The Problem with Les Miserables

I’m going to start this post by saying that I LOVE Les Miserables. I love the music, I love the characters, it’s one of my favorite musicals, and I was thrilled when I got the chance to see it on the West End last week.

That said, boy does this musical lack good female characters.

Sure, Fantine and Eponine have great solos. And who hasn’t angstily empathized with Eponine and wished Marius would just see sense already? As far as I’m aware, her unrequited love makes her one of the most popular female characters in any musical.

But every female character in Les Miserables is consumed by male characters. Eponine sings of almost nothing but her unrequited love and then dies in that man’s arms after running errands to enable his relationship with Cosette. Cosette herself has spent life locked away, falls in love with Marius at first sight, and spends the rest of her time swooning over him and desperately wanting to be with him. Madam Thenardier is a fun double act with her husband, but no one would deny that Thenardier himself is the main comic relief character and that his wife is an accessory in his scenes. And although Fantine comes the closest to being an independent character, she sings about her wish that Cosette’s father would return to her, and her story is framed entirely by Jean Valjean — him ignoring her plight at the beginning, and then him rescuing her and promising to care for Cosette when she dies.

It’s pretty bleak, when the musical has so many complex and compelling male characters. Jean Valjean struggles with how to be a good man. Javert has a similar struggle on the other side of the fence in his dogged pursuit of a criminal. The students are all passionate about politics and freedom. The bishop shows unexpected goodness. And even Marius gets time to be loyal to his friends and care about revolution along with his longing for Cosette. Yet the female characters are all about romance, or accessories to the male protagonists in some way.

The portrayal of all female characters (bar Mme Thenardier) as helpless and weak even makes the male characters look worse. Are we supposed to call Jean Valjean a hero for taking sympathy on a dying Fantine, or think him a good person for keeping Cosette locked away her entire life? Can we like Marius, when he agrees to lie to Cosette about where her father has gone, and only brings her to see him when he learns that Valjean saved his life? He keeps them separate as long as Valjean only means something to Cosette, but once he realizes that Valjean is important to him as well, he reunites them. And this is sympathetic?

Of course, the musical is constrained by the plot of the original novel, and as I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment the material that the writers of the musical had to work with. But even the basic plot would have allowed for more depth and interaction between female characters, if someone cared to give it to them. Eponine gets a couple of lines about how she remembers Cosette, but it would have been far more interesting to see the two interact, given their history. Perhaps female characters could have had more to say about the revolution, besides mourning the dead. What was Eponine’s opinion on it? And how does Eponine feel about her family? Does she want anything in life beyond Marius? And Cosette: what does she think of her mother? We could easily hear more about how she’s frustrated at being kept in the dark, an idea that is introduced in In My Life. And yet we don’t. It’s all men, all the time.

And that’s incredibly disappointing in a musical that gets so many other things right.

05 comments on “The Problem with Les Miserables

  • Concinnity Blaise , Direct link to comment

    Oh man, it’s worth reading the book. I think there are a few lines in it about Mme Thenardier that are the saddest thing, because she starts it *really* in love with her husband and utterly devoted to him… and then when we see them ten years later, there’s nothing left of her love for him but the habit of it.

    And then she dies in prison and her husband becomes a slave trader in the US.

    It’s that sort of novel.

    I think a lot of the problem is the constraint of the book though – although at the same time, it’s got a lot more varied roles for women, including the sister of the bishop who cares for him (but is utterly obedient to him!) Sister Simplice, etc. It was still written in the nineteenth century and with a lot of the views of that time – while at the same time spending huge chapters with Hugo wandering off into rants about how badly the poor are treated, etc. Marius’ relationship with Cosette also makes a lot more sense, as it happens over months rather then AND SUDDENLY THEY WERE IN LOVE.

    • Kyle , Direct link to comment

      Marius and Cosette spend months falling in love with each others looks but never their personalities. That’s not love if you ask me

  • Natalie , Direct link to comment

    You have to keep in mind that this takes place during the 18th century, when sexism was a social norm.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Les Mis is set in the 19th century, and the musical was written in the late 20th century. A story might be set in a sexist society, but that the writing itself gets a free pass for sexism.

  • Noah , Direct link to comment

    Eponine is most surely NOT helpless and weak. Do you forget the scene where she stands up to an entire band of armed criminals just to protect an innocent girl? And if they’d harmed Cosette, she’d have Marius all to herself, so her motivation wasn’t just to win favor with her unrequited love. One thing she DID do for love, though, was when she realized that everyone in her life was complete shit except for him and the world hated her, and so she walked through a storm of gunfire just for the chance to see him one last time. That’s fucking badass.
    And Cosette being locked away isn’t seen as a good thing. Her entire arc is trying to cope with her childhood abuse, the shame she is assumed to carry for not knowing her parents (although this can be hidden to others just by lying), and eventually breaking free of the control Valjean keeps her under. She rebels in a very risky way by seeing Marius at the gate, and she does it because she believes that she finally has someone who is hers, rather than her being someone else’s. She’s more confident and ready than Marius, and rebels against Valjean’s strictness without treating him poorly, something which takes great determination and restraint.

    i love these two so much, you don’t even know

What do you think?

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