meta: the ladies

Meta related to characters, plots, or other elements introduced by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables.
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Aurelia Combeferre
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meta: the ladies

Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Fri Dec 15, 2006 6:55 am

This thread is for basically discussing how we see the ladies of Les Misérables being written about in our own fics, or in others. I know we have seen the usual stereotypes: Cosette as an airhead, Fantine as almost non-existent, Éponine as a Marie-Suzette, or as a total angst ball. The other ladies (Madame Thenardier, Azelma, Louison, Muschietta...) we don't see very much.

Is it possible to really write about these women as they are, without having to define them in terms of their lovers, fathers, husbands, friends...etc?
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Postby Marianne » Fri Dec 15, 2006 9:58 am

Oh my god in heaven, Éponine the Walking Bucket o' Angst is one of my least favorite stereotypes ever. Every time I see one on fanfiction.net I would like to beat the author violently over the head with a few of the finer points of the book:

1. Thénardier is an opportunist, not a sadist. He probably doesn't beat his kids for fun. If they do get a whipping once in a while for disobeying him, so what? So did most kids.

2. Montparnasse has aspirations to gentlemanliness. Éponine has neither money nor fine clothes to steal/sell, so he's probably not interested in slitting her throat or doing kinky bloodplay with her. Also, look at the attack on the rue Plumet: even though she's interrupting a robbery, he warns her multiple times instead of slicing her fingers off one by one.

3. Éponine is totally complicit in any schemes, theft, extortion, or--yes--prostitution that she's involved with. She has to eat too, after all, and her sense of morality is seriously stunted. Just because she's struggling to find some moral equilibrium over the course of the book doesn't mean she goes into Righteous Indignation Mode whenever daddy dearest wants her to take part in some plot.

4. Thénardier doesn't give a flying crap about anyone he can't use for some end. If Éponine disappeared onto the streets, I kind of doubt he'd hunt her down for revenge; he'd probably be glad he had one less mouth to feed.

5. Possibly the most important: Éponine's situation sucked already. There's really no need to make it more needlessly dramatic and angsty than it was, but the point is, her life sucked and she did not deal with it by whining. No matter what the musical may have you believe, Éponine is just not the woeful inner monologue type, and if she were I'd probably hate her whiny guts.
[Dieu] entend ta voix, ô fille des hommes! aussi bien que celle des constellations; car rien n'est petit pour celui devant lequel rien n'est grand.
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Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Fri Dec 15, 2006 11:19 am

Abusive Thenardier is one thing I can't really stand. That guy already has enough flaws, especially as a parent.

I find it difficult to write Cosette properly without making her seem insipid. I'm really aware that she wasn't dumb or clueless, but so many writers make her that way.

Éponine beyond the angst...probably just as opportunistic as her father and as deluded as her mother. There is a lot to write about this girl, but most of the fic I see featuring her is just about her death at the barricade. One thing I wish that Hugo had given us more was on Éponine's relationship with her sister. That would have been interesting as well.
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Postby Marianne » Fri Dec 15, 2006 3:21 pm

One of the things I find striking about Cosette is her ability to just sort of bounce back and get over things. This, like all character traits, presents itself as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, she doesn't seem particularly traumatized by her childhood; on the other, she was off ogling Théodule though the garden gate while Marius was about to expire of love for her.

I don't find Cosette dumb or insipid, just... normal. And perhaps a bit too trusting for her own good, which she probably inherited from her mother.
[Dieu] entend ta voix, ô fille des hommes! aussi bien que celle des constellations; car rien n'est petit pour celui devant lequel rien n'est grand.

- George Sand, Les sept cordes de la lyre

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Postby Frédéric Dumont » Fri Dec 15, 2006 10:36 pm

I've only written Cosette for those two Doggy!Javert ficlets 'til now, but I found she was quite "nice to work with" actually. I gave her a cheerful disposition (otherwise, without a bit of optimism, how should the pooor thing have gotten over her time with the Thénardiers?), and a tendency to tease her beloved Papa. As for the rest, I try to just make her a normal teenager - I can see her as playful and giggly in very quick succession with serious and thoughtful, just like it seems to me many girls of this age are.

Éponine... Bothersome, I like leaving her to Cric and Asharak. ;) I picture her as tough inside at the same time as vulnerable, independent and yet easy to influence by the right kind of people. And she will express random thoughts at times, or murmur or sing to herself. In that one scene I wrote from her point of view, I chose to characterize her more by her humming a little song and the way she acts than by introspection, it somehow seems more suiting with her.

Fantine strikes me as romantic and naive, and generally simple in character (which does not necessarily mean stupid). She has a certain "warm-heartedness", but harbours bitterness as well after her past experiences. Plus, she can angst, but I'm not handing out spoilers here. :)

I haven't thought Azelma over properly yet (Asharak can do that, heh. He's good with those girls. :D ), but I mostly see her as a mixture between Gavroche and Éponine currently, and quite a little minx.
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Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Sat Dec 16, 2006 10:17 am

Azelma is sort of a 'blank slate' in the book. She can go either way, but I prefer seeing her realistically portrayed as a girl who knows her way around the Parisian underworld, rather shy perhaps, but certainly more sane than her sister.

Muschietta (in the few stories I've read featuring her) seems to be the typical working girl or perhaps someone who's more 'girly' than the average girl. She doesn't always understand why Joly and Bossuet do what they do, is a bit capricious maybe. Another underdeveloped character, sadly.
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Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Mon Jan 01, 2007 7:36 am

A question:

What portrayals of the ladies of Les Mis would you like to see more often in fanfiction?
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Postby Marianne » Mon Jan 01, 2007 6:52 pm

...well. I know Musichetta is practically a blank slate, but I wouldn't mind seeing fic authors incorporate a little bit of what we do know about her:

"Yes. Ah! my poor Bahorel, she is a superb girl, very literary, with tiny feet, little hands, she dresses well, and is white and dimpled, with the eyes of a fortune-teller. I am wild over her."

Heh.
[Dieu] entend ta voix, ô fille des hommes! aussi bien que celle des constellations; car rien n'est petit pour celui devant lequel rien n'est grand.

- George Sand, Les sept cordes de la lyre

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Postby Frédéric Dumont » Mon Jan 01, 2007 9:38 pm

Why, not bad... :twisted:
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Re: meta: the ladies

Postby MmeBahorel » Mon Nov 30, 2009 8:29 pm

Resurrecting dead thread here:

Is "yeux comme une tireuse des cartes" a common phrase for that period that ought to have some sort of meaning?

Because it has unfortunately, or at least back in the day, come out in fandom as "Musichetta's a gypsy!" Which is even less to go on than "Javert's a gypsy!" *facepalm* Famous fortunetellers of this era were perfectly ordinary French people. Tarot is a provençal card game; fortunetelling can be done with tarot or with ordinary playing cards.

But what does it actually mean? I can guess that it means something like she has a rather penetrating gaze, but when one looks at fabric colour names that make you go WTF, it does make me wonder if it is a phrase with a particular meaning.
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Re:

Postby Elwen Rhiannon » Wed Dec 02, 2009 2:01 pm

I have another thing troubling me.

Marianne wrote:One of the things I find striking about Cosette is her ability to just sort of bounce back and get over things. This, like all character traits, presents itself as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, she doesn't seem particularly traumatized by her childhood; on the other, she was off ogling Théodule though the garden gate while Marius was about to expire of love for her.


That's only my intrerpretation of the character, but I see the ability you talk about as Cosette's self-defence psychical mechanism. Think about her as a small child: no family, probably no steady home, no father, mother abandoning her in the first (most important!) years of the girl's life with unknown people and neither explanation nor preparation (for a reason, but that's what we know; I do sympathize with Fantine, but let's look at the situation through little Cosette's eyes), abused by Thenardiers, not cared about by anyone, than taken by a strange man and accepting it with no question as she accepted the beatings. Why? Because it has to be like that. Scary and tragic.

She was traumatized by her childhood so much that pushing it out of her mind (never actually possible entirely - subconsciousness remembers, and so does the body, at least according to Alice Miller - which is another annoyingly unexploited motive in the fandom) was the only way for her to survive and not go mad. Learning to accept things that are strange (to us) as normal, learning not to ask questions (like about her mother), possibly not even knowing that she'd have every right to ask them. She accepts herself as Marius' wife as she accepted being Valjean's daughter: he is good, he means good, I am safe and like my surroundings don'taskdon'taskdon'task. Alas, she accepts Valjean's absence in her adult life as easily. But how old is she then, seventeen? Very young, still. I may not like what she does, but I can pretty much understand her: as experienced as she is in some matters of life (abandonance, abuse...), she is still naive in other (how Valjean feels when she marries - can we really expect her to understand it, keeping in mind that she doesn't know Valjean's life story?).

Her cheerfulness may be another subconscious defence mechanisme: I'm cheerful, I'm happy, cheerful people are liked, you like me too, don't hurt me, don't abandon me, I'm as cheerful and acceptable as I can be. I remember reading (probably at Miller's, I don't remember now) about a child in a concentration camp told by the mother to be cheerful no matter what happens and above all not to ask any questions. The child survived the camp. The trauma revealed much later, in adult life, when the grown up child couldn't cope with abusive relationship, fighting with the only weapon (s)he knew: showing a smiling face and not analyzing anything.

Not that I say Marius would abuse Cosette. But neither of them had what one may call a "normal" childhood. Enough to doubt about the marriage bliss.

As for Théodule, I think Cosette didn't know much what she was doing then and what might it be taken for (as Hugo points out, no matter how much Valjean loved her, there are some things usually taught by mothers and no fathers). And as much as I feel sorry for Marius, could she know how he feels about her and therefore be blamed?
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Re: meta: the ladies

Postby Aurelia Combeferre » Wed Dec 02, 2009 3:26 pm

Yet maybe one can hope that Valjean's care for her and the relative tranquility of a convent school could at least set her mind at peace (temporarily). Then again, Hugo was writing at a time when PTSD from childhood traumas was not yet diagnosed.
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Re: meta: the ladies

Postby Marianne » Wed Jan 27, 2010 1:04 am

Yeah, I'm meta-ing all over the place lately while procrastinating on writing fic.

Has anyone ever done feminist analysis of Hugo? Or discussed his approaches to female characters? I'm starting to pick out common threads in his female characters as I become more familiar with his work, sometimes well-separated and sometimes overlapping.

(Full disclosure: I have read Les Mis, Notre-Dame de Paris, Quatrevingt-Treize, bits and pieces of his poetry, and Hernani. I'm more-or-less familiar with the plots of Le roi s'amuse, L'Homme qui rit, and Claude Gueux, and slightly less familiar with Travailleurs de la mer and Han d'Islande.)

The Eye of the Storm: The entire plot moves around her, she's the main motivation for most of the other characters, she provides them with an excuse to do really interesting stuff and occasionally kill each other over her... and yet she is a blank slate. Very little personality. Examples: Cosette, Esmeralda, Doña Sol (to some extent)

The Mother: Oh, Hugo and your idealization of motherhood. It raises your characters automatically to sainthood, it's pretty much the only way for your female characters to achieve sainthood, and yet it never manages to actually do much action-wise besides move male characters to pity and admiration and subsequent action. Examples: Fantine, Paquerette, Michelle Fléchard

(Digression: Motherhood is actually kinda expendable, given the sheer number of single fathers or father figures who take on the role of both parents. I know this was probably not Hugo's intention, and his writing is full of fatherhood issues related to the deaths of his children and particularly Léopoldine, but the takeaway message is that a mother is always a mother and nothing else, and a father can channel all his affection into the parental bond to become father, mother, sibling, friend, teacher, etc. to the child he's raising. Examples: Valjean, Cimourdain, Claude Frollo, Triboulet)

This is not to say that a feminist analysis of Hugo would be utterly grim. For one thing, uh, the usual sexual double standard is reversed: none of Hugo's male characters (the virtuous/sympathetic ones anyway) get to have sex. Unless they're married, but that comes at the end of the story and usually by that point everyone is dead or about to die. The field is littered with male virgins: Valjean, Javert, Marius, Enjolras, Frollo, Cimourdain, probably Hernani and Gauvain but I'm too lazy to check. Most of them are devoted to a higher cause, some of them just never got around to it. Meanwhile the non-virgins tend to be total assholes. I'm thinking specifically Phoebus, Don Carlos, and the king in Le roi s'amuse here, I'm sure there are more.

On the other hand, his female characters get to have sex and stay sympathetic. Quite often they do get punished for it, but it is a societal punishment and Hugo usually stresses that it's not deserved--and that, even if the premarital shenanigans were not exactly kosher, it's not okay for the dude in this equation to get off scot-free while the girl suffers.
[Dieu] entend ta voix, ô fille des hommes! aussi bien que celle des constellations; car rien n'est petit pour celui devant lequel rien n'est grand.

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Re: meta: the ladies

Postby merlin_emrys » Wed Jan 27, 2010 3:45 am

Hm, interesting notes! I haven't given the matter all that much thought, but it is a really interesting topic. While I haven't read any of his works aside from the Brick, I'm intrigued by the patterns you mentioned. I agree with Cosette being the "eye of the storm" in particular. While events or characters' actions often revolve around her, she does not get to make a lot of decisions or mistakes. And as good and kind and sweet as Cosette is, she doesn't get much complexity, though I feel like there would be room to explore her character. I feel like it's not her character that matters so much in the story, it's her situation and the people who are involved in her life.

And the analysis of motherhood -- that's actually something that bothers me in a lot of stories, as mothers are usually given that one, particular role, and fathers are allowed to be so much more. It's late, I can't think up any other examples right now, but it seems to be something that happens a lot. While mothers are idealised, they are also limited because that is the one role they are allowed to play and the one place they are allowed to shine.

I'd really love to contribute more to this discussion ... will come back when I have something to say!

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Re: meta: the ladies

Postby Ulkis » Wed Jan 27, 2010 5:14 am

I know this was probably not Hugo's intention, and his writing is full of fatherhood issues related to the deaths of his children and particularly Léopoldine, but the takeaway message is that a mother is always a mother and nothing else, and a father can channel all his affection into the parental bond to become father, mother, sibling, friend, teacher, etc. to the child he's raising. Examples: Valjean, Cimourdain, Claude Frollo, Triboulet)


I haven't read the other books so I can't say, but in regard to Valjean and Cosette, I think it's more that she is everything to HIM. He is 'just' a father to her, and sometimes it's mentioned how Valjean is sometimes lacking a mother's touch, especially since he's raising a girl, such as when Cosette wears (I think it's) crepe, and a mother would have known not to let her wear that, and when it's said that while Cosette's beauty caused Valjean pain it would give a mother joy.

And the part about Cosette being everything to Valjean - she's mother sister wife daughter, and Cosette loves him, but he doesn't give her everything she needs, and she loves Marius more (of course here we could go into is Cosette being unconsciously portrayed as an ungrateful daughter, but Hugo devotes a whole chapter to stress that Marius and Cosette are NOT being intentionally cruel to Valjean.)

So yes, there is that woman can only be mothers and men can be fathers and other roles, but that having just a father, even the best one in the world, does not completely make up for the lack of a mother. Although I wonder if that can only be applied to mother/daughters, (and to father/sons) because while we have orphan Marius, his mother isn't mentioned nearly as much as his father, although I guess it could be significant that Gillenormand is his maternal grandfather. And there's madame Thenardier, whose one redeeming characteristic was that she cared for her daughters, but not for her sons.

While I'm here, two lines that have always stuck out at me regarding women in Les Misérables (both paraphrased):

It was a tragedy that Cosette had never had a doll, because a doll is a woman's first practice for having a baby. Oh man. Hugo. I know it's intended to be complimentary, but dude, science has discovered recently that babies and dolls actually have some biological differences.

And the other line, Marius decided not to give up the title of baron because his father ordered him to bear it and besides, Cosette, "in whom the woman was beginning to show" started to like being called Baroness. Yeah yeah, poor Marius is slightly embarassed to be called baron and Cosette is conquettish about it.

But back to the first line, there is a definite approval of babies, and therefore, I guess sex, at least, post-marriage sex. I know in one of his speeches Gillenormand says that it's better to get married and have babies than be a nun. But then again there is high praise for Sister Simplice and the Petit Pictus convent (although I know the chapter on convents has some disapproval in it too? I haven't ever reread that chapter.)


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