As the longest-running Broadway musical in the world, “Les Misérables,” has left a colossal mark on the musical theater community. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, it follows a large cast of characters through the politically tumultuous years leading up to the Paris Uprising of 1832. While it is mostly praised for its gritty portrayal of poverty, it is also notable for its characterizations of women through four main female characters: Fantine, Madame Thénardier, Cosette, and Eponine.
Our first heroine is Fantine, who falls into poverty after she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Unable to care for her daughter Cosette while holding a full-time job at a factory, she leaves her child with the innkeeper Thénardier and his wife. The factory foreman sexually harasses Fantine and fires her when she rejects his advances, so she becomes a sex worker. When a disgruntled customer tries to rape her, she fights back, but the policeman Javert arrests her for defending herself. Although the protagonist Valjean advocates for her freedom and promises to take care of both Fantine and Cosette, the traumatized Fantine dies of consumption before she can begin a new life.
Fantine’s story handles sexual harassment, sex work and rape with a surprisingly progressive perspective. The musical avoids victim-blaming, portrays her abusers as unredeemable villains and doesn’t morally condemn sex workers. In fact, Fantine becomes a sex worker because she is selfless enough to perform work she despises out of love for Cosette. Although the “saintly mother” or “Madonna” archetype sometimes reinforces traditional gender roles, Fantine’s fierce determination to keep her child alive comes only from her own power as a single mother, not from adherence to patriarchy. Through her suffering, the musical boldly condemns violence against women.
The brutal, unscrupulous Madame Thénardier is a foil to Fantine’s altruism. Although she promises Fantine she will care for Cosette, she forces Cosette into servitude while pampering her own children. She and her husband also swindle the guests at their inn, and when they lose their business, they launch a crime gang on the streets. Years later, they attempt to blackmail Cosette and her lover Marius on their wedding day, but Marius foils their plans and triumphantly throws them out of the wedding.
While Madame Thénardier is hardly an aspirational character, she exhibits impressive autonomy and rejects the role of a good housewife, frequently haranguing her husband and making bawdy jokes. However, these qualities are portrayed as merely comedic rather than evil; her villainy stems from her greed and lack of compassion for others, which are not connected to patriarchal standards of behavior. Although the Thénardiers operate their schemes as a pair, Madame Thenardier seals her own fate independently of her husband because she chooses to be cruel and dishonest, and the musical condemns the Thénardiers equally without regard to gender.
The musical’s portrayal of Madame Thénardier also reduces the negative influence of gender roles present in the original novel. The novel problematically conflates Madame Thénardier’s large frame, masculine features, and lack of conventional beauty with her malevolent character, but the musical focuses more on her disheveled, tacky appearance than her size or femininity.
Fantine’s daughter Cosette symbolizes hope amidst despair. We first meet her at nine years old, singing sweetly about her dreams of a utopian world as she sweeps the Thénardiers’ floors. After Fantine’s death, Valjean adopts her from the Thénardiers and provides her with a comfortable but sheltered life. As a teenager, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young revolutionary. Valjean’s past and the Paris Uprising temporarily separate the lovers, but Cosette and Marius ultimately reunite.
Although Cosette initially appears to be a passive character, she exhibits subtle strength. Valjean’s well-meaning but overbearing parenting limits her mobility, but she still pursues a relationship with Marius despite Valjean’s initial disapproval. While her story ends in marriage, she is not forced into a patriarchal institution; she chooses Marius because he gives her happiness. Furthermore, she is emotionally resilient – her hopeful spirit prevails even when other characters lose faith.
The story of Madame Thénardier’s daughter, Eponine, revolves around her unrequited love for Marius, who is smitten with Cosette and sees Eponine as only a friend. Eponine initially tries to sabotage their relationship by stealing Cosette’s love letter to Marius, but her conscience motivates her to track down Marius at the Paris Uprising, where he and his comrades are rioting against the oppressive monarchy. She is wounded in the shootout, and as Marius comforts her, she confesses her love for him before she dies.
Some critics reduce Eponine to a lovesick girl who dies over her unrequited love for a man, but her feelings for Marius are only one aspect of her complex character. Despite growing up in a family of criminals, Eponine has her own sense of justice and refuses to participate in her parents’ schemes. Furthermore, she is not a “pick me” girl. Although she envies Cosette’s relationship with Marius, Eponine never disparages Cosette and even risks her own safety to protect Cosette. When the Thénardiers’ gang tries to rob Valjean and Cosette’s house, Monsieur Thénardier threatens to hurt Eponine if she foils the heist, but she screams for help nevertheless. Eponine’s love for Marius also reveals her unselfishness. Although she desperately craves his affection, she lets him go because she values his well-being more than her own feelings and knows that being with Cosette will give him happiness.
While the musical’s male characters rage against the monarchy in the streets, the women of “Les Misérables” wage their own war against patriarchy. Fantine, Madame Thénardier, Cosette and Eponine all reflect different angles of women’s struggle for liberation in nineteenth-century France.