Les Misérables is universally popular, most likely because it is an exquisite example of what Leo Tolstoy called "true art." The great Russian writer said the purpose of art was to "break down the prison of the soul; to release us from the bondage of ourselves." He believed art is a "transfer of emotion," and one of the most important ways in which we communicate with one another and "feel connected."
The art of Les Misérables - steeped in appeals to humanism and spirituality - has the capacity to make us care more about the plight of all human beings when it entreats us over a rousing musical score to "look down and see the beggars at your feet, look down and show some mercy if you can."
Les Miz can remind us that every human life is as valuable as our own. With lines such as "to love another person is to see the face of God," we might just feel more empathy for those whom Jesus called "the least of these."
In a world where many of the prosperous scorn the impoverished for their "lack of ambition," and where real intolerance persists for people of different races, religions, or classes, the enduring message of Les Misérables is sorely needed.
Hugo's concern for social equality is well-documented. In his preface to the novel, he wrote: "So long as . . . the three problems of the age - the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the crippling of childhood by the lack of physical and spiritual light - are not solved . . . so long as ignorance and misery remain on Earth, books like this cannot be useless."
That eloquent understatement radiates transcendent truth. The truth that when listening to the musical's stirring finale, and hearing the lyric "for the wretched of the Earth there is a flame that never dies," a viewer may feel Tolstoy's "transfer of emotion." It is a transfer that started with a flame lit by Hugo's passion for social justice and that now, a century and a half later, burns in the hearts of audiences worldwide. It is a flame that "breaks down the prison of the soul" and, if the aim of Hugo's art is true, we may "feel connected."
What better time for this gift of transference than when we try to carry the spirit of the recent holiday season into a brand-new year?
Tom Frangicetto is a songwriter from Langhorne who specializes in Christmas music. E-mail at email@example.com.