WASHINGTON — Following the “Les Miserables” incident on Christmas Day, I suspect I will never convince my teenage sons to attend a movie with me again. At various moments of high emotion — and there are few other kinds in a movie — their father was a sobbing, embarrassing mess. And I agree with them that weeping for the imaginary suffering of fictional characters played by highly paid actors requires explanation.
I could blame biology. There is a neurochemical basis for empathy. People who view a hand being touched respond with the same sensory portion of their brain as if they had been touched themselves. Humans have an extraordinary talent for feeling the distress expressed in other faces — particularly when Anne Hathaway's gaunt, anguished face is two stories high, crying tears that could fill a baby pool. Hormones spike, unable to distinguish between real and imagined images. The lacrimal system produces and drains tears. Charles Darwin, that old sentimentalist, said, weeping is “an incidental result, as purposeless as the secretion of tears from a blow outside the eye.”
But this is not quite true. Emotional tears, it turns out, have a different chemical composition from the tears that moisten our eyes. And empathetic tears, so far as we know, are not expressed by any other species. Showing vulnerability appears to serve the evolutionary purpose of building communities of cooperation and mutual support. We would help poor Fantine if we possibly could.
People have been attracted to Victor Hugo's “Les Miserables” for more than 150 years. At 1,400 pages of suffering, vulgarity, pity, fury, revolution, worship and self-sacrifice, comprehensive is the right adjective. Other great romantics reveled in nihilism. Hugo gave the brief for life.
Part of Hugo's message of empathy was political, calling attention to people — especially poor women and orphans — who seemed “as though they were on a planet much further from the sun than we.” When Hugo took in refugees from the Paris Commune of 1871, a conservative mob besieged his house chanting, “Death to Jean Valjean!” That is the reality a fictional character can assume.