Tag Archives: Cosette

Fantine: Alternate Possibilities

Fantine tells Mme Thénardier that she’s a widow. If Valjean could invent a new ID and go years undiscovered, could she have invented a dead husband and kept Cosette with her? How detailed were records in small-town France at the time? Sure, “Madeleine” arrives under special circumstances that distract officials from checking his ID, but would they have bothered to check the papers of a young mother and child? And if she was living openly as a widow, would the town busybodies have cared as much to dig up the truth? It’s her mooning over a secret, and her constant correspondence, that call her to their attention.

Maybe the factory wouldn’t have hired her. Maybe town officials would have seen through the story. Maybe the busybodies would have been just as motivated, or more, to dig up the truth, and she would have had to go through everything with Cosette traumatized alongside her.

There’s some similarity between Javert and the moral guardian who denounces Fantine in that they both think they’re doing the right thing to persecute her. But Javert comes across as less deluded, because even though he put the blame on the wrong person, at least there was a fight involved. Fantine wasn’t harming anyone by hiring a letter-writer on a regular basis.

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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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The Lark

Little Cosette and the broomIt’s funny how “24601” is such a powerful refrain in the musical of Les Misérables, but is barely mentioned in the book. But there is another nickname* that does keep coming up over and over: The Lark, a name given to little Cosette by the people of Montfermeil.

She was known locally as l’Alouette, the Lark. The village people, with instinctive symbolism, had thought it a suitable name for the apprehensive, trembling little creature, scarcely more than a bird, who was always first up in that house and out of doors before dawn. But this was a lark that never sang.

Years later the Thénardiers mention it while Marius is listening in, which is how he learns something he can call her. In his despair over being unable to find her, Marius wanders into a field that catches his eye, and then discovers it’s called the Field of the Lark. Of course it must be a sign, so he starts spending all his time there.**

Hugo even compares her to a lark in the narrator’s voice when describing her sense of adventure, and why she doesn’t spook as much as one might expect when Marius starts creeping around the garden.

Cosette was not nervous by nature. There was gipsy blood in her veins, that of a barefooted adventuress. We may recall that she was more like a lark than a dove. She had a wild but courageous heart.

The fact that the book keeps coming back to it makes me wonder why the musical dropped it. It’s a great character hook, especially with the songbird angle. Though given the similar vocal profiles and isolated-damsel-in-the-city roles, maybe they wanted to distance her from Johanna in Sweeny Todd, whose signature song is actually about songbirds.

*Not counting the zillions of aliases, or the nicknames given to passers-by, or nicknames that characters actually go by. Like, for instance, Cosette, whose real name is Euphrasie.

**As it turns out, it’s a good thing he does, because that’s how Éponine finally finds him after she discovers where Cosette lives.

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Revisiting the Movie Musical After Re-Reading the Novel

Les Misérables: Little CosetteSince it was seeing the movie last year that got me started on this project, I thought I’d watch Les Misérables again after I’d finished re-reading the whole novel and see how my impressions differed from my initial review.

I liked it a lot better this time through, in part because I knew what to expect, and in part because when you watch it at home, on TV, it’s less overwhelming when the entire screen is a close-up on the face of someone who’s in utter despair. Seeing it the first time in the theater, the first twenty minutes or so just tear you apart emotionally. Seeing it at home, there’s a little distance. It’s less effective, but it’s more bearable.

The movie is still stunning visually, whether it’s the sweeping vistas of Jean Valjean walking across France, or throngs filling the streets of 1830s Paris. I also liked a lot of the simpler visual choices, such as the moment where Jean Valjean casually sits down while telling Cosette not to ask questions about the past, and the candlesticks are right there, or when a tormented Valjean’s face appears half-lit, half in shadow.

Singing/Performance

As far as singing style goes, I think they made the right choice for the movie. As I said in my first review, musical theater is a blend of singing and acting (and often dancing), not singing that happens to have people in costume, and while stage acting relies heavily on body language so that the whole audience can see, movie acting is able to pull in close-up…and that’s exactly what they did. “I Dreamed a Dream” is a beautiful song. The way Anne Hathaway sings it here isn’t pretty, but it’s utterly devastating and perfect for the film, and if she had sung it with proper technique, it would have been completely wrong.

The approach doesn’t make for the best soundtrack, but I think it makes for a better movie. At least, it does for this movie.

Russell Crowe still grates as Javert, but not as much. In fact, there are some scenes where he’s fantastic. When he’s just being a policeman, and when the music is moving too fast for him to worry about trying to sing, he’s great. On the other hand, his first meeting with “M. Madeleine” is hard to listen to, and “Stars” just falls flat.

Still not entirely thrilled with the Thénardiers, but I did rather like teaching Éponine the ropes during “Master of the House.”

Adaptation: Novel, Stage Play, Movie

I was really impressed by how much this is an adaptation of both the stage musical and the novel. There are so many details, so many moments, so many character bits and story beats, that aren’t in the show but are drawn from the book.

Almost every story change pulls something from the novel: The convent of course, but also Marius threatening to blow up the barricade, Éponine concealing Cosette’s note, Gavroche delivering Marius’ note instead of Éponine, Javert admitting to Madeleine that he’d falsely denounced him. Javert even interviews the Thénardiers about Valjean and Cosette, though in the book the trail’s a lot colder by the time he gets there.

I like that they brought in Javert’s turmoil over having falsely accused the mayor (or thinking he did), because it’s an important character moment that informs his suicide years later. I don’t think it worked as well onscreen as it could have, though.

I’m more ambivalent toward Marius and the powder-keg. It works better if you already have the sense that he actually wants to die, rather than simply not minding if he does. It also works better if you understand that the attack was moments away from overrunning the barricade, which doesn’t come through onscreen.

I found myself trying to identify the students other than Marius, Enjolras, and Grantaire. I couldn’t. The book describes them individually (though once you get to the barricade, their personalities matter less than their presence), but in the show, they might as well be a chorus, and that’s still true in the film.

Cutting from Éponine’s death straight to Gavroche’s reaction at the end of “A Little Fall of Rain” really got to me. In this version of the story he probably doesn’t even know she’s his sister.

One problem I had this time through which I don’t think has ever bothered me about the show until now is the same thing that bothered me about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: After the move to Paris, everything happens at once. In the novel, a year passes between Marius and Cosette first noticing each other and the night of the barricades. There’s flirting from a distance, then seeking each other out, then finally a few magical weeks of secret meetings. Love at first sight is certainly easier to tell, but it’s harder to sell the characters’ most difficult choices…such as the powder-keg.

Musical Changes

Les Misérables Blu-Ray.Even now, I’m still on the fence about the musical and lyrical changes. Most of the changed lyrics are just to add exposition or fit a different setting. Some work better than others, but a lot of this type of change is in the recitative. The songs move so fast and are almost half-spoken, so they’re already a bit awkward. In a way, the changes that aren’t there for this reason stand out a bit more. Though I must admit that “Would you weep, Cosette, if I were to fall” sounds more natural than “…should Marius fall.”

The movie is about 20 minutes shorter than the original Broadway version, so a lot of introductions and connecting bits have been cut. And a few whole songs. Some I don’t mind, but I’m still mad that they cut the middle verses of “A Little Fall of Rain” and especially “Castle on a Cloud.” (I know, the 25th anniversary staging did the same thing, and it’s annoying there too.) The song’s barely a minute and a half to begin with. The twenty seconds saved here could have been regained tightening up one of the scenes they added.

Marius’ grandfather, while an interesting character in the book, doesn’t really add much to this version of the story. His existence serves to explain why they’re able to afford a nice wedding, and adds a bit of a class dynamic within the students, but he’s onscreen so little that I wonder why they bothered. As for that class dynamic, several of the other students are rich, too…including Enjolras. Saying “a game for a rich young boy to play” is rather disingenuous on his part.

“Suddenly,” like Javert’s confession to Madeleine, is a case where the character moment matters — it matters quite a lot in the book, as Valjean had reached another crossroads in life, and becoming a surrogate father not only filled the hole in his heart but kept him on the right path. But I sort of feel like it’s too early — it needs to be a few days in, at least, though I know there’s no good way to fit it anywhere else. And whenever it gets stuck in my head, it inevitably turns into either “Somewhere That’s Green” or “Someone Else’s Story.”

Overall

I do like the movie better on second viewing. I can’t think of anything I’ve actually reversed my opinion on, but there were a lot of aspects that were jarring the first time through just for being different, and listening to the soundtrack a few times and watching the film again (I still can’t believe it took me this long) has helped settle those out a bit into what I thought worked and what didn’t. And strangely enough, re-reading the book has enhanced the experience. There’s only one element I can think of that really bothered me specifically because of the novel, and that’s the timeframe.

I still wish they hadn’t been quite so merciless with the cuts, though. I wonder if there’s any possibility for an extended edition?

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Part 37: This is the End

The wedding is a new beginning for Marius and Cosette, but it’s the beginning of the end for Jean Valjean. Fortunately, Thénardier tries to blackmail the happy couple.

If M. Gillenormand has gone overboard with joy and opulence, Valjean has fallen into despair. He leaves the wedding early and agonizes all night.

In part, he’s concerned that his legal troubles might still spill over onto her. But it turns out after all these years of being a good person, doing good works, helping people, and so on, he still believes he’s the horrible no-good piece of scum who tried to rob the bishop.

Now that Javert’s gone, Valjean has taken over his role, apparently having internalized Javert’s opinion of him. At his most charitable, he feels like he’s manure used to help a beautiful flower grow.

Once again, it comes down to identity. As far as he’s concerned, only what he’s done as Jean Valjean really represents himself. Any good he’s done as “Madeleine” or “Fauchelevent” doesn’t count…and his conscience will no longer allow him to live under a false name.

This is the point where I really have trouble agreeing with Valjean’s decisions. Philosophically, if you do good deeds for a good reason, you’ve done the good deeds. Saying that doing good pseudonymously doesn’t matter is like saying that doing good anonymously doesn’t matter…and yet people will often do so because they want their deeds to speak louder than their names.

Conversely, you’d have to accept that evil done under a false name doesn’t accrue to your soul, and I can’t imagine Jean Valjean agreeing with that.

Separation Anxiety

So, the morning after the wedding, not having slept all night, Valjean goes to speak with Marius and starts trying to socially separate himself from Cosette as well.

Marius hasn’t slept all night either. (Bom-chicka-waaaa!) Later on, Cosette wanders out of their bedroom, hair all messy.

Valjean tells Marius just enough to make himself look bad, but leaves out critical information like: That money in Cosette’s trust fund was obtained through legitimate business. “As to how it came into my hands, that is quite unimportant.” No, you idiot, it’s a matter of life and death. (Yours, incidentally.)

He tells Cosette to call him “Monsieur Jean” instead of “father,” starts addressing her formally as vous and Madame, refuses to move into the Gillenormand household even though he’s been invited, visits only in the dampest first-floor room, etc.

“You mean that you’re no longer my father? You’ll be telling me next that I’m not Cosette!” Well, technically, you’re not…Euphrasie.

Cosette starts spending time with “new acquaintances brought to her by marriage.” WHO? All of Marius’ friends are dead.

Marius: All my friends are dead.

Toussaint, the live-in servant whom Hugo doesn’t mention that often, goes with Cosette, and eventually quits because she doesn’t get along with the Gillenormands’ maid. This leaves Valjean alone in his home and Cosette with one less link to her past.

Marius goes back and forth as to how much he trusts Valjean at this point. But ultimately, he believes that Valjean murdered Javert, and becomes more and more convinced the money in the trust fund is the loot from Valjean having defrauded M. Madeleine. This drives even more of a wedge between them: Valjean feels himself unworthy, and Marius starts making him unwelcome.

Eventually, Valjean can’t bring himself to knock on the door. Then he can’t bring himself to walk past the street corner. His walks get shorter and shorter, and eventually he stops leaving the apartment altogether. After a while he stops eating.

Cosette thinks he’s just gone off on one of his mysterious trips, a fiction encouraged by the fact that Valjean has instructed the doorman to tell people he’s not at home.

Valjean’s decline in the musical is shockingly rapid. Here it’s slower, but much, much sadder. This is what dying of a broken heart really means.

Blackmail Gone Wrong

Thénardier shows up at Marius’ office dressed in a costume rented from a man who specializes in providing outfits for criminals. No, his name isn’t Gambi.

Marius has done his research, and not only does he see through the disguise, he tells him point blank, “I already know what you’re going to tell me.” Thénardier, trying to regain the upper hand, proceeds to show him newspaper clippings proving otherwise: That Madeleine was in fact Valjean, that Javert survived the barricade after being spared by one of the rebels, only to be found drowned the next morning.

What a switch: He makes a point of providing printed evidence, because it’s so much harder to forge than handwritten evidence.

“The words murderer and thief, which Marius had thought disposed of, came like a cold douche.” Yes, Thénardier is a douche. I think we can all agree on that.

Of course, the master-stoke of showing the piece of torn fabric from the “murder victim’s” coat is foiled when Marius walks over to the closet and pulls out his old coat to show that the piece matches exactly.

Marius decides to hand Thénardier some money anyway to settle his long-standing obligation, and urges him to start an honest life in the Americas. He does go to America, but he goes into the slave trade.

Death of Valjean

With Thénardier’s information, Marius finally understands what’s been going on, and he and Cosette go to see Valjean in person. Valjean is on his deathbed, having not eaten in days, but brightens at their arrival. He can hang on a few more minutes.

“‘I told you the truth,’ said Valjean. ‘No. The truth means the whole truth, not just part of it. Why didn’t you tell me that you were Monsieur Madeleine and that you had spared Javert?” Probably because you might have talked him out of leaving.

Cosette: “I won’t allow you to spend another day in this horrible place.” Valjean: “Certainly I shan’t be here tomorrow.” Gallows humor isn’t something I really associate with Valjean, and yet here it is. The “forbid me to die” exchange is also in here.

Cosette: “there won’t be any more of this “Madame – Monsieur Jean” nonsense, we’re a republic and we call each other tu, don’t we, Marius?”

Jean Valjean’s “last confession” is a description of the manufacturing method for making those glass beads and bracelet clasps. At one point he interrupts their last-chance reunion to point out something he forgot to write down. It seems a little odd at first, but it was the fact that Marius believed Cosette’s fortune to be ill-gotten that drove his side of the schism.

Apparently Valjean never told Cosette her mother’s name until now. You’d think the Thénardiers might have mentioned her once in a while, but then she has blocked out most of her early memories.

He also remarks on the Thénardiers being wicked people whom they must forgive. Did he just come to that conclusion now, or was he willing to forgive them already but not himself? Marius doesn’t interrupt…it’s a dying man’s monologue…but I have to wonder if he caught the reference. The name doesn’t seem to have come up when he asked Cosette about her childhood, and I imagine it would have come as a shock to realize that they share still another connection.

Valjean dies happy, his face lit by the two candlesticks, after months of easily-preventable sadness. All he had to do was tell Marius the whole truth instead of just the bad parts. He might still have chosen to live apart, as he did at the Rue Plumet, he might still have struggled with depression and his conscience, he might even have still died within that year…but he didn’t need to make himself unwelcome to the only people who made him feel life was worth living.

Following Jean Valjean through despair to his death reminds me of two things: First, the old adage to count no man happy until he’s dead (variously attributed to Sophocles, Herodotus and Solon). I recently read a post by Robert J Sawyer on killing characters, which probably primed me to think of it. Second, the aspiring writer in the first volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, who had figured out the secret to happy endings: You have to know where to stop. Otherwise, all stories end in death.

They bury him in a hidden grave, marked only by a plain slab of stone. Someone — perhaps Cosette? — writes a verse in chalk:

He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,
He lived; and when his dear love left him, died.
It happened of itself, in the calm way
That in the evening night-time follows day

The Final Pages

Pages covered: 1139-1201.

And that’s it. It’s been a long, long project, and I can’t believe it’s done. I didn’t feel like I was really finished when I read the last page, but now that I have a full series of commentaries — within the calendar year, no less — it actually feels complete.

I don’t think I’ve ever finished a blog before. Abandoned, sure, but not concluded. I do still want to re-watch the movie now that I’ve finished the book, and I’ll write up some thoughts on that, and there’s going to be polishing to be done on the site: fixing typos, cross-linking articles, cleaning up the leftover boilerplate text from when they were on my other blog, things like that.

And who knows? I picked up the new Christine Donougher translation, The Wretched, because the Kindle edition was only a dollar. I might read that next year. Though if I do, I’ll probably confine myself to a single post, or at most one per volume.

If you’d like to continue reading my thoughts on other subjects, please check out K-Squared Ramblings, where I talk about life, tech, and geek interests, or Speed Force where I write about comic books and superheroes, particularly the Flash.

Thanks for following along with me on this journey, and I hope to see you elsewhere online!

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