‘Do you permit it?’: An analysis of the Enjolras and Grantaire relationship in ‘Les Miserables’

Aaron Tveit and George Blagden as Enjolras and Grantaire.

Aaron Tveit and George Blagden as Enjolras and Grantaire.

Les Misérables is a story populated with interesting characters and complex character dynamics that have intrigued, fueled imaginations and even sometimes frustrated its fans for years.  However, among this colourful cast of characters and never-ending stream of possible character dynamics, there is one relationship in particular which seems to fascinate Les Misérables fans of every stripe.

The dynamic that exists between the fiery revolutionary leader, Enjolras, and the cynical, sarcastic, and more-often-than-not drunk, Grantaire is one that has captured the attention and imaginations of fans regardless of the adaptation.  So what exactly is it that makes this seemingly unlikely pair such a hit?  The answer, much like the relationship itself, is much more complex, and far more interesting, than one might initially think.

The best place to start when discussing the overwhelming appeal of the Enjolras-Grantaire dynamic (frequently referred to in the fandom as E/R) is with the way in which Victor Hugo wrote the relationship between the two characters.  From the very beginning,  before he even addresses the two of them in relation to one another, the audience is given a very distinct picture of the dynamic that exists between Enjolras and Grantaire, simply through the ways in which he introduces them.  Even in the order of their introduction – Enjolras is introduced first, Grantaire last – as well as in their descriptions, Hugo sets up a binary between these two characters: alpha and omega, absolute believer and complete skeptic, leader to Les Amis and tolerated hanger-on.

However, rather than drive a palpable wedge between them, Hugo opts instead to make a point of binding these two characters together by pronouncing that “there are men who seem to be born to be the reverse, the obverse, the wrong side […] their existence is not their own; it is the other side of an existence which is not theirs.  Grantaire […] was the obverse of Enjolras.”  This equating of Enjolras and Grantaire to historical and mythological duos such as Castor and Pollux, Orestes and Pylades, and Euryalus and Nisus creates dependence between the characters which is acknowledged by Grantaire but, at the outset, rejected by Enjolras.

From there, the dynamic between Enjolras and Grantaire develops in a series of exchanges in which Grantaire puts himself close to Enjolras, who attempts to reject him outright and send him away, but is unable to discourage the other man’s presence, as the discouragement is met with either stubbornness or mockery.  Each time, Enjolras expresses skepticism at either Grantaire’s ability to help or his motivations for doing so and Grantaire responds with a combination of absolute sincerity and sarcasm.

Arguably the most important moment in the E/R dynamic, however, is their last moments.

Having slept through the entirety of the fighting, ignored for dead by the national guardsmen, Grantaire awakens from his drunken slumber to find Enjolras cornered by soldiers in the upper room.  Immediately upon recognizing what is going on, Grantaire gets the soldiers’ attention and takes his place beside Enjolras before telling the guardsmen to “‘Finish both of us at one blow.’”  However, Grantaire does not just decide to die beside Enjolras – he turns to Enjolras and asks him a simple question: “‘Do you permit it?’” to which Enjolras responds with a simple smile and presses his hand before they are both executed.

Victor Hugo lays down a very strong baseline for adaptations and fans to build on and interpret.  The relationship between Enjolras and Grantaire is at once very clear and incredibly open to interpretation, and perhaps it is because of that simultaneous clarity and mutability that the ways in which the dynamic is treated by both actors and fans is so widely varied.  It is difficult to make the argument, for example, that Grantaire is not madly in love with Enjolras – but what can be debated and interpreted in any number of ways is what exactly that means.  For surely there are as many different interpretations of the term “love” as there are ways to see Grantaire’s relationship to Enjolras.

Within varying adaptations of the novel, and performances of those adaptations, there are a near infinite number of ways in which the dynamic between Enjolras and Grantaire can be handled.  The actors playing Enjolras and Grantaire can play up a sense of intimacy between the characters, take an extremely subtle and more subtextual route with it or even try to play it in an entirely different manner.

Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser as Enjolras and Grantaire.

Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser as Enjolras and Grantaire.

A classic case of a pair of actors playing up a sense of intimacy between Enjolras and Grantaire to great effect can be found in Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser’s performance of “Drink With Me” during the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert.  During this number, the two rely almost exclusively on body language to get across the way in which their characters feel about one another.

Between the extremely subtle shifts in expression and posture that Ramin’s Enjolras makes while Hadley’s Grantaire is singing and the fact that from the line “Could it be you fear to die?” and onward, Grantaire very pointedly does not look at Enjolras – even starting to, only to look away again – until a full two to three seconds after he has stopped singing and the chorus has come in, their interpretation of Enjolras and Grantaire’s dynamic is one that is both conflicted and friendlier – at least on the part of Enjolras – than what appears in the book.

However, it is the moments directly after Grantaire’s solo is over that are the most striking about their rendition of the E/R dynamic.

Almost immediately after his verse is over, Grantaire looks at Enjolras for a moment before turning away to leave, but is stopped when Enjolras grabs his arm.  He jerks away initially, but after a short, unheard conversation, he stops and reaches up to rest his hand along the nape of Enjolras’ neck before they both exit the stage.

Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser as Enjolras and Grantaire.

Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser as Enjolras and Grantaire.

It is this set of conflicting reactions – Grantaire turning to leave and his reaction to Enjolras stopping him, combined with the curiously intimate, almost tender gesture of Grantaire’s hand on the nape of Enjolras’ neck, which makes Ramin and Hadley’s interpretation of the E/R dynamic so striking.  Their interpretation follows a similar pattern of interaction as in the novel, but with the addition of a very ambiguous intimacy between the two characters which is entirely open to interpretation – it could be platonic, it could be romantic, it could be any number of things, but what is relevant is that, as in the novel, there is clearly a bond of some sort between them – in this case, the actors chose to make it a more palpable bond.

George Blagden as Grantaire.

George Blagden as Grantaire.

By contrast, in Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation, the intimacy levels between Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras and George Blagden’s Grantaire are nigh non-existent.  However, despite, or perhaps because of this, the E/R dynamic in the film is just as striking.  In this version, there is absolutely no real physical contact between Grantaire and Enjolras, and the majority of what the audience gets by way of the development of their dynamic is through Grantaire’s baiting during “Red and Black” – which pulls in the novel version of Grantaire’s willingness to use sarcasm and mockery to lure Enjolras into responding to him, and through the subtle glances and body language that marks Grantaire throughout the film, both in reaction to Enjolras and to Enjolras’ interactions with other characters.

In large part, the credit for the development of this dynamic in the film can be said to fall to George Blagden, who in an interview with Stage Door Dish in February, said that while on set, he “realized that actually not talking to Aaron about it at all was the perfect way to create that subtextual thing between Grantaire and Enjolras” and subsequently reacted to Enjolras in character, creating a dynamic in which the actor playing Enjolras was not in on the process, because as he put it, “I don’t think Enjolras should [know].”

The result is a dynamic that could have been entirely one-sided, but instead is fueled by the reactions of Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras, which ranged from irritation (during “Red and Black”) to a somber wistfulness (during “Drink With Me”), and which lends a particularly painful note to each small flicker of expression, both positive and negative, that crosses Grantaire’s face.

Aaron Tveit and George Blagden as Enjolras and Grantaire.

Aaron Tveit and George Blagden as Enjolras and Grantaire.

Most importantly, these subtle interactions build on each other in order to create the final scene between them, because part of what gives that scene its power in the novel is Enjolras’ previous failure to accept Grantaire – his rendering of Grantaire as “an unaccepted Pylades.”  Yet, in that moment – when Grantaire wakes up, and rather than holding still and possibly surviving, makes the conscious decision to die beside him, and even asks for permission to do so – that moment is when Enjolras finally understands, and so he does not just give his permission, he “press[es] his hand with a smile.”  If he were fully conscious and aware of, or even accepting of Grantaire’s devotion the entire way through, this moment might not have been as powerful as it was and so in this case the decision to play the E/R dynamic as a very nearly one-sided one pays off enormously.

However, what is immediately apparent is that both of these extremely differing approaches work.  Both the played-up intimacy of the 25th Anniversary concert and the one-sided pining of the 2012 film are highly celebrated by fans, and both are accepted as very much being representative of the dynamic between Enjolras and Grantaire.

This may seem like an odd thing, but in reality it points to the fact that both of these extremely different portrayals have at their root the very same base: the notion of Enjolras and Grantaire as an inseparable pair – two very different sides to a coin.  The rest, while still important, is mutable and open enough to interpretation that these two performances are both not only recognizable as what they are, but are considered by the fanbase to be powerful portrayals of the dynamic..

If there is anything to be learned from the variety of interpretations when it comes to the relationship between Enjolras and Grantaire, it is that there is very nearly no wrong way to view it.  Does Grantaire have unrequited romantic feelings for Enjolras or is it a more platonic adoration?  Is it sexual?  Does Enjolras privately harbor similar feelings for Grantaire?  Is Enjolras actually asexual or aromantic?  Honestly, all of these and more are perfectly possible and perfectly acceptable ways of looking at their relationship.

What matters is not the fine details of the whats and whys of how Enjolras and Grantaire view each other, but the fact that “Grantaire in the presence of Enjolras became some one once more” and that the two of them exist, not only as individuals, but as a pair “only exist[ing] on condition that they are backed up with another man.”  So long as the two of them are separate parts of a whole, Grantaire will always have his name as “a sequel” to Enjolras’ and so long as that is the case, the rest is fairly open to interpretation.

What makes the relationship dynamic between Enjolras and Grantaire so fascinating to people?  The answer is honestly a little bit of everything.  It is the multi-layered complexity of the dynamic that Hugo outlines and then slowly fleshes out for us in the novel.  It is the myriad of different ways in which the relationship that Hugo describes for us is brought to life on stage and in film by actors who each bring their own spin to the characters and their interactions.  It is also the different ways that we as an audience can choose to interpret the relationship through our own personal lenses based on the details that we are given and our own knowledge and experiences. The appeal of Enjolras and Grantaire is not just within the complexity of the dynamic or the near-irresistibility of two characters who appear to be polar opposites, it is also to be found within the sheer versatility of interpretation that exists both within fandom depictions and within the ways in which actors have portrayed them.

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12 Responses

  1. I feel like Grantaire and Enjolras’s relationship isn’t what a lot view it to be. I think Grantaire almost longs to be him, wishing to trade his drunkenness and lack of fervor for Enjolras’s unwavering passion and leadership. (Maybe even subconciously.) Like Grantaire looks up to Enjolras, but with a vague, envious disdain, hence the mockery coming from Grantaire’s side. Grantaire also asks permission of Enjolras before doing something more than once throughout the novel, suggesting that he respects Enjolras and his unspoken role as leader of Les Amis de le’ABC, and this also suggests Grantaire’s want of approval from the friend he looks up to most. His requests for permission are denied by Enjolras every time in the novel until the pair’s final moments. This tells me that Enjolras is nearly dismissive of Grantaire. When Grantaire asks permission of Enjolras to die next to him in battle for his country. (Though Enjolras was the one doing the battling.) This, again, suggests Grantaire looks up to and respects Enjolras as someone who is valiant and courageous, qualities I think Grantaire would like to have.(Again, whether he even realizes it or not.) Enjolras squeezes his hand and smiles, and this is the first time Enjolras grants permission to Grantaire for anything he’s asked so far. I also interpret this to be, in very simple terms, Enjolras treating Grantaire with kindness in their last moments rather than treating him like the “annoying little brother,” if you will, that I interpret him to done previously. After all, Victor Hugo does say that Enjolras is a great man capable of being terrible, and I think this relationship goes to show it. He was, in honesty, sort of rude and dismissive of Grantaire (for lack of better terms) and in the end during their death scene, it kind of shows us that Enjolras has always cared about Grantaire, but never let him know that he was always his friend, not just the” incapable tag along,” if you will. Just my interpretation. In fact, I had never heard of the “lover” sort of aspect/theory before I read the book, and when I did the reading it didn’t even cross my mind. What I’ve stated above is how I percieved it to be, and still do. Anyone have a comment on this?

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this article! Congrats on such a fine piece of analysis :) I hope to read more of your material on this site sir.

    • Thank you! I’m very glad you enjoyed it, and I’m certainly sticking around!

  3. Monte, excellent article! It truly baffles me how I have missed this whole relationship between Enjolras and Grantaire (something I am attributing entirely to having never read the book, as Hooper’s film did not make a large deal out of it like you said). I think Blagden’s approach was the best one; keep his thoughts as both actor and character to himself to then hint at the idea but not give a clear distinction either way since it clearly wasn’t at the top of Hooper’s to-do list. Very insightful thoughts here and a keen eye for detail! Well done! :)

    • Thank you!

      I do think that having read the book DOES help (or if your first experience was the 25th Anniversary Concert because wow), and I highly recommend the book if you ever have the time to burn on it.

      I definitely agree with Blagden’s approach to the character. When I first read the interview, I remember actually being torn between just sitting there with my hands over my mouth and punching the air, and in the end I read the whole thing aloud to my flatmates because I was just extremely excited and impressed by it. As a writer, my brain literally did a bunch of little happy flips because he not only read the material and GOT it, he figured out on his own how to make it work and DID it. I definitely had enormous respect for him to begin with, but that really sealed the deal for my feelings regarding his acting because I love it when actors pay that kind of attention to the way a character is written and think about characters the way he thought of Grantaire.

      (Okay I’m going to stop before this becomes a love letter to George Blagden’s acting haha)

  4. Ugh, this is so wonderful, and such a thoughtful meta-analysis for this fandom to read and have! Lovely <3

    • Thank you! I’m glad that you enjoyed it – I feel like it’s such a complex and interesting dynamic that NOT exploring it would have been a dreadful waste. :)

  5. Monte, this was perfect! Now how about just writing a thesis on this dynamic and letting me beta?
    But in all seriousness, this was so wonderful because, as I knew you would, you understood it to a tee! I love when others identify that, though Grantaire and Enjolras may stand on their own, the drunk and the revolutionary, their characters need one another as a major defining factor. What would Grantaire have to be cynical of, if not the words from Enjolras’ mouth? What need has Enjolras of defending his point without someone to try and convince within his own circles? They don’t need each other to exist, but they do need one another to become defined as characters to their fullest.
    Another point that I absolutely love that you made was the Ramin and Hadley dynamic! As I’ve stated before, these two men have had projects that very often coincide into opposing roles on the stage, Erik and Raoul, Enjolras and Grantaire, Valjean and Javert, are just a few! Being the best of friends, as they are, how much stronger is the bond when seen on the stage in those roles? I have heard that the key to being an astounding actor is having a good imagination; for with that, one no longer has need of acting because it becomes real. It seems to me that Ramin and Hadley channel that here. What seems to make this more tangible than anything is the fact that there is actual love and companionship there and, coupled with the script, a wide array of character emotions: fear, anger, regret, forgiveness. It becomes real for the viewers and probably, at least in part, for the actors as well. It is not a show anymore, these are two friends and comrades that are actually imagining a soon-approaching farewell that is seen clearly in their stage intimacy.

    • Can I just do that though? (“Do You Permit It?” Director’s Cut?) I’m just saying, I wouldn’t mind it. Honestly I had a blast writing it, and given the time and space I had, I’m thrilled with how it turned out.

      And yes, exactly! Honestly, don’t get me wrong. I love various kinds of relationship fic with these two, but I’m in it for that – for the weird symbiotic nature of their dynamic and I’m trying not to go on forever because I will if you let me, you know I will.

      And honestly, my brain being fried, all I can say to your points re: Hadley and Ramin is YES. I was actually jumping about watching all sorts of clips because I wanted to have a stage production E/R to compare to Aaron and George, and while (don’t get me wrong) I love pretty much a ridiculous number of E/R combinations (you and I already had a brief moment over Thaxton/Neely), in the end it HAD to be Hadley and Ramin. It just had to be, for exactly all of those reasons.

      (Seriously though, I need to just coax Sam into letting me analyse Le Mis characters for the rest of time or something. Or just cool character dynamics.)

      • You /know/ I would let you ramble on and on about character dynamics, M. I mean. Don’t I anyway? I am pretty sure I encourage it half the time. And I agree 24601% that Ramin and Hadley were the perfect duo to use here to contrast with the Aaron and George dynamic. Because nothing could have been MORE different in the way the e/R was handled in both cases. Both excellent interpretations, but so different at the same time. Golly I love Les Misérables. (We shall save our discussions of the French nuances in the textual relations some other time then, yes?)

  6. Do you know how long I’ve been waiting to read this, Monte? It was absolutely wonderful, and if I didn’t already feel so much for this pair, I would have by the end of reading this! So, so happy you wrote about this! Gah! I had something much more thoughtful planned out, but after reading this I can’t think of anything other than how beautifully you describe their relationship! LOVED it!

    • Haha! Well I’m sorry for the wait (actually, pretty much everyone was apparently waiting on this one – I feel like if I hadn’t gotten it done on time, you guys would have killed me).

      Seriously though, I’m really, really glad that you liked it!