So this perhaps the most tricksy part of all of this – how do we know that this musical engages with whiteness? Part of the answer is because it doesn’t engage with anything else. To be unconcerned with race in the autumn of 1985 is a luxury only whiteness could allow; being indifferent is a privilege only whiteness would embrace.
Within visual arts, Michael Berger’s study of whiteness argues that ‘a decidedly racialized perspective animated even those cultural products most removed from racial concerns.’[ii] Richard Dyer’s influential study of ‘representation of white people in white western culture’[iii] calls attention to the way in which whiteness is reproduced as both an embodied and spiritual characteristic. He says whiteness is more than an approximation of a particular colour of skin tone, but rather it involves ‘something that is in but not of the body’.[iv]
Dyer lays out four key ways in which whiteness is constructed, all of which can be seen within Les Misérables in both the novel and in the musical: ‘how bodies are rendered [white] by the aesthetic technologies of light’; ‘the muscular white male body’; ‘the narrative (in) capacities of the white feminine bodies’, and ‘the deathliness of the white body’.[v]
Valjean’s muscular body
Dyer’s tropes of whiteness can be seen throughout the central character of Valjean, who either embodies or interacts with these tropes in both the stage musical and novel, however the persistence of these tropes through the musical adaptation is itself significant. In the musical, Valjean’s muscular white body reveals his identity when he is on the run, because he is so exceptionally strong that he is able to transcend physical limitations through using his superhuman strength in selfless acts of charity.
The first evidence of Valjean’s strength is shown in the ‘Prologue’ number, he is working in a chain gang; where the repeated musical phrase which underscores ‘look down’ demonstrates the sheer labour of the prisoners. Valjean is released by the warden, Javert, after serving a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread (a period extended by his multiple attempts at escape). After he is paroled, Valjean tries to find work but is prohibited by his ex-convict status; desperate, he steals a candlestick from the kindly Bishop Myriel who has taken him in for the night. Discovered by local police, Valjean is saved by the Bishop’s benevolence, he pretends the silverware was merely a gift. Valjean is so shocked by this kindness that he gives his soul to God, tears up his parole paperwork and embraces a new identity – effectively going on the run. Valjean’s existing physical strength now becomes the testament to his new (inner) spiritual endeavour.
We next meet Valjean 8 years later, reborn as a bourgeois factory owner and Mayor, but his physical strength is quickly revealed. When a cart crashes crushing its driver beneath it, Valjean is warned by others not to go near else he risk its weight or its load of acid falling on his head, but he ignores the warning and lifts the cart, the driver calls him a saint ‘sent from God’.
Javert is reminded of a similarly strong man who broke his parole many years previously, but assures the Mayor that the criminal ‘Valjean’ has been captured: haunted the real Valjean debates whether he should let this innocent man take his place. Accepting his ‘soul belongs to God’ Valjean frees the innocent man by opening his shirt to reveal his prison number branded upon his chest.
The muscular body is revealed twice, both through the rescue and showing his chest – but both actions demonstrate Valjean’s spiritual righteousness. During the ‘Confrontation’ sequence Valjean knocks Javert out, but only because he has promised Fantine that he will rescue and take care of her daughter Cosette: Fantine tells Valjean ‘you come from God in heaven’.
Dyer’s work on this trope focuses on 1950s peplum movies, where he notes that while revealing the white male body is a risky strategy since it is rather a flimsy place for so much to power to reside: ‘there is value in the white male body being seen’.[vi]
Valjean’s physical strength is always an embodiment of his spiritual righteousness: something that other characters struggle to comprehend. When the plot jumps forward a further nine years, now an old man, Valjean goes to the barricades to protect his daughter’s great love Marius, as Marius sleeps he sings the benediction ‘Bring Him Home’ over him. Valjean completes one further act of great physical strength to rescue the injured Marius from capture and certain death; he carries the unconscious Marius through the sewers of Paris for several miles.
This extreme physical act of strength reaffirms his willingness to endure suffering to pursue a righteous end; Dyer notes ‘the spectacle of white male suffering typically conveys a sense of the dignity and transcendence in such pain.’[vii] Marius remains unaware of who saved him until he much later realises that Valjean was ‘my saviour that night’, he tells his wife ‘your father is a saint’ shortly before Valjean’s death.
Dyer has noted that racist and quasi-scientific approaches used to explicitly position white men as at ‘the highest point of earthly creation, linked via the angels to God.’[viii] Though this is not exactly what is happening here, Valjean’s multiple acts of rescue and charity constantly echo his superior spiritual status.
Indeed, antagonist Javert is so unable to reconcile his spirituality with Valjean’s benevolence towards him that he kills himself (both in the novel and musical) by falling into the darkness of the Seine; Javert’s faith cannot process the ‘extra’ charity that Valjean shows, so he chooses to die and concede to the darkness (in the terms of the lyrics). Dyer notes that ‘the really white man’s destiny is that he has further to fall (into darkness) but can aspire higher (towards the light)’[ix].
In the next and final part we turn to the women of Les Misérables: and consider how they can be seen to demonstrate Dyer’s tropes of whiteness, especially when it comes to death.
[i] Richard Dyer, White: Essays in Race and Culture (London: Routledge, 2013), 14.
[ii] Martin A. Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California, 2005), 19.
[iii] Dyer, xiii.
[iv] Dyer, 14.
[vi] Dyer, 147.
[vii] Dyer, 28.
[viii] Dyer, 22.