Les Miserables

What Les Miserables Teaches Us About Men

Les Miserables - the longest-running musical in history, a blockbuster movie hit, now appearing on the New York Broadway mainstage - contains poignant life lessons about the purpose of life, forgiveness, and love. Victor Hugo’s compelling Jean Valjean characterizes the common human experience of deep internal struggle between burning vengeance and conversion to love through forgiveness. Often overlooked, though, is another central thread interwoven throughout the novel, which carries deep significance for men in modern society. Hugo’s subtle lesson told through Jean Valjean answers the question, what does it mean to be a man?

Traditional masculinity in modernity has become a nebulous notion, due in large part to the ever-fluctuating economic, marriage, and education landscape. For example, the knowledge economy ushered in greater need for roles requiring knowledge management, naturally befitting women since they now graduate from college at greater rates than men and receive 159 graduate degrees for every 100 awarded to men. Gender balance at work is skewed in favor of women who now boast a higher employment rate, being less affected than the male counterparts during The Great Recession. Many “soft skills” commonly associated with the female sex - such as empathy, compassion, and higher emotional intelligence - leave women’s contribution to the workplace at greater demand than ever before. No-fault divorce and child alimony laws now often leave men barricaded from their biological children’s lives, while offering monetary support for offspring they may rarely see. Although countless studies illuminate the immeasurable contribution of fathers for the stable upbringing of both sons and daughters, 25% of all American families with children are run by single mothers and according to the NCAAMP study, only 29% of children in African American families live with both married parents. Fathers are increasingly less involved in their children’s lives, and the shifting gender dynamics affects interpersonal relationships, as well.   

The University of Chicago Pew Study found that women report higher levels of marital satisfaction when the man is the primary breadwinner in the family; men seemed to share the sentiment and reported decreased happiness levels by 61% when women earn more of the family wage. Yet, the recently-released documentary, “The Big Flip,” explored the rising phenomenon of women surpassing men in earning status with many fathers choosing to stay at home and raise the family. Books like “Save the Males,” “The War Against Boys,” and “The End of Men” top bestseller lists while social scientists pen books sporting titles like “Why There Are No Good Men Left” and “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.” Overall, men seem to be left dazed, confused, dumb and dumber, with little notion of the role they are meant to play in broader society.

Mainstream media’s portrayal of men mirror these trends. Less than 20% of media reflects positive portrayals of manhood, according to author J.R. Macnamara who penned “Media and the Male Identity: the Making and Remaking of Men.” Instead, the haphazard and hilarious “man-child” character, often typified by actors such as Adam Sandler, Steve Carrell, and Will Ferrell, provide commentary toward the masculine social climate, while also shaping these conditions. Historically, men would grow up and get married, shedding childhood for the entree into adulthood and its responsibilities of building a stable life and family. Now, the average age of men’s first marriage continues to climb, hovering at 30 and up to mid-thirties for men in some large American cities some sources say. Interestingly, these trends fall short of realizing some men’s true desires, however, as 80% of men and women report the life goal of marriage as “important”; 19% of men who turn 25 wish they were already married. Still, in the face of a deep recession and climbing divorce rates among Americans with lower education levels, what is an average Joe to do?

Valjean’s character provides an answer that could reorient the way men conceptualize their masculinity. Hugo pierces the ambiguity surrounding traditional masculine roles by his central point: men find their masculine identity from, in, and through fatherhood.

Hugo illuminates that masculine identity is passed down from man to man, a result of the fatherhood tradition. Hugo portrays the Bishop of Digne’s identity as intimately united with God the Father in holiness, while he also typifies the role of “father” to his community. When the Bishop encounters Valjean, he is but a shell of his former self, having internalized the identity given to him - “number 24601” - during nineteen years of imprisonment. Being in close communion with God the Father, the Bishop as father hands Valjean a new identity.

The Bishop called Valjean out of his reductionistic self-perception as a mere convict - in Valjean’s words, “they gave me a number and they murdered Valjean” - to take on a new identity. In the symbolic movie scene, the Bishop offers Valjean the gift of the candlesticks saying, “what we have, we have to share.” As the gift passes from hand to hand, the Bishop challenges Valjean to step into the nobility of who he could be as a man with the words “See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.” The Bishop bestowed upon Valjean a new personal identity as a man, evidenced in the lyrics “he gave me hope when hope was gone; he gave me strength to journey on… Who am I? I'm Jean Valjean!” It is only when the Bishop of Digne shows mercy and “bestows upon him a soul” that Valjean grapples with his true identity. His encounter with love and mercy, but also with fatherhood, offers him the opportunity to step through the doorway into noble manhood.

After receiving a new identity from the Bishop father, Valjean’s own manhood is fulfilled when he comes to understand himself as a father. Although himself honest, successful and hardworking, Valjean fulfills his own self-understanding through his adoption of Cosette and becoming a father. He enters the cycle of fatherhood and his happy involvement in Cosette’s life expands when he adopts Marius as a son in the song, “Bring Him Home,” with the words, “he’s like the son I might have known.” After entrusting Cosette to Marius’ loving care, he fulfills his identity as a man at the closing scene where he returns to his heavenly Father in death. He walks into the open and loving reception of heaven, where the Bishop of Digne awaits him, pleased at his long and noble life. In the movie scene and lyrics, one can almost hear the Bishop thinking the words, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Valjean’s example bears as much significance for modern men as in the tale. He stumbles through life in search of identity, impulsively acting on the identity that had been imposed on him in prison, to encounter fatherhood and become fulfilled through fatherhood before returning to his father. Hugo offers a beacon of hope and a compass for modern men in the cycle of fatherhood. In the face of changing trends, cultural ambiguity, and conflicting messages about who men should be, men can find an anchor through encountering fatherhood - either spiritual or earthly - and entering into the experience to find a stable identity, belonging, and honor.

Excerpts from my original article first appeared on Acculturated