Even before the release of the big screen adaptation of Les Miserables, critics and audiences gushed over Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of the misguided Fantine.
Indeed, Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” could arguably be considered the most profound scene of the entire film. On the heels of Hathaway’s well-deserved Oscar win, I can’t help but wonder why audiences so deeply connected with this tragic character?
Perhaps because when we look inside Fantine’s soul, we see a woman, who in spite of her careless mistakes, her impetuous willingness to give her heart away, her unabiding optimism, she chooses to accept responsibility for her actions, even at the cost of her own life.
Finding oneself as an abandoned woman with a baby is hard enough in the 21st century America, but in 19th century France, it spelled disaster for both mother and child. Despite her inability to care for her child, and the social shame brought on by mothering an illegitimate child, Fantine makes the conscientious choice to not only have her child (abortion was illegal in Hugo’s France, but still available) but to also provide for her child through the sweat of her own brow.
In 19th century France there was no daycare, no government services, no adoption agencies. There was no celebrity culture to glorify her circumstances, nor a doting media to normalize it. During the industrial age, Fantine had two options: place her child in the care of a willing family so that she could earn a provisional wage or abandon the child at the local hospice making the baby a ward of the state. So why did Fantine choose the former? Because abandoning Cosette at a hospice, although cheaper, easier, and faster, would have been a death sentence for the little girl.
In Revolutionary France, half of all illegitimate children were given over to the state, and over half of those children ended up dying in the first year. The hospices were filthy, understaffed, underfinanced, and overcrowded. Had Fantine relinquished her Cosette to the hospice, the chances of Cosette surviving would have been slim at best.
So Fantine naïvely trusts Cosette to a less than moral innkeeper, and then proceeds to work tooth and nail to provide for her daughter. By the time Fantine cries her way through “I Dreamed a Dream,” the audience is painfully aware of the great lengths this mother has gone through to save her “poor Cosette.”
And yet, as audiences applaud this character and sympathize with her efforts to provide for her child, I can’t help but wonder how viewers would react if Fantine instead had abandoned her Cosette on the doorsteps of the hospice where her child most likely would have perished.
It would have been easy, convenient, and anonymous. No one would have known. It would have been Fantine’s right.
[Read the rest of the article at The Black Sphere.]