Historical Background of Les Miserables:
To truly appreciate the musical Les Miserables, a general understanding of France's historical timeline is warranted. When I first learned about the musical, I was in my teens. Looking at a poster of young men waving flags while standing atop a make-shift barricade, I assumed that the story was set during the French Revolution. But of course, I was quite wrong.
The story of Les Miz begins in 1815, more than two decades after the start of the French Revolution. According to The DK History of the World, the revolution began in 1789; it was "a deep-rooted revolt by many classes against the whole order of society." The impoverished were infuriated by their economic hardships, food shortages, and the callous attitudes upper class. (Who could forget Marie Antionette's infamous line about the public's lack of bread: "Let them eat cake"?) However, the lower classes were not the only angry voices. The middle class, inspired by progressive ideologies and America's newly won freedom, demanded reform.
Storming the Bastille:
Finance Minister Jacques Necker was one of the strongest advocates of the lower classes. When the monarchy banished Necker, public outrage ensued throughout France. People viewed his banishment as a sign to come together and over-throw their oppressive government. This provides a striking contrast to the events in Les Miserables, in which the young rebels erroneously believe that the masses will rise up to join their cause.
On July 14th, 1789, several days after Necker's banishment, revolutionaries overtook the Bastille Prison. This act launched the French Revolution. At the time of the siege, the Bastille maintained only seven prisoners. However, the old fortress held an abundance of gunpowder, making it both a strategic as well as a politically symbolic target. The prison's governor was ultimately captured and killed. His head, and the heads of other guards, were skewered onto pikes and paraded through the streets. And to top things off, the mayor of Paris was assassinated by the end of the day. While the revolutionaries barricaded themselves in streets and buildings, King Louis XVI and his military leaders decided to back-off to appease the masses.
So, although Les Miz does not take place during this era, it is important to know about the French Revolution so that one can understand what is going through the minds of Marius, Enjolras, and the other members of the Paris Uprising of 1832.
The Reign of Terror:
Things get messy. The French Revolution starts out bloody, and it doesn't take long for things to become utterly gruesome and gory. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are dethroned in 1792 (despite his many attempts to offer reform to French citizens). In 1793 they, along with many other members of nobility, are executed. During the next seven years, the nation undergoes a series of coups, wars, famines, and counter-revolutions. During the so-called "Reign of Terror," Maximilien de Robespierre, who was ironically in charge of the Committee of Public Safety, sent as many as 40,000 people to the guillotine. He believed that swift, immeidate justice and widespread terror would produce virtue among France's citizens -- a trait found in the Les Miz character of Inspector Javert.
The Rule of Napoleon:
While the new republic struggled through what could euphemistically be called growing pains, a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte ravaged Italy, Egypt, and other countries. When he and his forces returned to Paris, a coup was staged and Napoleon became First Council of France. From 1804 until 1814 he bore the title of Emperor of France. After losing in the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the island of St. Helena. Although Bonaparte was a fierce tyrant, many citizens (as well as many of the characters in Les Miserables) view the general/dictator as a liberator of France.
The monarchy was re-established and King Louis XVIII assumed the throne. The story of Les Miserables is set in 1815, near the beginning of the new king's reign.
"At the End of the Day":
In Les Miserables, the audience witnesses a population plagued by decades of oppression, warfare, economic strife, famine, and disease. Despite all of the revolutions and changing political parties, the lower classes still have little voice in society.
The musical reveals the harsh life of the lower class, as exemplified by the tragedy of Fantine, a young woman who is fired from her factory job after it is discovered the she bore a child (Cosette) out of wedlock. After losing her position, Fantine is forced to sell her personal belongings, her hair, and even her teeth, all so that she can send money to her daughter. Ultimately, Fantine becomes a prostitute, falling to the lowest rung of society.
The July Monarchy:
Jean Valjean promises the dying Fantine that he will protect her daughter. He adopts Cosette, paying off her greedy, cruel caretakers, Monsieur and Madame Thenadier. Fifteen years pass peacefully for Valjean and Cosette as they hide in an abbey. During the course of the next fifteen years, King Louis dies, King Charles X takes over briefly. The new king is soon exiled in 1830 during the July Revolution, also known as the Second French Revolution. Louis Philippe d'Orléans assumes the throne, beginning a reign known as the July Monarchy.
In the story of Les Miserables, Valjean's relatively tranquil existence becomes imperiled when Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young member of "Friends of the ABC," a fictional organization created by author Victor Hugo, one that mirrors many of the small revolutionary groups of the time. Valjean risks his life by joining the rebellion in order to save Marius.
The June Rebellion:
Marius and his friends represent the sentiments expressed by many free-thinkers in Paris. They wanted to reject the monarchy and return France to a republic once more. The Friends of the ABC strongly support a liberal-minded politician named Jean Lamarque. (Unlike the Friends of the ABC, Lamarque is non-fictional. He was a general under Napoleon who became a member of France's parliment. He was also sympathetic to the republican ideologies.) When Lamarque lies dying of cholera, many people believed that the government had poisoned public wells, resulting in the deaths of popular political figures.
Enjolras, the leader of The Friends of the ABC, knows that Lamarque's death may serve as an important catalyst to their revolution.
MARIUS: Only one man and that's Lamarque speak for the people here below... Lamarque is ill and fading fast. Won't last the week out, so they say.
ENJOLRAS: With all the anger in the land how long before the judgment day? Before we cut the fat ones down to size? Before the barricades arise?
The End of the Uprising:
As depicted in the novel and musical Les Miserables, the June Rebellion did not end well for the rebels. They barricaded themselves in the streets of Paris. They expected that the people would support their cause; however they soon realized that no reinforcements would be joining them.
According to historian Matt Boughton, both sides suffered casualties: "166 killed and 635 wounded on both sides during the course of the struggle." Of those 166, 93 were members of the rebellion.
MARIUS: Empty chairs at empty tables, where my friends sing no more...