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.
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.
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.
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.
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.