Now that Fantine has left her daughter Cosette in the care of the Thenardiers and we have had a little introduction into what the Thenardiers are really like, we get to see how Cosette made out while in the Thenardiers’ care. Heads up: Not very well.
Fantine left Cosette with good clothes; the Thenardiers sold them all to pay off some debts and dressed Cosette in hand-me-downs from Eponine and Azelma, which by the time they reached her, were in dreadful shape. The Thenardiers took all the money which Fantine sent them for Cosette and spent it on their own business and their own debts. For meals, Cosette ate leftovers from the family dinners along with the pets. Whenever Fantine wrote (or rather had a public letter-writer write, since she was illiterate) to inquire about how Cosette was doing, the Thenardiers responded that she was doing very well, and never even began to let on to the truth of the situation.
No doubt Victor Hugo was inspired by the story of Cinderella when it came to describing Cosette’s fortunes at this point in the story. The evil stepmother, the two step-sisters, the loving father who is powerless to help, the rags to wear and leftovers to eat, are all elements of the Cinderella story which appear here; the evil stepmother as Madame Thenardier, the step-sisters as Eponine and Azelma, the loving but ineffective parent as Fantine.
Allow yourself to be taken in by the power of Victor Hugo’s eloquence as he describes Madame Thenardier’s attitude towards the three children in her household:
There are certain natures that cannot have love on one side without hatred on the other. Madame Thenardier passionately loved her own little ones and therefore detested the young stranger. It is sad to realize that a mother’s love can have such a dark side. Little as was the place Cosette occupied in the house, it seemed to her that this little was taken from her children, and that Cosette decreased the air her girls breathed. This woman, like many of her kind, had a certain amount of caresses and a certain amount of blows and hard words to dispense each day. If she had not had Cosette, surely her daughters, idolized as they were, would have received it all, but the little stranger did them the service of attracting the blows to herself; her children had only the caresses. Cosette could not stir without drawing down on herself a hailstorm of undeserved and severe chastisements. A frail, gentle little one who must not have understood anything of this world, or of God; continually ill-treated, scolded, punished, beaten, she saw beside her two other young things like herself, who lived in a halo of glory!
At first Fantine had the utmost confidence that she would be coming back soon for Cosette. But one year passed, and then another. People in the village talked about how good the Thenardiers were to take on this poor child who had been abandoned by her mother. Apparently they had no conception of the possibility that Cosette’s mother loved her very much but had been forced by the circumstances of her life to make a very hard choice. Apparently they were full of the certainty that life could never and would never turn on them in such a way that they would ever be forced to make the hard choices which Cosette’s mother was forced to make.
And that is precisely why Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables: to speak to a nation that was rigid in its class structure, whose upper classes lived in the complacent, presumptive assurance and certainty that the good life belonged to them by right and that it would always be there for them, no matter what. To open their eyes to the fact that there is a whole world of people out there who are just as human as the rest of us, but by virtue of their social standing are forced to live poorly and make hard choices.
Things are a little different in our day and age. For the most part, single parents in present-day America have it somewhat better than did Fantine. In our society, social classes are less rigid and prosperity and affluence–to a certain extent, at least–is available to a much broader segment of the population than it was in 19th century France. Also, due to the much greater prevalence of divorce and other family ills in our day, the stigma attached to being a single parent is much less than it was then.
Is this a good thing? I would say so. To be sure, some single parents happen into that state as a result of their own mistakes and poor life choices. But an awful lot are forced into single parenthood by the irresponsibility of others or by the cruelty of fate. But be that as it may, single parents have a very hard lot as a result of having to bear a burden of responsibility which ought to be borne by two parents together, and many are frequently forced to make very hard choices as to what is best for their children. Anyone who can bear this burden well is deserving of the utmost respect and admiration.
Those of you out there who are single parents–single moms especially: Know that you have a friend and advocate in Victor Hugo.
As Cosette grew older she became a source of cheap labor for the Thenardiers. She ran errands, swept the house, the yard, and the street, even carried heavy loads. She was so disfigured as a result of the burden of labor which she was forced to bear that if Fantine had come back for her after three years, she would not have even recognized her.
It was harrowing to see the poor child, in winter, not yet six years old, shivering under the tatters of what was once a calico dress, sweeping the street before daylight with an enormous broom in her little red hands and tears in her large eyes.
In the neighborhood she was called the Lark. People like figurative names and were happy to give a nickname to this child, no larger than a bird, trembling, frightened, and shivering, first to wake every morning in the house and the village, always in the street or in the fields before dawn.
Except that the poor lark never sang.