Tag Archives: Followup

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.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

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.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

Heroic Javert

Javert: Perhaps you would like to use my hat?The ambush at the Gorbeau tenement, while long, is important in a lot of ways. Not only is it a turning point for Thénardier, Valjean, and Marius, but it shows a side of Javert that we don’t see very often: the heroic protector of society.

We see him pursue Valjean across the years in service of an unjust law.

We see him persecute Fantine on the say-so of someone who just happens to look more respectable than she does.

We see him infiltrate the uprising (though to be fair, that’s a matter of perspective — he’s only the “bad guy” because the rebels are our viewpoint characters).

Here, placing him against Thénardier and Patron-Minette, we see Javert at his best. There’s no moral ambiguity. They’re the bad guys, he’s the good guy, and he’s actually pretty damn badass. It’s what sets an antagonist apart from a flat-out villain, and what gives him a depth of character that makes him almost appealing.

It reminds me of something J.Michael Straczynski said about Bester, the Psi-Cop played by Walter Koenig on Babylon 5: After a few appearances, “the next time we saw him, he either had to win, or he had to be right. If he lost again, it’d cut his credibility out.” Without this scene, Javert remains a caricature, a symbol of law as villain. With it, we see him win and be right, and we get to see that his personal view of himself isn’t completely self-delusion.

Javert’s problem is that he sees the world in such black-and-white terms that everyone who has transgressed, however minor, becomes a criminal in his eyes, worthy of punishment rather than protection. Himself included, as seen when he confesses to M. Madeleine that he’s denounced his superior. (It must have been such a relief to learn that he’d been right all along about Madeleine’s identity.) And in the end, that’s what kills him.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

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.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

Recurring Background Characters

There are a few background characters in Les Misérables who never quite leave. Not just the ones who are associated with another character, like Valejan’s maid Toussaint, or the shopkeeper whom Gavroche bothers on several occasions, but characters who seem like one-offs, but come back anyway.

M. Bamatabois, the “gentleman” who attacked Fantine and precipitated her arrest, turns up on the jury of not-Valjean.

Boulatruelle, a local ne’r-do-well in Montfermeil, spends years trying to find Valjean’s secret cache of buried bank notes, taking breaks in between to help Thénardier out in his Parisian life of crime.

Village women on their way through the wood at first mistook him for Beelzebub and then saw that he was Boulatruelle, which was scarcely more reassuring.

Then there’s La Magnon, whom we never actually meet, but hear about on several occasions. She was once a servant of M. Gillenormand, Marius’ grandfather. A year or so after she left, she claimed M. Gillenormand was the father of her child. He took the boy in (arguing that he wasn’t the father, but that he’s perfectly capable of having been even at his age) until she blamed him for another baby, at which point he sent them both back, but continued to pay a stipend.

She turns out to be a friend of Mme. Thénardier, and one of the contacts on the outside after everyone is arrested following the botched extortion attempt against Jean Valjean.

Even stranger: Her own two children died at a young age, but in order to keep getting her allowance from M. Gillenormand, she got the Thénardiers to give her their two youngest children, Gavroche’s younger brothers. A second round of arrests after the extortion leaves the two boys alone on the streets, where they run into the ultimate Paris urchin: Gavroche.

She disappears at that point, but it’s a long thread for someone who initially seemed to serve only as part of the background for another character.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.