Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

Representing Poor Women in Les Misérables

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Brion, The Arrest, from Les Misérables. Fantine remains ingrained in the reader's mind as a defenseless and naive victim, belying the savvy of many real women who shared her situation.

"[Fantine] passed whole nights in weeping and thinking. She had a strange brilliance in her eyes, and a constant pain in her shoulder near the top of her left shoulder-blade. She coughed a great deal. She hated Father Madeleine thoroughly, and never complained. She sewed seventeen hours a day ... her creditors were more pitiless than ever ... Good God! what did they want her to do? She felt herself hunted down, and something of the wild beast began to develop within her."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Fantine Book IV, Chapter X

 

The character of Fantine, essential to Victor Hugo's novel, serves as a highly romantacized and thus problematic depiction of poor women in 19th century France. She is the classic victim: used by a lover, left alone and pregnant, doomed to struggle through the obstacles society places in her way, eventually turning to prostitution as her last resort. While many of Fantine's difficulties are realistic (her difficulty finding employment, the stigma placed on single mothers, unattainable education or medical care), she is rendered as an innocent victim.

Hugo created this image with good intentions, striving to dispel negative stereotypes of the immoral and dangerous poor. Yet in doing so, he also portrays impoverished women of the time as weak and helpless, an image which is inaccurate. Naturally, these women were prone to numerous oppressive and detrimental social structures; however, their survival skills were strong. Fantine shows this to some extent through her resourcefulness, continually finding new means of supporting Cosette. And although prostitution was undeniably a societal evil, women making this final sacrifice of dignity were often displaying their incredible dedication to keeping themselves and their families afloat-- they permitted this appalling degradation so that their children could eat.

 

 

 

"There was a moment of silence in the den. The eldest daughter was scraping the mud off the bottom of her dress with a careless air, the young sister continued to sob; the mother had taken her head in both hands and was covering her with kisses, saying to her in a low tone: 'My treasure, I beg of you, it will be nothing, do not cry, you will make your father angry.'"

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Marius BookVIII, Chapter VIII

Brion, The Thénardiers, from Les Misérables. While the Thénardiers are both portrayed as entirely brutal, savage monsters, Madame Thénardier reveals a few redeeming qualities-- although Hugo never allows them to develop.

 

Madame Thénardier represents the other end of the spectrum when representing 19th century French women. In contrast to the naive, sweet Fantine, Madame Thénardier is domineering and shrewish. Her behavior is almost exclusively cruel; she abuses Cosette, assists in criminal activities, and extorts money. This was another common perception of these poor women, particularly older ones. They were viewed as corrupt, vicious creatures, hags who relied on unethical maneuvers. While Madame Thénardier's actions are certainly not condonable, Hugo hints at another, more positive dimension of her character, but neglects to explore it. Her devotion to her family is unquestionable. From the beginning, her affection for Eponine and Azelma seems apparent, and she lavishes love upon them even while she takes advantage of Cosette. Later, when Marius encounters the family, he witnesses her comforting the girls in the face of her husband's virulent treatment. She openly confronts Monsieur Thénardier when he causes Azelma's injury. The prevailing image is of a woman who is so protective and adoring of her offspring that her evil actions are the results of desperate circumstances. Just as Fantine's survival instincts lead her to selling her teetch and her body, Madame Thénardier opts to manipulate those around her. Yet her sharper personality and less attractive appearance lead to her vilification.

 

"Eponine had accomplished a double progress towards the light, and towards distress. She was barefooted and in rags, as on the day when she had so resolutely entered his room, only her rags were two months older; the holes were larger, the tatters dirtier. It was the same rough voice, the same forehead tanned and wrinkled by exposure; the same free, wild, and wandering gaze. She had, in addition to her former expression, that mixture of fear and sorrow which the experience of a prison adds to misery."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, St. Denis Book II, Chapter IV

In Eponine, though, Victor Hugo created a charater that effectively and realistically represents the poor women of 19th century France. Her role reversal with Cosette, that shift from a life of comfort to a life of destitution, renders her situation even more tragic.

Hugo does not gloss over Eponine's involvement with her father's criminal activities. She admits to carrying forged letters to wealthy members of the community, Hugo implies that she has been forced by her father into child prostitution. Marius is repelled by her initially, echoing the sentiment that the majority of more priveleged individuals bore towards the poor. Indeed, on superficial terms, Eponine appears to be as corrupt as her parents, as desperate as Fantine, and as devoid of options as many of her contemporaries.

Brion, Eponine, from Les Misérables. Of all of Hugo's representations of poor 19th century women, Eponine alone illustrates numerous positive qualities as well as the vulnerabilities of her situation.

Within the course of the novel, however, Eponine transcends these two-dimensional images. Compassionate and intelligent, she proves herself the very antithesis of both the helpless victim and the dangerous poor.

Eponine initially breaks the mold by refusing to go along with several of her father's plans. She deserts her post when he attempts to destroy Valjean and she openly confronts him and the Patron-Minette as they try to invade Rue Plumet, a highly dangerous choice. She reveals inherent goodness when she waters Father Mabeuf's garden, and especially when she sacrifices her life to save Marius's. These are not congruent with stereotypes.