Okay, last time we broke off from Jean Valjean’s story and went to Paris, where we saw how four young Parisian guys played a rather nasty trick on four girls. One of the girls involved in this was the young lady Fantine, who will play a major part in the action to come.
When we first met Fantine, we saw that she was ravishingly beautiful, with stunning blonde hair and gorgeous white teeth. We saw that she was a child of unknown parentage; she just showed up one day as an orphaned toddler walking the streets of Montreuil-sur-mer. She had no family name; no one knew who her parents were and no one cared to even try to track them down. She had no baptismal name; the Directory was in power then and the Church was not performing baptisms then. We touched on this in my earlier post about the spiritual element of Les Miserables. At any rate, she grew up working out in the fields as soon as she was old enough, and then she made her way to Paris to “seek her fortune”. There she met and fell in love with Tholomyes, and that is what got her into this double quartet.
We kind of breezed through their little outing and the surprise, but I wanted to come back and hit on a couple of things before we move on.
First of all, notice that Fantine pretty much recedes into the background during the course of the outing. We get a lot about her character, physical appearance, and inner state early on, but when the group conversation starts up, we notice that she really doesn’t have a lot to say. In fact there is really almost no mention of her. There was one instance when Tholomyes burst into song and the whole group sang along, and we see that Fantine alone refused to sing. Later, when the horse falls down and dies right in front of Bombarda’s, Fantine says, “Poor horse!” Just two words to contribute to the conversation. And when the guys leave, Fantine says, “Don’t be long!” And when the note comes, Fantine laughs along with the rest of the girls but says nothing. Also notice the words which Victor Hugo used to describe Fantine’s speaking: “sighed Fantine…murmured Fantine…Fantine cried…Fantine sighed”. It is as if her speech is something light and ethereal, barely anything more substantial than a whisper. And when she does speak, her words are very plain, with nothing that would draw our attention to them. “Poor horse!…Don’t be too long, we’re waiting for you….Don’t be long!…That’s strange, I thought the stage coaches never stopped.” And notice how quickly the other girls jump in whenever she speaks, as if to make us immediately forget that Fantine ever said anything.
Another thing to notice here is Fantine’s complete and utter lack of experience in the world. She loved Tholomyes with all the ardor of a first love; for her this was her first and only love. She gave her whole heart and soul to him, fully believing, hoping, and expecting that he would do the same for her. The other girls were far more experienced than her and they had no such illusions. Notice how dismissive they are of Fantine whenever she says anything to betray her naivete or lack of worldly experience–such as when she shows empathy for the dying horse, and when she noticed the stage coach that stopped momentarily outside of Bombarda’s right after the guys left. (Victor Hugo does not say anything to indicate this, but I would be willing to bet good money that that coach that Fantine saw stopping briefly right in front of Bombarda’s was the Toulouse coach, stopping just long enough to pick up the four guys. If the other girls had been willing to pay attention to this, they may not have been able to do anything about it but they would have at least known that something was up.) And notice how differently they responded to the crass departure of their lovers; to the other girls it was nothing much, but to Fantine it was a devastating blow.
Another thing which comes out in all of this: Victor Hugo holds Fantine to be a virtuous woman. In describing her he says that “her face in repose was supremely virginal…Love is a fault; be it so. Fantine was innocence floating on the surface of this fault.” Why was she a virtuous woman? This had nothing to do with her circumstances or her station in life; just reading this section of the story shoud disabuse us of any such notions. The three other girls share Fantine’s station in life, yet as far as virtue and innocence they are the complete opposite of her. (By the way, the literary term for this is that they are foils to Fantine.) We see this in Hugo’s descriptions of their dress:
The three others, less timid as we have said, wore low-necked dresses, which in summer, beneath bonnets covered with flowers, are full of grace and allure; but beside this daring attire, the canezou of the blond Fantine, with its transparencies, indiscretions, and reticence, at once concealing and disclosing, seemed a provoking godsend of decency; and the famous court of love, presided over by the Viscountess de Cette, with the sea-green eyes, would probably have given the prize for coquetry to this canezou, which had entered the lists for that of modesty. Sometimes the simplest is the wisest. That’s how it is.
We also see this in their reactions to Fantine when she tries to contribute to the conversation. When she sympathizes with the dying horse, Favourite exclaims, “Now we have Fantine sympathizing with horses! Have you ever seen anything so absurd?” Notice that she doesn’t even bother to reply to Fantine directly. When Fantine points out what I would bet was the Toulouse coach stopping to pick up the four guys, Favourite belittles her again: “This Fantine is surprising, very curious. She’s amazed at the simplest things. Suppose I’m a traveler and say to the stagecoach drivers, ‘I’m going ahead: pick me up on the way by the quay.’ The stagecoach passes, sees me, stops and picks me up. This happens every day.” And only at the end does she address Fantine directly: “You know nothing of life, my dear.” And when the nasty surprise finally came, the other girls laughed and took it as a joke, but to Fantine it was a most devastating blow.
So we see that the other girls, while of the same station of life as Fantine, were quite different from her. Thus it is not correct to attribute to Victor Hugo the idea that virtue or nobility lies with the underclasses by virtue of their station in life.
So where does Fantine’s virtue lie? It lies in the fact that she went along in life, trying to play the hand she was dealt (and it was a shitty hand, to be sure), and to keep on doing the next right thing regardless of where she was. None of the evil which befell her was the result of her own choices, except when she made those choices in ignorance. Rather, it was the result of society acting against her. Her parents disappearing, no one even bothering to try to track them down for her, Tholomyes impregnating and then abandoning her, and the nasty events which we will see later on. Granted, she did make the decision to love and trust Tholomyes, but this decision was made in ignorance and later on he would prove to be monumentally unworthy of her devotion.
Another thing to note is that Fantine was not educated. This ties in with Victor Hugo’s big thing about universal free education solving all of the world’s problems. When we look at the characters in this story, generally the ones who do not turn out well are the ones who are not educated. In Fantine’s case the proof was that she could not read; this leads her into greater difficulties later on down the road, as we shall see.
Next time, we will see how Fantine makes out in the aftermath of Tholomyes’ departure.