Women in Need
Inside the Family
Making Ends Meet
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
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."
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.
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.'"
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
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.
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."
Hugo, Les Misérables,
St. Denis Book II, Chapter IV
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.
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