On Fantine

It’s difficult to know what to think of Fantine in Les Miserables. She’s a tragic figure who sings a fantastic song, but as she dies quite early in the musical, it also seems highly possible to dismiss her as a Victorian cliche. She is, to put it simply, the tragic fallen woman, who gets pregnant, turns to prostitution to support herself, and dies (assumedly) of consumption. Yet she also represents another cliche of Victorian literature, of the selfless, self-sacrificing, utterly devoted mother, and it is partly this combination of cliches, I think, that makes Fantine a powerful character.

Because let’s be honest. The figure of the tragic prostitute, or the tragically fallen woman, and the figure of the sacrificing mother rarely meet as one figure. They belong in different realms — both are likely to die, but one is a cautionary tale about female behavior and a romanticisation of downfall, and the other is a sentimental (if tragic) celebration of the extreme virtues of motherhood. The fact that Victor Hugo, and eventually the musical, combine these two common tropes of the Victorian novel allows them to present a character who pulls on the heartstrings in a reassuringly familiar way… but who also makes a bold and blunt commentary on the society that Hugo saw.

I only recently learned that Fantine’s character was inspired by an actual incident witnessed by Victor Hugo in Paris. He witnessed a man harassing a prostitute in the street, and then, when the woman fought back, calling the police and insisting that she be arrested for her attack. Hugo interceded on the woman’s behalf, but could not get the unfairness of the incident out of his mind, and his ponderings on the woman’s history and the possibility of her having a child led him to create the character of Fantine. In some ways, this is a rather uncomfortable anecdote, not only for what it said about society at the time but also because Hugo felt the need to purify the woman into a completely selfless mother in his story to make her sympathetic. However, it also reveals the (plainly obvious, I think) attempts of both Hugo and the later musical at presenting a social critique, at trying to address real situations experienced by real women, and pointing out that the tragic fallen woman is not just a romantic cliche, but a reality that must be prevented.

Ultimately, I think Fantine succeeds as a character because, although she has little agency in the story and dies tragically early on, she is given a voice and a perspective of her own. She sings one of the musical’s most powerful songs, and our hearts are with her the entire time she is onstage. From the time she appears until her death, Valjean is all but forgotten. This is her story, and it is a heartbreaking one, allowing her to be somewhat cliched, utterly sympathetic and compelling, a real-feeling character, and an excellent source of social commentary, all at the same time.

03 comments on “On Fantine

  • Anne , Direct link to comment

    I hope I’m not being pedantic, but you can’t call Les Misérables a Victorian novel. Simply because Victor Hugo is a French writer, not a British one. The concept of the Victorian novel is never applied to French works, because French and British novels written in this period were created in two different cultural, social, economic contexts, associated with different artistic movement, and in two different languages (this may sound banal, but it means different system of images, different idiosyncrases, different net of sonorities… expressing thus different realities, because they do not function in the same way), despite the links and similarities between them. Les Misérables was written on a long period, and it contains both the influence of the French Romantic movement (which differs a bit from the British one) and of the Realistic movement (I think that would be the right translation). When it was published in 1962, Hugo had lived through five political regimes (and they are very distinct), and was to see the birth of a sixth.
    It’s really interesting, because he received so many different influences (not only literary, but political, social, etc…) and invented many new forms (especially in the theater and in poetry).
    I’d be at a loss to define Les Misérables, actually. You could say it’s a historical novel, in the broadest sense, but it’s also much more, due to its large form.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thanks so much for your comment. I must admit I know basically nothing about French literature (my reading exposure has literally only been Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera), and my French history knowledge mostly misses out the 19th century, so I’m really glad you called me out on my error. Can you tell that I study British 19th novels almost exclusively, with the occasional American one thrown in for luck? :-/ I’m actually about to start reading the book of Les Miserables for the first time, so hopefully I’ll be much more enlightened on the matter by the end of it!

      • Anne , Direct link to comment

        Well, I can only encourage to dig more into the French XIX century! It’s such a literary feast. Many movements occured… From Chateaubriand to the writers of the Belle Epoque, it was an incredibly rich century for novels (think Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Zola for the most famous), poetry (Larmartine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud (my favourite!), Verlaine, …), theatre (with what we call “the bourgeois drama”. Hugo was a pioneer for that!). Interestingly enough, Hugo really did it all- and he brought something new in each and every genre… He was also a fascinating political figure- he started out as a pair -a monarchist-, and then later went out as a Republican (quite early actually, already in the short-lived IInd Republic. He actually went on England on exile due to his opposition to Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoléon’s nephew). Even for his contemporaries, he was icon.
        I can’t emphasize enough how much you’re missing out with French literature, and especially that of the XIXth century. But also from a cultural point of view- you’ll see the ties with the literature of other countries, especially of Great-Britain.
        The XIXth century has many historical turning points, too: a lot of our ideas come from them. It shaped our political regime too, as it saw the beginning of the IIIrd Republic in 1870- the regime lasted until the second World War. Many social or political ideas we continue to uphold come from the XIXth century, I would know what to begin with (I believe Fantine’s portrayal actually illustrates a change concerning the contemporaries preoccupations – after the 1830s, there was a sudden awareness of the situation of the poor in urban areas-. I think Hugo is being rather -if not very- progressive, here, and he was probably influenced by those who called themselves the “Hygiénistes”. I’m not sure what the term would be in English- there was a similar, albeit not identical- movement in England at the same time!)
        History scholar have the habit of saying that for France (but it’s true for other countries), the XIXth century ended in 1914, which marks the end of a world, and the start of the XXth century. Some have the XIXth century begin after Napoléon’s fall, too.
        It’s always helpful to have historical notions (I’m a Humanities student, so I have History class as well), but especially so concerning the XIXth century.

What do you think?

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