History Professor Jonathan Kuiken Examines French Revolution for Local PBS Event

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In preparation for the six-part dramatization of PBS Masterpiece, Les Miserables, WVIA will host a panel discussion with special guests including Wilkes University’s assistant professor of history Jonathan Kuiken as they set the historical and literary context of the production. The event will be held April 7 from 3-6 p.m. at the WVIA Public Media Studios.  News@Wilkes sat down with Kuiken to hear more about his expertise of the French Revolution.

Q. What will you be discussing during the WVIA event?

A. The WVIA representatives asked us to speak a little bit about the historical context of the story’s setting and also the context of the period in which Victor Hugo wrote the novel.  My colleague from Marywood University, Alex Vari, will be speaking about the situation in France during the 1820s and 1830’s (when the story is set) and I will be speaking about Victor Hugo’s political and philosophical views and how they were influenced by the turbulence of post-Napoleonic France.

Q.  Les Miserables has been remade many times. Why do you think there is such enduring interest in this story as well as in this time period in history?

A. Hugo was not just a brilliant writer and story teller, but also an incisive social critic.  I believe that is what gives Les Miserables its enduring appeal and its ability to be constantly reinterpreted. The story itself is wonderful; it is filled with great characters and the drama that is central to the story is easy to get swept up in.  But more important than that, Hugo is making some important points about issues such as grace and forgiveness, the balance between legality and justice, how social and economic inequality leads to political instability.  These bigger themes are as relevant today as they were in 1862 when Hugo finished the novel. 

Q. Why do you think it’s important to talk about historical events such as the French Revolution in non-academic settings? Will your approach be different on this panel than it is in the classroom at Wilkes?

A. Discussing history and historical events such as the French Revolution and its aftermath… is vitally important in today’s world.  People tend to talk about and use history a lot in our contemporary political discourse but very rarely do we actually take the time to discuss how things occurred, and even more importantly, why they occurred.  When we look at history in this way, not just as a set of facts, but rather as a set of questions and interpretations, we can constantly seek out new ways of thinking about the past.  This, hopefully, helps us to avoid mythologizing the past and instead allows us to see it as the messy, complicated and fascinating reality that it actually was.  Bringing this kind of discussion outside of the classroom is one of the goals of every historian and is how we train our history majors here at Wilkes.  With that in mind, I’m not planning on approaching this panel terribly differently than I would a class.  While the audience won’t have the advantage of weeks of background knowledge, I think we can still ask the same types of questions in trying to understand the past.

Q.  Why should people in 2019 care about the French Revolution? What lessons and perspectives can we take away from it in modern day?

A. The story of Les Miserables, which is set about forty years after the first French Revolution (which began in 1789) and was written about seventy years afterwards, show us how the legacy of that great event was disputed almost immediately and continues to be to this very day.  Like the American Revolution which preceded it, and the Haitian, Latin American and many other revolutions which followed it, the French Revolution was about a potent, yet difficult to define idea.  This idea is that all people are equal.  This is an easy thing to say, but what does it actually mean to be “equal?”  During the French Revolution this question divided the revolutionaries almost immediately.  What kind of society and government should we create to promote and protect “equality?”  The fact that the Revolution swung wildly across the political spectrum shows us that there is no easy answer to this question.  And that remains a very important point in today’s world.  As we see in many countries, including our own, the difficulty in coming to a consensus on what it means to be an “equal” society still dominates our political discussions and debates, and has led to social divisions and friction.  The Gilets Jaune/Yellow Vest movement in France, and one could say some of the protest and activist movements in the United States at the moment, are just the latest iterations of this fundamentally unresolved issue. 

Q. What is your favorite element/aspect of the French Revolution to teach?

A. History can often be told as a story of elites such as kings, generals or great thinkers.  While these people are obviously important, one of my favorite part of teaching the French Revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848 and beyond is discussing how quickly ordinary people became passionately involved in the political arguments, debates and events of the time.  Showing students that even poor peasants and workers who had little formal education cared deeply about, and participated in, debates over rights and equality is an important lesson for us today.  Our political fate need not rest solely in the hands of kings, presidents, legislators or judges.  Being involved and getting your voice heard is a crucial part of having a healthy body politic. 

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