Tag Archives: Chess

Agency: Cosette vs. Éponine vs. Florence

I recently dug out my recordings of Chess and listened to them extensively. With Judy Kuhn playing Florence on the Broadway version, I found myself comparing the roles of Florence and Cosette.

Florence in Chess is a much more complex character than the Cosette we see in the musical of Les Misérables. While it’s true that Florence is defined mainly through her relationships with men — her missing father, Freddie, and Anatoly — her role involves making choices, and dealing with consequences, and her frustrations at what she’s given up to support Freddie, or to be with Anatoly, and whether what she’s gained is worth it.

She’s got three solos, a duet with the other woman, and is an active part in many of the ensemble numbers. (The show doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test though, since the only conversation Florence has with another woman is about Anatoly. Which reminds me, I really need to listen to Fun Home.)

Cosette on stage is just someone to be taken care of.  First by Valjean as a surrogate father, then by Marius.  She doesn’t get to do anything on her own. Her only real solo is “Castle on a Cloud,” sung when she’s a child. Then she has duets with both of the men in her life, and background spots in the ensemble numbers. It’s a very paternalistic view.

I think that’s what makes Éponine so appealing: She has agency, taking an active role in the story. (That, and anyone from their teenage years onward can relate to having a crush on someone who doesn’t return it.) Plus a lot of what she does somewhat altruistic, sacrificing her happiness for someone else’s. She knows she’s going to get in trouble for stopping the robbery at the Rue Plumet, but she does it anyway. She knows that helping Marius find Cosette is going to destroy any chance she has with him, but again, she does it anyway. She runs off to the barricade to be with him in their last moments, and literally takes a bullet for him.

It’s a little different in the book.

We get clues here and there that Cosette longs for something more. I wouldn’t go so far as “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but she takes as active a role as she can given her position in society. She’s a respectable young woman, and has to act within those rules. She and Marius actually have an extended secret courtship over the course of months in the form of secret glances and signs. She doesn’t just fall for the first guy she walks into. She chooses and encourages him. But she can’t go looking for him, couldn’t go visit him even if she knew where he lived, because her position won’t allow it.

The only time we get a hint of this in the musical is in her segment of “In My Life,” where she confronts Valjean about his secrets, complaining that he still sees her as a child, and he shuts her down, proving it. (It was refreshing to see Claire Danes succeed in the Neeson/Rush movie, even if doing so wiped out the main story of last 150 pages of the book.)

Éponine, however, isn’t as constrained. As an outlaw, Éponine can go where she wants, when she wants. She doesn’t have to fear losing respectability, because she doesn’t have it. She’s able to stare down an entire gang of thieves by telling them she’s seen worse than them. And yet at the same time, there are still limits. She can’t bring herself to tell Marius how she feels until her dying breath. When she finally breaks down, tormented by the sight of Marius and Cosette together, and starts pulling strings to separate them (and get Marius killed!), she does it in secret: she hides in the shadows, drops notes on people, and disguises herself as a boy.

Victor Hugo, for all his egalitarianism, was still a product of his time, and still had specific roles in mind for men and women. It’s odd to watch him argue extensively for society to treat women better, then stop short of (and actively discourage) giving them a full say in it.

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Valjean sure knows how to pick a hiding place

Hunt in DarknessI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Now that Valjean has rescued little Cosette from the Thénardiers, the story moves to Paris! But not to the greatest neighborhood. Victor Hugo describes it in such loving details as:

“An interesting and picturesque feature of buildings of this kind is the enormous size of the spiders that infest them.”

“It is possible to conceive of something even more terrible than a hell of suffering, and that is a hell of boredom. If such a hell exists, that stretch of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have been the road leading to it.”

It’s to this cheerful spot that Valjean brings Cosette. It’s still better than the Thénardiers’ inn, though.

Becoming Cosette’s surrogate father is as major a turning point for Valjean’s soul as the incident with the bishop. This doesn’t come through in the stage musical at all, but they made it central in the movie, and Victor Hugo flat-out compares the two epiphanies in the novel: The bishop taught him virtue, while Cosette taught him the meaning of love. Hugo even ponders whether Valjean’s no-good-deed-goes-unpunished experience would have sent him back into bitterness if he hadn’t met her.

Les Misérables SoundtrackIf I may digress for a moment (and since I’m writing about Les Misérables, it would only be fitting), I finally listened to the movie soundtrack on its own last night, two months after seeing the film…and I’ve finally placed what “Suddenly” reminds me of: “Someone Else’s Story” from Chess. No wonder it felt like it didn’t fit in this score: it reminds me of a different show!.

Valjean brings his money to Paris sewn into the lining of his coat. I wonder if they used serial numbers in those days.

He hasn’t quite learned how to keep a low profile yet. He becomes known for being generous to the local beggars, and one night one of the regulars doesn’t quite look right when he hands him some money.

Then Javert rents a flat in the same tenement. Uh-oh…

Exit, Pursued by Javert

Before the chase through the nighttime Paris streets, Hugo apologizes for not knowing how much of the area he’s about to describe is still around. Before that apology, he apologizes for mentioning himself. These days it would just be an author’s note, not part of the text.

Streetlights haven’t been lit because of the full moon. That’s not something I would have considered, but if the lights have to be lit by hand, it makes sense that you’d take advantage of efficiencies like that.

Trapped in a dead end, Valjean takes the only escape route he can: up. But he can’t free-climb with Cosette.

Cosette finally starts breaking down over the flight. He tells her she must be quiet, because Mme Thénardier is following them. This works, but only because it scares her even more — after they reach safety, he has to assure her that she’s gone.

An empty garden, a ruined building, sounds of pursuit, midnight hymns, a body with a rope around its neck…and an incredible coincidence, as the gardener (who happens to be awake at midnight) is the man Valjean saved from the runaway cart.

The Hunter

The viewpoint returns to Javert and Valjean’s arrest months before. He actually forgot about him — a job well done, but it’s been done and over with — until reading the news of his death. Then he read about a little girl being “abducted” in Montfermeil, whose mother Fantine had died in a hospital earlier that year, and started to wonder.

By the time Javert shows up to interview the Thénardiers, they’ve realized they don’t want police looking too closely at them, and changed their tune: she left with her grandfather, and Thénardier had simply wanted to keep her around a few more days.

“Javert went back to Paris. ‘Valjean is dead,’ he said to himself, ‘and I’m an ass.'” Well, you’re half-right.

He keeps seeing odd reports, though, and tries to put together enough evidence to make an arrest. He even poses as one of the beggars, hoping his suspect will show up and give him a good look at his face (establishing Javert as a master of disguise). His lack of certainty, coupled with police PR problems at the time, give Valjean enough time to flee. Once he flushes Valjean into a dead end, though, he decides to toy with his prey, which gives him just enough time to escape.


Someone landed on one of these articles this week by searching for “How to read Les Misérables.” I did a search myself, and found WikiHow’s article by that title. “Things you’ll need: Willpower. A copy of Les Misérables” – So true!

Bad reception at the place I had lunch on Wednesday kept me from tweeting my comments, so I had to write them offline. This is probably better, since I don’t have to clutter up my Twitter feed with my notes, and I can still tweet highlights if I want to. I’m going to stick with that plan going forward.

Also, like last week, my commentary ended up being a lot longer than I wanted, so I’ve split it into two articles. The second one will go up in a few days.

Pages covered: 385-424. Continue on to Part 11: the convent.

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