Tag Archives: Fantine

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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Fantine Before the Fall

Following up on my commentary from last time, here are some things that struck me about Fantine’s chapters this time through.

“In the Year 1817” is basically Victor Hugo writing one of those Buzzfeed listicles about the year’s big celebrity and news stories, only about a year 40 years before his initial audience read the book, and 200 years before modern audiences. Donougher added so many notes, they’re almost as long as the chapter.

That said, those notes have some fascinating info in them…like the fact that a proto-roller coaster opened outside Paris in 1817 — yes, 1817 — and that’s one of the things Fantine and her friends do on the day the boys all leave.

Oh, and the opaque description of the group as “Oscars” is a reference to a popular song of the day.

I have a better understanding of the dynamic now. The other women were more jaded about hooking up with students from the countryside, it wasn’t their first rodeo, and they weren’t expecting the men to stay. Hugo doesn’t say whether the other couples were actually sleeping together. It seems likely that they were, but the other women took precautions Fantine thought she didn’t need.

I still get a real “Tell me on a Sunday” vibe from this chapter.

And damn, Tholomyes is an insufferable ass even before he becomes a deadbeat dad. Dude probably crusades for ethics in amusement park journalism.

More examples of translation choices: Instead of just humming, Mme Thénardier is singing a specific song, with a few lines actually written out.

Fantine’s often lost in thought (with a dreamy far-off look? – no books, though, since she can’t read), which other women take as “putting on airs.” Like being an introvert in a society that demands extroversion. Honestly, I don’t think I’m better than you, I just would rather live in my head than be social right now.

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The Wretched of the Earth

While the whole novel is built around justice for those downtrodden by society, there are five specific examples of poverty that Victor Hugo focuses on in Les Misérables:

Fantine is completely screwed over by the system, partly because options are fewer for women than men, and partly because of the stigma against unwed mothers.  Ultimately she ends up in the most degrading profession she can imagine, and dies from inadequate health care.

Marius, after falling out with his grandfather, chooses to take no money he hasn’t earned, and doesn’t earn very much. But he’s got options: he’s in school, and he has at least somewhat marketable skills, and of course there’s no stigma against young men. Plus he has a support network so he can crash at a friend’s apartment, or split the cost of the occasional social meal. He scrapes by in a crappy apartment until he earns his degree, but even then, he can’t quite pull himself out by himself, and it’s only after he (a) meets Cosette, who has money and (b) reconciles with his wealthy grandfather and moves back in with him that he’s able to enjoy a higher standard of living.

The Thénardiers, after they lose their inn, are in desperate straits, but rather than trying to scrape by, they do what they’ve always done: prey on society. They don’t seem to be very good at it, and while it’s hard to have any pity for the parents, it’s painful to read about how Éponine and Azelma live.

Gavroche, a child living on the streets. Of course, a child can get away with breaking a lot more rules than an adult can, and Gavroche is so optimistic he almost doesn’t care. Almost.

Finally, Pere Mabeuf, Marius’ friend who lives a modest but comfortable life off a book he published when he was younger, but as his work falls out of demand and he ages out of the job market, he is effectively done in by the lack of support for the elderly. Technically it’s a bullet that kills him, but he only ends up at the barricade because he’s reached the end of his rope and starts walking.

There are others: Valjean’s distant past (his role in the novel deals more with the flaws in the justice system than with economic class*), the voluntary austerity of Bishop Myriel and the nuns at the convent, the Thénardiers’ Parisian associates, and of course many nameless background characters, but these are the lives we get to see up close.

*It’s worth mentioning that as M. Madeleine, Jean Valjean is the only self-made man in the novel…and even he needed some seed money from an investor to get started.

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Second Chances

The offering of a second chance, and acceptance/refusal of said chance, happens repeatedly in Les Misérables.

  • The Bishop’s pardoning of Jean Valjean’s theft, of course, works out quite well.
  • M. Madeleine releasing Fantine from custody elicits a reaction very much like Valjean’s response to being pardoned by the Bishop, and if she hadn’t been deathly ill, this probably would have been her chance to climb back out of poverty (options in 1823 for an ex-prostitute might be limited, but she might have left town for a fresh start, or joined a convent, or something).
  • Valjean offers Montparnasse some money and a chance to reform after he tries to mug the elderly gentlemen. Parnasse of course ignores it. The scare-em-straight approach with an attitude of utter contempt might have been a factor, but Montparnasse clearly wouldn’t have been receptive at this point anyway.
  • Marius offers Thénardier some money after the blackmail attempt fails, admonishing him to make an honest man of himself. Again, Thénardier isn’t receptive, and again, Marius is condescending.

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Get Me To The Courthouse On Time

Les Miserables featuring a bookmarkAfter his night of inner debate, Valjean rushes out of town to reach the court trying his double. He still hasn’t decided what to do, but he needs to be there just in case.

At this point, Victor Hugo stops to describe the country postal system.

Just kidding. He only takes a couple of paragraphs before a postal cart racing down the road crashes into Valjean’s cart. At his next stop, someone notices the wheel’s busted and won’t last the rest of the journey, and he spends several pages talking with the local wheelwright about how soon it can be fixed, can he hire another conveyance, can he just ride, etc.

What a relief! I tried to go to the trial, but the wheel broke and I can’t get on the road till tomorrow! I can’t turn myself in, but it’s not my fault!

At this point someone overhears the conversation who can rent him a gig. Noooooo!

And now the road’s closed for repairs. Valjean making it to the trial is like Hurley getting to the airport to catch Flight 815.

Interlude: Fantine

It’s weird to read about Fantine dying of consumption while you and your small child are both coughing loudly due to a bad cold. Actually I don’t think the book specifically says which extended respiratory disease she has, but it’s at least a good bet. (On checking, I found that Wikipedia has an article on Tuberculosis in popular culture.)

Fantine actually does sing a lullaby she used to sing to Cosette in her final hours.

M. Madeleine visits Fantine every afternoon at 3:00. On learning that he’s left town, the nuns fear the shock will kill her. Instead, she’s deliriously happy — why else would he have left town except to fetch Cosette!

Another of those things that don’t quite come across in the musical: At this point it’s been five years since Fantine last saw Cosette. She was two at the time, and now she’s seven. Cosette barely remembers her mother at all, and Fantine only remembers her daughter as an infant.

Trial Edition

M. Madeleine, Mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer, has to pull rank to get into the packed courtroom, which is already in session.

Would you believe these facts about not-Valjean’s trial?

  • The hotshot prosecutor is a tough guy who always “gets his man” (in the translator’s words). Also, he writes poetry.
  • The “gentleman” who had Fantine arrested is on the jury.
  • There’s a bit of theater criticism (Racine’s Phaedra) in the closing arguments.
  • Valjean’s hair turns white in the courtroom while he’s watching the proceedings.

The original form of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” ended with “…or Death.” According to Wikipedia, the last bit was dropped due to association with the Terror.

No one believes M. Madeleine when he finally outs himself as Jean Valjean. The presiding judge asks if there’s a doctor present. He convinces them by rattling off details about the three fellow convicts who had identified the other man and are still in court as witnesses. Even so, everyone’s too shocked to make a move to arrest him (Javert has already left), so he walks out, saying essentially “You know where to find me.”


The next chapter is seriously titled “In which mirror Monsieur Madeleine examines his hair.” Sometimes I think S. Morgenstern was a real author, and his name was Victor Hugo.

Valjean returns to Fantine’s bedside to find that her condition is markedly improved by her belief that she’ll see Cosette soon. He and the doctor spend several pages trying to explain why she can’t see Cosette right now without telling Fantine that he hasn’t brought her.

Then Javert walks in.

Victor Hugo couldn’t have Fantine say “Oh, merde!” back in 1862, but you know she was thinking it. [Edit: well, actually…]

You can tell Javert is seething with inner turmoil because the button on his collar is a little off.

The shock of Javert’s cruelty when he arrests Valjean is what finally kills Fantine. But hey, he was right about Valjean, so he’s perfectly happy in his I-think-I’m-an-avenging-angel-with-a-flaming-sword-of-righteousness way.

Javert actually puts Valjean in the town jail. He breaks out. The nun who never lies covers his escape, sacrificing her honesty for his freedom.

And that wraps up the first part of the book! Next up is Part Two: Cosette, which starts with the battle of Waterloo.

Pages covered this week: 225-275. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Continue to Part 7: Waterloo.

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