The Debts of Les Miserables

Okay, this morning I had a thought hit me that I shared on Facebook. Now, for the explanation.

All of the characters fall into one of two categories: debt collector or debt payer.


JVJOf the debt payers, the most obvious is Jean Valjean. The story begins in the movies with him paying the last day of a nineteen year sentence. He tries to find work outside of the prison to no avail, and ultimately resorts to thievery to try and accomplish his means. When that works in the most unexpected way, Valjean vows to put an investment of silver to the best use, which becomes a lifelong debt that he is forever paying. He opens a factory, then another. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s at a time where people were lucky to have a job, even if it was a job they didn’t like. He personally rescues Fantine, then Cosette, then the stranger who happens to look like him all out of that debt. Yet he never saw himself as a debt collector. When Cosette is established and Marius’s wife and royalty, he slowly pulls himself out of her life, knowing that he is and always will be the weed that grows from the poor cobblestones.

Of the collectors, look no further than Javert. He defines this better than any other example of authority, discipline, law, javertjustice, or fair action I’ve seen, read, or heard. He’s the first to point out why Valjean served those nineteen years slave to the law. I’m pretty confident he could have done that to every prisoner under his watch.

What the movie won’t show you is why we ‘no nothing of Javert, [he] was born inside a jail [he was born] with scum like [valjean], he is from the gutter, too’. His mother was a gypsy and his father was a legal antagonist. He was born within the confines of prison, and grew up seeing clearly the law and those who broke it. From this he concluded that there are two types of people who are above the law: prisoners and those who enforce the law. Prisoners often never got to see freedom, so adding punishment on punishment meant little to them. They didn’t worry about who was in charge of the country, the political standing of those next to them, they only had to worry about surviving the day. Bartering and begging ran through prisons like an underground current, creating its own culture.

But, all of that took place within confines. Those who upheld the law had carte blanch to do what needed to be done, be it steal, assault, destroy, or even kill. That was the way Javert had to go, so he became the best at it. So much so that he claims it was his right to die when Valjean had him at weapon point in the barricade. Justice said he should be dead. Justice demanded it, and he would satisfy justice. He couldn’t be comfortable being in debt to anyone, much less a thief who had lied and succeeded in escaping from prison (useless information: the second time Jean Valjean went to prison, his number was 9340, not 24601). If he was not going to be a collector, he could not be. 

Fantine is the most tragic example of a debt payer. Not because she died as a result of becoming a prostitute, but because she partially brought it upon herself, and her situation is socially acceptable in today’s culture. Yes, she did get extorted, more or less, from the Thenardiers, but that was only half of the battle. When she got a job at the factory owned by Monsieur L’Mayor, she saw how much money she was making and immediately thought herself rich. So she went shopping and filled an apartment for her and her daughter to be happy. She was still paying off those debts when the foreman fired her. With debts mounting, she was forced to sell what Victor Hugo called her two great inheritances: her hair and her teeth. This is where I appreciate the 2012 version. The scene where Fantine is getting her hair cut is actually Anne Hathaway getting her hair sheered for a role.


Fast forward to today. It’s estimated that the average household has 23,000 dollars of debt, the average college graduate has 33,000 in debt, and credit cards still come pre-approved. We shop for our wants and hope we have enough left over to pay the bills.

When receiving an award for her role as Fantine, Hathaway comments

“Here’s hoping that someday, in the not too distant future, the misfortunes of Fantine will only be found in stories and never more in real life.”

We can’t ignore that the majority of that will be us mastering money, instead of it being our master.

Speaking of the Thenardiers, they are the example of how not to be debt collectors. We’ve already figured we don’t to be a heart of stone like Javert was, but nor do we want to be so fluid as to see that ‘everything has got a little price’. They collect, make no doubt about it, but they’re going to be as wild as the Fae-folk about it. When Fantine hands care of Cosette to the Thenardiers, there’s no contract, no idea of what could be charged, or when, or why. So, it’s no wonder Fantine got letter after letter explaining doctor’s bills, clothing expenses, Cosette broke something, ruined some clothing, and she had better be able to pay for it. Fantine’s mistake was trusting that unspoken bond of understanding that all mothers share. When it comes to manipulation, nothing is sacred. Nothing. For further reading on the subject, try reading Games Criminals Play.

Those are the main players, and I’d have to go back and re-read before I’m confident theorizing about the ABC, Marius, or Cosette. But, that’s the beauty of Victor Hugo’s novel. You can’t tell Valjean’s story without telling Fantine’s, nor can it be complete with the Thenardier’s or Javert’s. They can’t be told on their own without the others.


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