We need to help these women, who can’t afford daycare to work their crappy jobs to supposedly earn their way out of welfare. Also, why is white, middle class motherhood adulated and praised, while poor women of color who are single mothers are denigrated for wanting to stay at home with their children? So many things are wrong with what happens in regards to poverty in this country. Thank you for highlighting that. And I still haven’t seen the new Les Mis movie, but I loved the play and I can’t wait to see it!

    • Emily, thanks for your heartfelt comments. One of your hidden messages is the men need to be more accountable. There is a “reality show” that is forthcoming where a musical artist has his 11 children from various mothers and the mothers living all under the same roof to see what entertainment that might provide us simple minded folks. We have to stop aggrandizing such behavior and tell the boys in men’s bodies that this is not right. We cannot treat women in such a way. To me it both immoral and lacks courage on these boys’ part. This is a key reason I have argued for more birth control and sex education at early ages, so we don’t end up with single, teenage or twenty-one year old mothers. You are dead on accurate about glorifying some married women staying at home while delploring others. Thanks so much for writing. Take care, BTG

  3. Well explicated! Thank you for not just writing about social injustice but also highlighting the disfigurement and disenchantment that it can bring.

    I have decided to subscribe to your blog as a result.

      • You are welcome. I commend you for caring about social issues and the plights of others, and for setting a good example for your children.

        I would also like to inform you that many comments are spams generated by spamming softwares. I have received many of the same ones (identical in every word) myself and most of them are automatically filtered out by Askimet) that you have received and approved on your blog. Please believe me as I care about your blog and what you write to let your blog be peppered and marred by spamming comments that you thought to be genuine, and I feel that I need to let you know on good conscience.

      • Please allow me to include a little amendment here: I should add two words “too much” so that the sentence now becomes as follows: “. . . . I care too much about your blog and what you write to let your blog be peppered and marred by . . . . .”

  4. BTG I was internally debating with myself (and losing – lol) about what to blog about today. After reading this, I know. I will be referencing your wonderful post throughout. I agree with much of what you say. I will also add that poverty is not a “black and white” issue (not referring to race here) Everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum between saintly and sociopathic. The far left and far right are far too quick to make these broad sweeping generalizations you talk about. Common sense is certainly not common in terms of finding practical cost effective solutions that truly meet peoples needs and provide them with the tools to help themselves. THANK YOU! and I’ve seriously crushed on both Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe for years. Will be bringing a few boxes of Kleenex when I sally forth to the cinema. I never saw the play but the book OMG it really resonates through the centuries. We’ve come so far, and we still have so far to go…

    • Donna, many thanks for writing and referencing this piece. I spoke at a church about social injustice and after seeing the movie the next day, it connected for me. I can’t fault you on your crushes, as I have a few on a couple of actresses. I will say you will enjoy seeing your two beaus at the cinema. Kleenex will be necessary by the way. The movie is excellent, but try and go see the play as well. Take care and thanks for all you do. BTG

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    • Thanks Donna for reading and sending folks over. Even when we don’t see I to eye to eye, you are always so patient to make sure I grasp your point. Besides total agreement would be boring. Thanks for spicing it up. You are the best. BTG

  6. This is so well written and thought provoking. I remember our entire class arguing with a teacher when we were about 12 thinking that one person can’t really change much you need more. i didn’t understand then why she got so passionate trying to make us understand that yes one person can change things. I do now. One persons attitude can effect so many and if more people thought like this and spoke up maybe things would get better, and fairer. You really made me stop and think this morning,

    • Thanks Claire. I appreciate that. Please help me bang the drum a little louder, as we need more to hear these kinds of messages. At least two of the wonderful blog writers I follow have a social worker’s background and they echo helping people climb the ladder rather than outright charity. Take care, BTG

    • Jenni, many thanks. I was delighted to see your post on the same subject. I hope the movie will help tell a current story. Thanks greatly for all you do. It makes a difference. You make a difference. Take care, BTG

  7. Great post …. totally agree … if we didn’t fight wars in other countries and tried to put life on other planets – there would be .. money for solve the poverty for the whole world. Charity starts at home.

  8. I have volunteered at a food cupboard through the Quaker Meeting I attend. One of the members of Meeting is a huge voice for the clients who come in for food, going as far as coming up with ways to alter that “poor food” into somewhat healthier alternatives. Her Quaker mission is to feed the hungry and she does an incredible job.
    There I was volunteering and low and behold I see 2 families from the school my children attended. You never know what is going on behind closed doors. These were average middle class families that fell on hard times. Their embarrassment was so painful for me to see, but it made me rethink the definition of “poor.”
    Great post and something close to my heart.

    • Thanks for volunteering. There are more and more folks who are asking for help that never dreamed it could happen to them. The comment about healthier food choices is a good one. Bob Lupton who wrote the book “Toxic Charity” suggested if you could start a food co-op and let people buy into the co-op, you could work with grocers and food pantries to get fresher food. I think he said he did one in the Atlanta neighborhood for $3 a month or something like that.

      • The woman I mentioned fought for the program to provide fresh produce once a week. Philabundance here in Philadelphia heard her plea and now provide the produce on Thursdays. It’s sad that these folks will buy a gigantic bottle of green soda at the dollar store, because it’s a dollar, instead of buying milk.

      • Thanks for sharing this update. People need to make the better choices on what to buy as you said. That was a premise of “Nickel and Dimed in America.” People bought too much fast food as it was cheaper, yet the fried food, grease and salt was killing them slowly.

  9. I followed Life with the Top Down’s reblog. This was beautifully written, thoroughly thought out and an apt comparison to what our civilization is like here. I read earlier this week that we are near the bottom when it comes to income quality — next to Chile. Those of us who care must get off our tushes and help fix the injustices that are everywhere.

    Thanks again for the beautiful piece.

    • Elyse, thank you so much for reading and offering your comments. I agree we need to start acting on this issue. Many still do not see this as the huge problem it is. Thanks, BTG

  10. Social injustice, in my opinion, has its roots in our individual fears that if we give some form of abundance to someone else, somehow that will translate into lack for ourselves. I agree that minimum wage creates poverty. No one can live on what the minimum wage is. And the laments from business owners that they cannot afford to pay more are also rooted in the fear that they will not have enough for themselves. I would ask them how much their own time invested in their business is worth, and why would anyone else’s time in helping to make that business prosper worth any less? I haven’t seen the movie yet. I did see the play, many years ago when it opened in London, and remember being so completely sucked into it that I forgot it was a play!

    Thank you for your thoughtful, and thought-provoking, post! All the best! M

    • Margarita, many thanks for your comments. I agree about your comments about the fear it will take away from themselves. My thesis is simple. When business in America downsizes and pays low wages, it affects their consumers ability to buy things. Since we are a retail sales culture, when people buy less, it has an echo effect. If you treat people right, they will remain employed with you longer and everyone will benefit. Thanks for your time and thoughtful comments. BTG

  11. I came over from “Life with the Top Down”, and all I can say about your piece is, been there, done that. My wife and I used to live in the Chicago suburbs, living a tight but comfortable life on my one salary. Then, my periodic migraines became permanent, I lost my job and house, and ended up down here in Ohio, living in a friends’ spare room. We’ve managed to claw our way up to an old falling-apart house in a dying town, but we have no health care, no savings, and my wife works two jobs at minimum wage just to scrape by. We live better than we should because I’m not afraid to garbage-pick stuff and repair it, and can do a lot of auto and home repair work myself.
    But it sucks. Trust me, from the inside, it looks even worse than from the outside. And since “migraines aren’t a male health problem”, we get ZERO outside assistance. I’d love to move closer to civilisation, but don’t see that happening, even with Obama-care helping with the medical costs. And our 25 year old car will have to soldier on for a few more years, I hope.
    I’m not complaining – it’s my hole, and I’ve become inured to the unfair treatment. But when Romney shoots off his yap about 47% “depending on the government”, well, maybe he should spend a year in my shoes. Then maybe he wouldn’t be so ready to demonise so many people trying so hard just to LIVE.
    Okay, soapbox is put away. Thanks for letting me vent, and VERY well done!

    • John, many thanks for sharing your story. I hope all readers scroll down and see what it looks like from your perspective. Your tenacity and handyman skills serve your family well. You are a credit to them. I spend a lot of time talking in front of groups of church members and I try to impress upon them how hard people in poverty work, yet it is still an uphill battle with many and uninformed bullshit that people like Romney espouse do too much damage as they are throwing fuel on a fire. Best wishes in your constant battle to climb the ladder. Please keep being a voice to others to share what it is like. Take care, BTG

  12. Could some of these impoverished people be part of the 47% that Mitt Romney referred to? He obviously sees these people as being in their position because of their own bad choices. That’s a mindset that I see too many right-wingers embrace, including the religious right.

    • Thanks for your comments and questions. The 47% does include these folks and many more who are living paycheck to paycheck, but would not described themselves as impoverished. It never ceases to surprise me by those who think “these people” are in their predicament due to an absence of moral virtue or work ethic. To the former, poverty = lack of money. It has nothing to do with being less virtous in the eyes of God. As for the work ethic, I would invite people to read “Nickel and Dimed in America.” These folks tend to work their hind end off. 84% of the homeless families we help have a job(s). Yet, the median pay is $9 per hour for the family. Thanks for writing. BTG

  13. This is not just an American problem. Hubby lost his job last month, 2 days before bonuses were due to be paid. He is 62 & it’s hard to find another employer who will take him on at this point. I have been out of work since August. I have some health problems which are making it extremely difficult to just go out & get another job. It’s hard to find a job where you don’t need to walk anywhere or bend or lift. We are facing discrimination of a different kind here, with little or no savings to lean on. I am finally getting some employment insurance, but it is still tough.

    • Lynda, thanks for sharing your story. Two sidebar comments – does your country have any Age Discrimination protection? In my country, if you feel that what happened to your husband is in some way connected to his age, he could file a claim. Second, did he get his bonus and was he due one? You may want to take a look at his Bonus legal plan (or scheme if you are in Great Britain) and see what are the requirements for payment. I am not a lawyer, so please do not construe any of this as legal advice. The “two days before” comment gives me pause. Best wishes on your efforts. BTG

      • We checked with the Labor Board of Alberta & he was not entitled to his bonus because he was not in the company’s employ at the time of the Christmas party. Also, they informed us that employers do not have to give a good reason to let an employee go as long as they give at least 1 weeks notice. His company gave him 1 week’s pay. Their stated reason “Does not fit into the culture we are trying to create within the company.” When asked for clarification, they declined to answer & no one can compel them to answer since they gave him a week’s pay in lieu of notice.

      • You already know this, but that is pretty cold hearted. Your only saving grace is to recognize the people left saw what happened and will vote with their feet when opportunities present themselves. Take care, BTG

  14. First time I saw the show I wept through much of it. It came at a pivotal time in my life. I nearly stood up and yelled THATS NOT TRUE when the policeman said Valjeans sins would not be forgiven. But the plot agreed with me.

    • Thanks George. I have seen three versions of the movie and the play, and have been moved by them all. But, this last movie which marries the music with the injustice is particularly moving. I very much enjoyed your last post, by the way. Thanks, BTG

  15. When I first saw the musical I was in tears throughout. It touched me at so many levels. When javert sang that people cannot change I wanted to stand up and cry out, “that’s not true”! But the plot proved me right.

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  17. Note to Readers: A new Les Miserables mini-series by the BBC is airing its final of six episodes on PBS Sunday night. Screenwriter Andrew Davies brings forth an excellent version with a good cast. Dominic West plays Jean Valjean with David Oyelowo as his zealous nemesis Inspecter Javert. Lily Collins plays the tortured Fantine, with enviable performances by Ellie Bamber as Cosette and Josh O’Connor as Marius.

    I became acquainted with O’Connor from the cast of “The Durrells in Corfu.” In this version, we learn more about Marius and why he is an advocate for those in need. I think a mini-series allows that kind of expansion.

    West does justice to Valjean in a more physical role. He played recently as the father in the latest Lara Croft and I first saw him as the leader of the band in “Rock Star.”

    To me, it is worth the watch. I look forward to seeing the final show, even though the ending should not be a surprise.

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