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One Good Thing: Les Mis is here to complicate your joy

Why sewer systems are the key to understanding Les Mis.

The lit marquee for the Broadway show “Les Miserables.” Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images

Do you hear the people sing?

If you’re a former theater kid, a casual fan of French history, or any one of the millions of people who’ve seen any form of the longest-running musical in London’s West End, you probably just broke out into song.

Singing the songs of angry men, it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.

Once you start, you can’t stop.

I dreamed a dream in time gone by …

There, out in the darkness ...

There’s a song for every emotion: love, heartbreak, anger, despair. Les Miserables, the musical based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling 19th-century novel about French revolutionaries, has launched a million dreams and memes.

But whether you’re a superfan who wants to fight me about the novel’s 100-page Battle of Waterloo digression or whether Nick Jonas was well-cast as Marius in the 25th anniversary concert (I’m down on Waterloo and up on Nick), or just sort of remember seeing the movie 10 years ago, Les Miserables is something that sticks with you. And that’s because it’s one of the few pieces of art that manages to capture basically everything about humanity.

The musical has, in many ways, overtaken the novel in the cultural imagination. The songs in Les Mis are so catchy that they become the be-all and end-all of the piece, something to be sung on road trips and, for many people, completely divorced from the story. But what gives those songs their gravitas are the themes of Les Mis: It’s fundamentally about misplaced justice and social inequality. The key to not taking the songs of Les Mis for granted is looking more closely at the book the musical is based on.

My first job out of college was in economics research. I lived in Zambia and interviewed people about a sewer system that was supposed to be built in the next couple of months. The sewer system was planned for a “peri-urban” neighborhood located in the space where the city met the countryside. Every month, they would wait for it to be built, and every month, it was not built. Every winter, because of the lack of a sewer system, the streets flood, and cholera sweeps through much of peri-urban Lusaka.

This doesn’t, at first, seem like it has to do with Les Mis. But as Victor Hugo, the author, wrote: “The history of men is reflected in the history of sewers.”

Les Mis is set in 19th-century peri-urban Paris, which is completely removed from the reality of many upper-middle-class Americans, and so is easy to think of as only a musical set piece for romantic and revolutionary songs. But this setting looks a lot like many peri-urban areas today. The “justice” system that puts Jean Valjean, one of the characters at the center of the story, in prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family looks uncomfortably like modern America.

At the end of Les Miserables, Valjean has a confrontation with his former pursuer, the cop Javert, who has no sense of mercy, in the Paris sewers.

In this part of Les Miserables, the book, Hugo goes on a massive digression about the sewer systems of Paris: their history, their present, and the possibility for social progress and hygiene through their cleaning.

This is what Hugo is dealing with in the book: inequality, injustice, and what happens when you have a massive urban and peri-urban environment where people are going hungry. He digs into how it’s really bad when people don’t have functional sewer systems and they are driven to revolution. He explicitly states this in his original epigraph!

“As long as social damnation exists, through laws and customs, artificially creating hell at the heart of civilisation and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century — man’s debasement through the proletariat, woman’s demoralisation through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness — are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view, as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are, perhaps, not entirely useless.”

Social novels provide a map of the conditions that drive people to revolution and force people to look at the worst parts of the society we create. But, as this review of the book says, Hugo’s own words above provide a limited vision of what his book does. Literature does what economics cannot: It provides not only policy prescriptions that allow more people to live, but provides the reasons for living.

The musical might not quite get across the social gravity of the novel, but it gets across the human part well, showing through music and dance the infinite range of human experience. The combination of what people remember — catchy songs — and what people forget — serious social commentary — is what makes Les Mis so brilliant.

The reason the revolutionaries in Les Mis are fighting and Hugo is writing is 1) for things like better sewer systems or social programs, and 2) because of the options these sewer systems provide to live. Eponine should be worried about cholera; Eponine also sings a song that anyone, anywhere who has experienced unrequited love can understand. Les Mis starts with an exploration of an unjust justice system and provides an answer in the mercy of the Bishop and the life of Jean Valjean.

That’s the genius of good art; it’s the genius of Les Mis. The memes are good. The singing is great, and the jokes, and all that, because that is what makes us human. It’s not here to kill your joy because joy is what makes us human — it’s here to complicate it. It says there is poverty, there is hunger, and it makes us inhuman to ignore it and not work toward social progress. And yet, there is joy, there is love, and there is beauty and forgiveness and mercy.

Ultimately, we want a world where humans are thriving. This is a world with functional sewer systems and a world with singing. Les Miserables, in all its forms, gives us a vision for both.

You can read Les Miserables for free here. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.