“Les Miserey” of the Unrequited
If you haven’t seen the new Les Miserables motion picture, finish reading this post first, then grab your tickets on fandango. The music, and the story, is stunningly beautiful. It is emotionally vigorous. It is theologically rich. And it is soul-transforming.
Ok, maybe these promises are a little high, but for one who was wondering if Hollywood couldn’t produce anything except super-hero remakes, endless sequels to previous blockbuster mega-hits, or anything with vampires… although Les Miserables is also a borrowed story, it is a true and beautiful story to be retold.
Although The Two Cities has been graced by reviews of one of the stories most centralized themes or law and grace, it also pulls on the emotional strings of the heart, and the puts questions in the mind: unrequited love.
<Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead>
In the story, Eponine, the street urchin daughter of crooked and failed innkeeper, is in infatuated love for Marius, a handsome son of nobility who finds his identity more closely aligned with the students of political rebellion. Yet, his heart is for Cosette- the passive and docile foster-daughter of the protagonist, Jean Valjean.
In one of the musical’s most beloved arrangements, Eponine’s desperate voice makes the tear-ducts break in her soliloquy that tells of her longing for her love:
And now I’m all alone again nowhere to turn, no one to go to
without a home without a friend without a face to say hello to
And now the night is near
Now I can make believe he’s here
Sometimes I walk alone at night
When everybody else is sleeping
I think of him and then I’m happy
With the company I’m keeping
The city goes to bed
And I can live inside my head
On my own
Pretending he’s beside me
I walk with him till morning
I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me
In the rain the pavement shines like silver
All the lights are misty in the river
In the darkness, the trees are full of starlight
And all I see is him and me forever and forever
And I know it’s only in my mind
That I’m talking to myself and not to him
And although I know that he is blind
Still I say, there’s a way for us
I love him
But when the night is over
He is gone
The river’s just a river
The world around me changes
The trees are bare and everywhere
The streets are full of strangers
I love him
But every day I’m learning
All my life
I’ve only been pretending
His world would go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known
I love him
I love him
I love him
But only on my own
Some modern interpreters argue that Eponine is in fact the most interesting character of the story. Her fate of unrequited love is certainly one of the most relatable, as it pricks the heart of many a teenage girl. Recognizing the power of her empathy-educing character, one must ask: is the mixed feelings of compassion and affection the production evokes from the crowd really the right response, and is the beauty of sacrifice for unrequited love really a think to be admired… and imitated?
Whereas Jean Valjean begins the story as the redeemed new man, who’s conscious decisions to deny the impulses of his old self, and to sacrifice his all (wealth, security, comfort, freedom, identity) on the altar of self-denying service, by this stage he travels through the narrative almost as a redeeming Savior figure amongst the world of “Les Miserables” around him- the miserable, the victims, the wretched, and the poor.” We have seen the misery experienced Valjean- that is, the suffering of the righteous servant in a broken and graceless society where “the Law” almost seems to obscure justice itself. Through the almost Mary Magdalene like Fantine, we see the pain and the death that befalls the true victims of a greedy, raping, and heartless world. In Cosette, the beauty of innocence and passive hope. In the Thenardier’s, the decrepit ugliness that results in trying to play by the rules of greed and gain. In the student revolution, the ill fate that befalls the naïve idealist.
Likewise, Eponine and her poverty are the victim of her parent’s shameful ways. However, her tale of unrequited and sacrificing love for Marius captures the audience’s attention like a sweet rose growing from a soil of waste. This is because in Les Miserables, love is the catalyst for redemption in the lives of its tortured characters. Fantine is redeemed by her love for Cosette, as is Valjean (in addition to his self-less love for all mankind). And through love, Eponine’s neglected passion for Marius saves both his life from a revolutionary martyr’s death, but saves herself- from reiterating the sins and of her parents by pursuing a life-style that looks out for self-benefit at the expense and demise of others.
Through Eponine we see that the tentacles of love are complex. While love drives her on one hand to be an admired heroine, she is also much to be pitied. She demonstrates the love of John 15:3, love that “lays down one’s life for one’s friends.” Yet, the ultimate result of her sacrifice is not the virtuous victory of freedom fighters over systemic tyranny (the victory of the Revolutionary Barricade Rebellion). Nor is it the redemption of Marius that in any way resembles that of Valjean. Her life is lost to preserve the silly, shallow, and hormone driven eros of Marius and Cosette.
So, what can we discern of Victor Hugo’s philosophy of unrequited love? Certainly the romance between Cosette and Marius is painted as immature, as if to suggest that what was preserved by unrequited love’s sacrifice was not worth the high cost of a humble and generous life. Yet at the sametime, the marriage and “life ever after” realized by Marius and Cosette becomes the reward and the finish line of Valjean’s life of loyalty. Their fortune embodies both the completion of Valjean’s Odyssey, and longed for climax of the story that sees the blameless-miserable (Cosette) reborn as the deserving recipient of blessings and security. Thus, the consequences of unrequited love are both tragic, yet beautiful…redemptive, yet destructive.
So, is unrequited objectively evil, or good? Foolish, or respectable? I believe the answer is that true love is exalted as the great and infallible good. Yet, true love is not embodied in every character. Began with the Bishop Myriel, the love of the cross- the love of Jesus- is slowly portrayed in the sanctification of Jean Valjean. And as Valjean’s life and journey intertwine him with the lives of others, we see lives with glimpses of this love, tainted by a world of sin. In some ways, Eponine’s story is a parallel to Fantine- both love so dearly, and they give their own lives because of this love. Fantine’s weakness leads her to surrender herself to the darkness and near hopelessness. Eponine’s life is offered in gritty emotional power, but the sacrifice is tainted by questions around the purity of unrequited love’s intentions, as there is always a dose of selfish-ness and self-pity tainting this picture of love.
Unrequited love is perhaps one of the world’ most universally felt emotions. Yet, although we can tend to victimize ourselves, and attempt to purify these feelings of love, we must remember that it falls short of true charity, and that such love could by nature never exist in a sinless world. Although tempting and confusing, we must not let unrequited love make deceive us into feeling as holy martyrs when our souls are truly in need of more healing, and of more fully understanding the Love of the Cross as different than the love of our flesh. True love leads to redemption. Unrequited love can lead to false or at least imperfect tales of sorrow and loss.