Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Agency: Cosette vs. Éponine vs. Florence

I recently dug out my recordings of Chess and listened to them extensively. With Judy Kuhn playing Florence on the Broadway version, I found myself comparing the roles of Florence and Cosette.

Florence in Chess is a much more complex character than the Cosette we see in the musical of Les Misérables. While it’s true that Florence is defined mainly through her relationships with men – her missing father, Freddie, and Anatoly – her role involves making choices, and dealing with consequences, and her frustrations at what she’s given up to support Freddie, or to be with Anatoly, and whether what she’s gained is worth it.

She’s got three solos, a duet with the other woman, and is an active part in many of the ensemble numbers. (The show doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test though, since the only conversation Florence has with another woman is about Anatoly. Which reminds me, I really need to listen to Fun Home.)

Cosette on stage is just someone to be taken care of.  First by Valjean as a surrogate father, then by Marius.  She doesn’t get to do anything on her own. Her only real solo is “Castle on a Cloud,” sung when she’s a child. Then she has duets with both of the men in her life, and background spots in the ensemble numbers. It’s a very paternalistic view.

I think that’s what makes Éponine so appealing: She has agency, taking an active role in the story. (That, and anyone from their teenage years onward can relate to having a crush on someone who doesn’t return it.) Plus a lot of what she does somewhat altruistic, sacrificing her happiness for someone else’s. She knows she’s going to get in trouble for stopping the robbery at the Rue Plumet, but she does it anyway. She knows that helping Marius find Cosette is going to destroy any chance she has with him, but again, she does it anyway. She runs off to the barricade to be with him in their last moments, and literally takes a bullet for him.

It’s a little different in the book.

We get clues here and there that Cosette longs for something more. I wouldn’t go so far as “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but she takes as active a role as she can given her position in society. She’s a respectable young woman, and has to act within those rules. She and Marius actually have an extended secret courtship over the course of months in the form of secret glances and signs. She doesn’t just fall for the first guy she walks into. She chooses and encourages him. But she can’t go looking for him, couldn’t go visit him even if she knew where he lived, because her position won’t allow it.

The only time we get a hint of this in the musical is in her segment of “In My Life,” where she confronts Valjean about his secrets, complaining that he still sees her as a child, and he shuts her down, proving it. (It was refreshing to see Claire Danes succeed in the Neeson/Rush movie, even if doing so wiped out the main story of last 150 pages of the book.)

Éponine, however, isn’t as constrained. As an outlaw, Éponine can go where she wants, when she wants. She doesn’t have to fear losing respectability, because she doesn’t have it. She’s able to stare down an entire gang of thieves by telling them she’s seen worse than them. And yet at the same time, there are still limits. She can’t bring herself to tell Marius how she feels until her dying breath. When she finally breaks down, tormented by the sight of Marius and Cosette together, and starts pulling strings to separate them (and get Marius killed!), she does it in secret: she hides in the shadows, drops notes on people, and disguises herself as a boy.

Victor Hugo, for all his egalitarianism, was still a product of his time, and still had specific roles in mind for men and women. It’s odd to watch him argue extensively for society to treat women better, then stop short of (and actively discourage) giving them a full say in it.