First-Year Seminar Explores Why ‘Les Misérables’ Remains Relevant

Class watching Les Miserables

Marva Barnett's USEM on Interpreting “Les Misérables,” where the class is watching a student's digital media project

The latest version of the popular musical, “Les Misérables,” will open in movie theaters on Christmas Day. Why have more than 60 million people made “Les Misérables” the longest-running musical worldwide? What is it about Victor Hugo’s 19th-century novel that has prompted directors to make 50 film versions?

Marva Barnett, a French professor in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, posed these and other questions about the novel in a University Seminar this fall. Also director of U.Va.’s Teaching Resource Center, Barnett, with advice from her colleagues and the Robertson Media Center, incorporated multimedia in the course, culminating in a creative final assignment for her 17 students.

University Seminars – or USEMs, as they are commonly called – are taught by prominent faculty, designed for first-year students and “based on ideas that have changed the way we think about our relation to the world around us,” as described on the website.

Assigned to create five-minute digital media presentations exploring a theme in Hugo’s novel, Barnett’s students first took a tutorial in the Digital Media Lab. With assistance from the staff there, they combined visual imagery, music, quotes from the book and their own narration of ideas to explore themes such as divine providence, the power of love, character transformations and societal problems, past and present. The students also conveyed a sense of what the novel meant to them personally.

Barnett, who taught the class in English, is an expert on Hugo and is working on a book about what “Les Misérables” – both the novel and the musical – says about living well.

Against the backdrop of political uprisings in France in the early 1830s, the story centers around Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison after serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. The novel follows the highs and lows of his life as he transforms into an honest, moral man, along with the characters he helps and those who help, hinder or pursue him.

Barnett called it a “story of love, grace and redemption.” She said she is impressed with how deeply her students have come to understand the novel and embrace the power of literature in today’s fast-paced, online world.

“One of them starred as Jean Valjean in his high-school production,” Barnett said. “About two-thirds of them love the staged musical. The others took the course to read a great classic.

“They have been able to step back from their beloved musical version of the story and recognize what theatrical constraints have sometimes done to the story and in what ways the musical is faithful to and, in effect, reinforces the power of the novel.”

Students Katy Greiner, Maria Lee and Ruth Long opened their video with a quote from “Les Misérables”:

“Is there not in every human soul a primitive spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world and immortal in the next, which can be developed by goodness, kindled, lit up and made to radiate, and which evil can never entirely extinguish?”

The trio compared Valjean to another major character, a police inspector named Javert, and their video notes when in the novel each man realizes he has this “divine spark” and how each one reacts to that revelation in very different ways.

Just as television shows give a commentator’s name and affiliation, Lee, Greiner and Long, speaking to the camera one at a time, are identified as “divine spark expert,” “character enthusiast” and ‘“Les Misérables’ analyst.” Their commentary is interspersed with etchings from an early edition of the book.

“I really enjoyed following the characters on their journey and watching them develop,” Long said in the video.

Stretching to nearly 1,500 pages, “Les Misérables” is not an easy read, but Lee said she couldn’t put the book down and has urged friends to read the novel before seeing the movie.

“You gain so much more. The surprises are more powerful,” said Lee, who plans to major in English and physics.

Another student group’s video looked at “Societal Problems According to Hugo: Past and Present,” to assert that Hugo’s work is still “necessary” today. Lhousia Jaring, Alys Herbert and Megan Harper focused on Hugo’s critique of society, which he says in the novel’s preface resulted in “the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labor, the ruin of women by starvation and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night.”

With songs from the musical playing, the students’ video showed how these problems are still prevalent today in the resurgence of prison chain gangs, the international exploitation of women and numbers of neglected children who live on the streets in many countries.           

Their video quotes Hugo, who also says in his preface, “as long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.”

In her video, Rachelle Husband explored how Hugo uses nature as a physical manifestation of “providence,” or God’s love and guidance. Gardens provide an environment in which the characters reflect on providence and feel closer to God, she said in her narration.

In the book, a young couple, Cosette and Marius, fall in love in a garden. “Hugo compares their pure, ethereal love to the work of providence,” Husband said, quoting the novel: “They exchanged the song of the birds, the perfume of flowers, children’s laughter, sunlight, the size of the wind, the starlight, the whole of creation.”

Making it personal, Husband concludes with: “I only need to look up to the sky or walk around Grounds to see providence’s infinite work and masterpiece.”

During the course, Barnett was able to share the personal experience of the actor Hugh Jackman, who plays Valjean in the upcoming film. Through mutual friends from Paris, she and Jackman got in touch with each other earlier this year, exchanged emails and spoke on the phone. In his preparation for the role, he read the novel twice, he told her, and it influenced how he acted the part and sang his character’s songs.

In an opinion piece to be published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this Sunday, Barnett discusses reasons to read the novel before seeing the movie, including some of Jackman’s and her students’ comments.

Even though the course has ended, Barnett and the students plan to see the new film together when they return from winter break in January.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications