Les Miserables is the musical based on an 1862 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. The songs of the main characters touch upon the issues of searches for the sense of existence, their moral choices and primary life values. The songs of the characters represent their feelings and thoughts, initiating listeners into their inner worlds and delivering authors’ messages.
Fantine’s song “I Dreamed a Dream” expresses the woman’s pain about her destiny by contrasting a happy dream and her reality. Fantine is one of the central characters of the musical. She is left alone with her illegitimate daughter Cosette and does everything possible for earning living of her child.
Fantine’s life can be divided into two parts- before the birth of her daughter and after it. Contrasting the two realities, the woman emphasizes the differences between them. The author has chosen the form of a dream for representing Fantine’s youth years because the woman can hardly believe that her life could be different and her happiness in the past seems to her to be so unrealistic as if it were only a night dream.
“I dreamed a dream in time gone by/ When hope was high/ And life worth living/ I dreamed that love would never die/ I dreamed that God would be forgiving” (Les Miserables). Bearing in mind the past time of the whole sentence, a listener can conclude that at present the woman does not consider her life as worth living.
The whole song is based on contrasts which help the author to express the indirect complaints of the character. Fantine uses similes and other language means for expressing her feelings. She compares the lover who betrayed her to tigers: “But the tigers come at night/ With their voices soft as thunder” (Les Miserables). Admitting that her dream was killed with her reality at the end of the song, the woman shows the depths of her despair.
Jean Valjean’s song “Who Am I?” reflects not only the inner conflict of one of the main protagonists as to the moral choice in a concrete situation but also the inner struggle between good and bad in general. The rhetoric questions which are repeated several times in the novel represent the inner dialogue of the main protagonist and his doubts as to the choice between justice and his personal good.
Committing a crime long time ago, Valjean manages to escape the punishment but an innocent man can be convicted instead of him. “If I speak, I am condemned./ If I stay silent, I am damned!” (Les Miserables).
This definition of the moral dilemma and the two possible ways out proves that the conscience has a significant impact on the moral choices of the main protagonist. The numerous questions which are left without answers are a peculiar feature of the song. The central question of the song “Who am I?” represents the searches for the self-concept of the character.
The rhetorical questions intensify the effect produced by the song and the answers are not clear before the climax of the episode, inducing listeners hesitate about the final decision of Valjean. “Who am I?/ 24601!” (Les Miserables). Indicating his number as a prisoner, he implies that the condemned are deprived of basic human rights and even their names. The only question which was answered in the song was central to the scene and makes the answers to the rest of the questions insignificant.
The song “Master of the House” of Thenardiers is written in the ironical key and represents their life philosophy of acquiring money by all means. The first part of the song introduces the owner of the inn and allows listeners to feel the author’s irony and insincerity of the character. “Seldom do you see/ Honest men like me/ Agent of good intent/ Who’s content to be” (Les Miserables).
This presentation sounds like an advertising text and makes the contemporary audience doubt the positive features of the character from the very beginning.
Though the singer puts emphasis on doing favours to the customers, listeners can notice various interpretations of making fortune by delivering the services, namely lightening the purse and paying some extra per cents for sleeping with the closed window or looking in the mirror.
Enumerating the methods and tricks used by the family for making money, the song not only represents the business strategy of the owners of the inn but also shows their mean-spirited nature. Though some of the services offered by the singer for some extra pay can make listeners smile, this is a wet smile because Thenardier can be regarded as a generalized character of the unfair businessmen.
“Here a little slice, there a little cut/ Three percent for sleeping with the window shut” (Les Miserables). The singer mentions the name of Jesus several times during the song, but considering the context of the situation, it is perceived as one of the cheating tricks and does not sound believable. The song “Master of the House” by Thenardiers introduces the characters and intensifies listeners’ perception of their future actions.
Enjolras’ song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” can be regarded as the hymn of the revolutionary students struggling for better tomorrow. Asking if the listeners or his potential interlocutors in the musical hear the people sing, Enjolras, the leader of the revolutionary group, draws their attention to the processes in the society.
The song reflects the revolutionary spirit and the mood of Enjolras and his comrades. The singer enumerates some traditional attributes of a revolutionary movement, such as beating of the drums and banners. “When the beating of your heart/ Echoes the beating of the drums/ There is a life about to start/ When tomorrow comes!” (Les Miserables). Drawing the parallel between beating of the drums and beating of the hearts of the revolutionary students, the author reveals their attitude to the events and their mood.
This rhythmic pattern influences listeners’ perception of the song. Along with romanticizing the goals of better tomorrow, improving the life conditions and preventing slavery, the singer points at the price which the revolutionists are ready to pay for their victory. “The blood of the martyrs/ Will water the meadows of France!” (Les Miserables). Mentioning the victims of the revolution at the end of the song is the climax of the episode, indicating the seriousness of the students’ intentions.
The song “Javert’s Suicide” represents the inner struggle of a misguided inspector before he commits a suicide. The song is intended to show the process of Javert’s reappraisal of life values after his enemy saves his life. The character is unable to find the new sense of existence after the priorities have changed. The inspector cannot understand why Valjean saves him and his life views do not allow him accept this gift.
Several damnations mentioned in the song reflect his desperate condition and intensify listeners’ impressions from his monologue. Considering serving to law and justice his primary goal through the whole his life, Javert associates his inner self with the law itself. “I am the Law and the Law is not mocked” (Les Miserables). This categorical statement represents the character’s life credo which becomes the precondition for his decision to commit a suicide.
The limitations of his life views do not allow him to understand the good will of his enemy and to be grateful to him. After expressing his considerations as to Valjean’s choice, the singer starts asking rhetoric questions, intensifying the tension of the situation. “I’ll escape now from the world/ From the world of Jean Valjean./ There is nowhere I can turn/ There is no way to go on….” (Les Miserables).
Being unable to adapt to the new circumstances and reappraise his values, Javert expresses his doubts as to the sense of future existence in the song “Javert’s Suicide” and concluding that his life is not worth living, throws himself into the water after the last word of the song.
Marius’ song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” reflects his grief because of death of his friends and doubts about the sense of the revolution in general. This song is intended to describe not only physical but also moral wounds of the participants of the revolutionary events. In general sense, the empty chairs at empty tables symbolize the emptiness in the character’s soul after the revolution is over.
Apologizing for staying alive while his friends are dead, Marius expresses his pain because of this hard loss. Admitting that the grief of the character is unspoken, the author doubles the audience’s impression from listening to the song. Marius’ message is rather philosophical as he doubts the sense of sacrificing young lives to revolutionary mottos. “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me/ What your sacrifice was for” (Les Miserables).
The character appeals to his dead friends and it seems to him that he can see their phantoms and it points at his deep psychological trauma. Choosing the words for the song, the author combined the revolutionary terms with the description of the peaceful time, contrasting them. “The very words that they had sung/ Became their last communion/ On the lonely barricade at dawn” (Les Miserables).
On the one hand, incorporating the description of dawn on the barricades, the author contrasts the beauty of the landscape and the ugliness of the revolutionary construction. On the other hand, this description implies that the life continues and the beginning of a new day can be associated with the beginning of a new life. Marius’ song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” establishes the priority of universal value of human life over the revolutionary ideals.
The six songs under analysis represent the feelings of the characters, intensifying the audience’s impressions from the musical Les Miserables. Using various language means, namely similes, metaphors and rhetoric questions, the author influences listeners’ perception of the plot lines, strengthening the tension before the climax of the episodes and delivering the author’s messages.
Schonberg, Claude-Michel and Alain Boublil. Les Miserables. 1995. DVD.