Hull relates the history behind ‘Les Misèrables’

By Jenny Finch

Reflected in the pools of blood and demonstrated
by the ringing gunshots throughout the movie, “Les Misèrables” is the long and
tattered history of the French people and their fight against their monarchy.

“Les Misérables”
is a French
historical novel
by Victor
first published in 1862, that is considered one of the greatest novels
of the 19th century. It has been
popularized through numerous adaptations for the stage, television and film,
including a musical
and a 2012 film version
of that musical.
Nominated for eight Oscars, “Les
Misèrables,” has finished its run at Fulton Cinema, but can be seen through
Thursday at Hollywood Stadium 14 in Columbia. Show times are 12:30 p.m., 4:25
p.m. and 8 p.m.
During a lecture last week at
William Woods University, Dr. Shawn Hull, associate professor of history, recounted
the events surrounding “Les Misèrables” and the facts of the story itself.
“What prompted me to do
this,” he said, “was that I was deeply unsettled because I didn’t
know when the story took place.”
Hull, who is also the chair of the behavioral
and social sciences division, originally believed the story to have taken place
during the revolution of 1830, when in fact the movie cites it as taking place
during the revolution of 1832.
He pointed out, though, that France
was awash with revolutions from about 1789, when the famous French Revolution
began, until 1848, when Napoleon the Third came to power.
However, Hull’s speech did not
revolve around the failures of each revolution, but the heart of the
revolutions themselves.
“Obviously there’s something
going on in France. Why do people keep having revolutions?” Hull asked at
the beginning of the presentation. The silence of the audience is deafening, and
after a moment he replies, “Liberty, equality and fraternity.”
Fraternity, Hull explained, is a
sense of nationalism, or the brotherhood of mankind.
Hull used Liberty Leading the People,
a painting by Eugène Delacroix, during the presentation as an example of these
concepts and their popularity among the French people at the time.
The central figure of the painting
is a woman adorned in tattered clothing and grasping the French revolutionary
flag. Hull described her as a “metaphoric figure … much like the Statue
of Liberty.” This powerful painting depicts the events of the revolutions
of 1830, but could have depicted a number of scenes from that troubled era.
The revolutions of France began
after the reign of Louis the XIV, whose economic troubles and the resulting
unhappiness of the French people led to his beheading in 1793.
The following years were
characterized by gruesome deaths and haphazard politics until 1815, when most
of the crowned heads of Europe attempted to regain their thrones.
Against their better judgment
perhaps, these nobles ignored the French Revolution and attempted to carry on
as though it had never happened. Nevertheless, the unease of the people,
coupled with the rise of industrialization, made Europe into what Hull
described as a “bubbling cauldron” on the brink of explosion.
On July 26, 1830, the pressure that
had been building in France finally exploded, resulting in a revolution that
lasted only a few days and caused the abdication of Charles X, who had come to
power in 1824. This marked a shift in power from a constitutional monarchy to a
liberal constitutional monarchy, ruled by Louis Philippe.
“Even though the people risked
their lives on the barricades, the politicians did not really trust them,”
said Hull, explaining that the country’s previous bad experiences with
democracy left its leaders suspicious.
Despite this, the slums of Paris
where much of “Les Misèrables” takes place, were filled with a sense of
“There was a sense that the
revolution had been stolen from them,” explained Hull.
Movie goers who watch “Les Misèrables”
will see not only a portrayal of the Revolution of 1832, but also a depiction
of the sewers in Paris during the period. These are more important scenes than
many observers realize.
While the revolution of 1832 was temporarily successful, its success was slowed
by an outbreak of cholera, during which 18,000 people died. Cholera, a disease
transmitted through fecal matter, causes its victims to “lose all of their
bodily fluids and shrivel up like raisins,” Hull said. It was rampant
throughout Europe in the 1830s.
Louis Philippe finally lost his throne in 1848 during yet another revolution.
But this revolution was different and resulted in the successful election of
Napoleon III, whose famous uncle conquered a large portion of Europe.
Three years later, Napoleon III staged
a coup and declared himself “President for Life.” Despite this, Napoleon III
proved to be a successful leader, partially because of Haussmannization, which
was essentially a reordering of the city.