Les Mis & Society: Do You Hear The People Sing?

Since Les Miserables, the movie, has come out, everyone I know is in a fever about the musical and the story. It’s a wonderful story, full of hope and tragedy and stirring music, and it’s one I’ve loved for many, many years. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about why everyone appears to dislike Cosette, the pretty blonde girl who gets the guy in the story, and love Eponine, the spurned “friend-zoned” waif who pines after the leading man.

Well, I’ve only got one answer to that. It’s because most of us are Eponine, not Cosette.

And I’m going to interject here and say, no spoiler warnings for a 150-year-old story, guys. Come on.

Eponine begins the story as a princess of privilege. She’s got everything she wants. Cosette is the waif who undergoes being unloved and abused. And then the tides turn – Cosette is rescued by Jean Valjean and is borne off to a life of privilege where she ends up getting everything she wants in life. Eponine, by some fault of her own, and mostly the fault of her parents, ends up poor, hungry and desperate on the streets of Paris in the 1820s. She’s a skilful street rat – and she gets everything she wants by clawing her way towards it.

It works until it doesn’t, and her life as a child has no bearing on her life as an adult except in how hard she fights to just live.

She’s relatable because most women know what it’s like to be completely ignored by the person we love the most. She’s relatable because every woman has felt ugly and unwanted, cast aside by people who are supposed to be friends. But I feel like Eponine is more than just a symbol of thwarted love. She’s basically one of the most miserable of all of “Les Miserables” – because her story can’t ever end happily enough to affect her in the moment. Her story is different and sadder than many of the other characters in the book.

I feel like sometimes, that’s what it’s like living in a society where women are considered second-class citizens. Where gay and trans people are considered disgusting and unnatural. And where First Nations have to fight for the right to be treated the same as other Canadians are. It’s hard. There are flashes of hope. There are people who “stand up for the right to be free”, but end up being crushed under by the loud and angry majority.

However, while Eponine dies without the person she loves and without any friends, she dies fighting for a revolution that will eventually change her society altogether.

I feel like that’s what keeps me fighting for social justice. I said to Annabelle, one of my close friends, that sometimes I felt ashamed to be Canadian. And what a horrible thing to say, right? But I do. I feel ashamed that I live in a society that looks down upon the stewards of the land. I feel ashamed that next door, we had an election that mostly fought about women’s rights and the right for rape victims to be able to claim “real rape” (hint: it’s all real rape). And I feel bad that every day, I discuss things with people who want to put down my opinions, to call me a bleeding-heart liberal who doesn’t actually understand society. That I should just “shut up” and “keep my opinions to myself”.

Hmm. Just like Eponine, told that she’s “in the way” everywhere she turns.

But like Les Miserables, we’re fighting a revolution that IS on the verge of breaking through. Idle No More is gaining steam. The leaders of the land have taken notice of the problems plaguing First Nations. A president got in across the border that is willing to stand up for the rights of women and GLBTQ people. There’s hope on the horizon. In India fighting for gang rape to stop. In France considering passing laws that allow gay people to adopt.

When Eponine died, she died in the arms of the one she loved, fighting a cause she believed in. Maybe we should take a page out of her book and realize that some things are too important to put aside. Some lives won’t ever end like Cosette’s, happily ever after. Some things are worth fighting for. And some fights affect us all. We are all treaty people. We all deserve to be equal. We all deserve to find “a world we long to see beyond the barricade”.

How apt that a 150-year-old story about part of the French Revolution has merit today.

I relate to Eponine because on some level, I am her.

What about you? Do you hear the people sing?

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