What Les Miserables Reveals about Modern Women
But in Les Mis, Fantine rises to the office of female protagonist ultimately as a martyr—a woman who suffered at the hands of her female factory coworkers and turned to prostitution to provide care for her daughter. She would be a mother no matter the cost, even the cost of her own life. She is an old-fashioned female protagonist, perhaps—sacrificing herself for the sake of her daughter—but one who feminists should be proud to embrace. (That should not be read as an endorsement of prostitution, but as an acknowledgement of the lengths to which mothers will go to ensure their children will have a better life than they.)
One of the storylines of Les Mis that the film largely overlooks is Fantine's relationship with her aristocratic lover, Tholomyès. He got her pregnant, she loved him, he fled, leaving Fantine alone to care for their daughter. This isn't only a story about gender—although we are remiss to ignore that the power-abusing party is a man—but about privilege. Tholomyès is a wealthy student whose abandonment of Fantine underscores the natural consequences of a society that encourages the irresponsibility of young men and victimizes women. Fantine's song "I Dreamed a Dream" is a heartbreaking revelation of the effects of that society on a bereft human soul, a wanderer whose search for light has brought only darkness:
He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came
And still I dream he'll come to me
That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
Fantine has lost her dream. All she can do is stay faithful to the daughter she loves dearly. The innocence of her youth is long gone; death approaches, and she wonders if God can forgive what she has done. And today? Who would she turn to? Valjean had the Bishop of Digne, and Fantine had Valjean, but so much of her life was colored by despair. The words that we have to offer to each other, to the world around us, are the words of God to her.
The women of Les Mis may not be feminist icons by modern-day standards. But they are faithful representations of the lives of lower-class women in early-19th-century France. Hugo writes these characters with admiration and sympathy for the unthinkable plights they endure. Fantine was a singular portrait of widespread problem: the selling of women out of poverty and into prostitution. Hugo wrote as much when he wrote that the history of Fantine is "society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from abandonment, from privation." It is a social contract we honor to this day.
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