More Les Mis facts -- FANTINE

Margaret Hall painting of Fantine

Complimentary to the following posts: 

My Year with Les Mis 

Some Things You Need to Know About Les Mis -- Jean Valjean and the Bishop 

P.S. Some Real Les Mis, Paris Texas Style 


1.  Who was she? 

Hugo calls her a grisette, which was defined by Noah Webster as a tradesman's wife or daughter. The Revolution had made her an orphan, but one that the State had apparently actually cared for, in its equality experiment.  She wasn't aristocratic, but she was still a far cry from her ending.   She was a young girl who fell in love with a boy student who was just having a lark, and who decided to go home to mama, leaving Fantine high and dry, with their child.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine
In this day and age of text message or sticky note break ups, we think that we are so crass, but in fact that type of break up has always been around and will always be around.  Of course, back then there was the added benefit of being able to well and truly disappear.  Fantine's student played a joke on her, and sent her a break up note instead of the surprise that was promised.  He walked out of her life and that was that. 

So she began her steady decline.  Yet, she remained very, very beautiful.  Hugo describes her in detail with luxurious blond hair and fine features, and her child, whom she playfully called her "Cosette"  was also a little china doll.  But when the student left, so did her support.  Unfortunately, Fantine had wasted her time in school and couldn't even write.  She was without skill of any kind.

2.  Work and shelter.  

Fantine in the factory
Fantine decided to return to her hometown, where Jean Valjean was mayor and had created an employment boom.   She couldn't claim to have been married, so in order to be the kind of upstanding citizen that could be hired, she had to hide the fact that she had a child, and that is why she found the Thenardiers to keep Cosette. (She literally ran into them on the road to town, where she came across Madame Thenardier  -- who, ironically, could read  -- with toddler Eponine in a rare Good Mommy moment).  It appeared to be a stroke of luck, Cosette was hidden but sheltered, and Fantine's virtue was intact so she was able to get a job at the factory.  But of course, there are always busy bodies.  And, we know that the Thenardiers were not what they seemed.

3.  So what?  What is the Big Deal?  

We don't really know what the importance of "character" (or the ruinous effect of the apparent lack of it) means anymore.   Thank heaven women are not tossed away for their "lack of virtue" anymore.  But in order to understand Fantine's tragedy, we must understand this point.  It is the one question that my kids asked me about Les Miserables:  Why were the women in the factory so mean to Fantine?

Here is what Hugo says:

[They had noticed that she sent letters (she paid someone to write them for her, but it was mainly money, always more, more, more money demanded by the Thenardiers).  The factory women, one in particular, had started asking questions, about the quiet, standoff-ish beauty, "Why does she. . . "]

"There are always those who, to solve one of these enigmas, which are completely irrelevant to them, spend more money, waste more time, and give themselves more trouble than ten good deeds would take -- and they do it for the pleasure of it, without being paid for their curiosity in any other way than with more curiosity.  They will follow this man or that woman all day long, stand guard for hours at street corners, under the entrance of a passageway, at night, in the cold, in the rain, bribe messengers, get carriage drivers and lackeys drunk, pay a chambermaid or bribe a porter.  For what?  For nothing.  Pure craving to see, to know, to find out.  Pure itching for scandal.  And often when these secrets are made known, these mysteries published, these enigmas brought to the light of day, they lead to catastrophes, duels, failures, the ruin of families, and make lives miserable, to the great joy of those who "discovered all"  without any ulterior motive, from pure instinct.  A sad thing."

Movie Clip -- Fantine and the Factory Workers, "At the End of the Day"
And that is all that is was.  Fantine was watched and found out, so that her unmarried state of motherhood was enough to get her fired, no questions asked, when the busybody finally discovered the secret and told the overseer. 4.  A Downfall in Stages; All for Love of Cosette.   Lest we get wrapped up in the moment of the movie, it is important to know that Fantine survived for a time, her heartbreaking downfall took about a year.  If only she had just gone and gotten Cosette!  But she didn't want to bring the child into her misery, and, thinking Cosette was well cared for, Fantine continued to find ways to keep paying all the extra money demanded by the Thenardiers.   She learned to do without; her one luxury was taking care of her beautiful hairShe also had very pretty teeth.
For Clothes:
  Almost a year after losing her good job, Fantine was financially and personally sinking, unable to keep paying the Thenardiers their continuously higher fees, despite working 17 hour days in a low paying job.  But when she learned that Cosette had no winter clothing, and it was getting cold, she immediately went out and sold her hair for ten francs and bought Cosette a wool skirt.  Of course, the Thenardiers were furious, they had wanted the money!  So the skirt was given to Eponine, and the little lark (what the neighborhood had first nicknamed Cosette), now chief servant to family, did without any warm winter clothes.  
For Medicine
  Then, the Thenardiers wrote that Cosette had "military fever" and Fantine learned that without medicine, the child could die.  They needed the enormous sum of two Napoleans -- forty francs.  Here Fantine finally starts to lose her mind and can't stop laughing -- they are crazy, she can't find forty francs!  But she loves her baby.  She is walking the streets, laughing in unhinged despair, when she runs into a traveling dentist who tells her she's got great incisors, and he'll pay her a gold Napolean for each.  
Afterward, Fantine's neighbor sees her and knows that something terrible has happened, she has aged ten years overnight!  But Fantine isn't troubled because:
" . . . my child will not die from that horrible disease because I couldn't send help.  I am satisfied. . . . 
At the same time, she smiled.  The candle lit up her face.  It was a sickening smile, the corners of her mouth were stained with blood, and there was a black hole where her front teeth had been.
They had been pulled out.
She sent the forty francs to Montfermeil.
Actually, the Thernardiers had lied to her to get the money.  Cosette was not sick at all.  
Fantine threw the mirror out the window."
For Continued Care:  
And finally, Thernardier showed his true colors and simply demanded 100 francs, or he would throw convalescing Cosette out on the streets:
"All right! she said.  I'll sell what is left. 
The unfortunate creature became a woman of the streets." 
 And here Hugo says: 
"What is the story of Fantine about?  It is about society buying a slave.  . . . [T]hey say that slavery has disappeared from European civilization.  That is incorrect.  It still exists, but now it weighs only on women, and it is called prostitution].  
It weighs on women.  That is to say grace, frailty, beauty, motherhood. This is not the least among man's shames." 
As to Fantine,  he says: 
"She fears nothing now.  Every cloud falls upon her, and the whole ocean sweeps over her!  What does it matter to her?  The sponge is already saturated.
It isn't quite right, is it?  Fantine and Javert
So she believed at least, but it is wrong to imagine that one can exhaust one's destiny or fully plumb the depths of anything.
Alas!  What are all these destinies driven helter-skelter?  Where do they go?  Why are they what they are? 
He who knows that sees all darkness.
He is alone.  His name is God."  
What happens to Fantine?  She is taunted on the street one night and goes mad, attacks her taunter, and finds to her horror that the officer who came to his rescue was none other than Javert.  She shuddered in terror when she met him. 
5.  I Dreamed a Dream
And so,  you see,  Fantine's song, I Dreamed A Dream is indeed one of the best character adaptations I have ever encountered.  Here are the words to the song that Anne Hathaway portrayed so well as to actually become the wretched, miserable Fantine:
There was a time when men were kind When their voices were soft And their words inviting There was a time when love was blind And the world was a song And the song was exciting There was a time Then it all went wrong
 I dreamed a dream in time gone by When hope was high And life worth living I dreamed that love would never die I dreamed that God would be forgiving Then I was young and unafraid And dreams were made and used and wasted There was no ransom to be paid No song unsung, no wine untasted But the tigers come at night With their voices soft as thunder As they tear your hope apart As they turn your dream to shame
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 I had a dream my life would be So different from this hell I'm living So different now from what it seemed Now life has killed the dream I dreamed
Written / Composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil
To all of those  involved in getting Fantine's story right -- thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
P.S. -- Just for fun, and to end you on a happy note, here is the Susan Boyle tryout that brought all of this back to life -- 


Unknown said…
What did you think of Anne Hathaway's portrayal of this part?
Sydney Young said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sydney Young said…
I loved what she did. I saw someone critique her saying it was a sniveling mess! My answer to that is -- it sure was, and that was perfect. It is the most accurate portrayal of Fantine that I have ever seen. Hathaway said she felt that she had to go for it and show the emotion rather than sing a perfect song, especially because the song comes later in the movie than it does in the stage production. I completely agree. What happened to Fantine was heartbreakingly, shockingly ugly. Hathaway made it real, and she made me think she was Fantine. I can't give a higher compliment than that. Just my opinion. How about you?
Unknown said…
Love catching up on some Syd Savvy blog posts! I still think Hathaway played her one dimensionally- weak. We lose her strength, her courage, her ability to go on while losing everything. She is pitiful and frail, which is OK, but where were all the other amazing facets of this character who moves us in spite of her brief appearance in the story? (I think she's winning an Oscar for starving herself and cutting off her hair, choices the Academy will find "brave"... for a woman.)
Sydney Young said…
Ooh, good thoughts, I can see that, too. Fantine will always fascinate, and she will always make me stop and consider. And thank my lucky stars.

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