Marianne wrote: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)
La Esméralda/Agnès is a bit more problematic than a blank slate. On one level, she's hard to believe: could a girl raised among 15C gypsies and cut-throats have reached 16 that naïve and un-streetwise in many respects?* She's almost 16 at the start of the novel, but gypsies tended to marry at puberty, and some respectable women were running households by that age. (12 was the canonical age for adulthood/minimum for marriage for girls, 15 for boys.) Imagine a mediæval Éponine in the role – never mind Merimée's Carmen!
She's not entirely passive, either. Indeed, a lot of the plot happens because of things she does: her spontaneous kindness in giving Quasimodo water (a casual kindness, balanced by her casual cruelty/thoughtlessness at other times); her going off (without telling Pierre or her other friends) to meet Phœbus. (Again, you have to wonder at her thinking it was to be a 'meaningful relationship', given he'd picked a sleazy 'house of assignation' for a first date!) There's also the fact that the final tragedy (resulting in 4 deaths, including her own) is triggered by her calling "Phœbus!" when her mother was hiding her. There are numerous points when her active decisions determine what happens next, numerous possible get-outs, but she makes wrong decisions. (A more streetwise girl might have used Claude to get her out of prison – he'd be easy to string along on promises – and knifed him once they'd got around the corner!) Although some of the men see her as a romantic ideal, what we have is really a rather shallow, dim girl whose beauty makes people see her as more than what she is. A key point symbolically is the 'emerald' that gives her her name: it's nothing more than a green glass bead. She's not the Tabula Smaragdina incarnate; she's not even a real gypsy. Lives and worlds are put to ruin – not for a new Helen of Troy, but for a whore's daughter from Reims. It's the difference betwen semblance and reality, and that's part of the tragedy. To tweak the L'Oréal slogan: "Because she's not worth it."
Mothers and fathers:
Yes, there's some fascinating stuff going on here in Les Mis and NDdP at least, with whorish mothers and virgin fathers: it's a different slant on his Madonna/Whore complex! Does anyone know more detail about Victor's own parents?
Pâquette is interesting in that, unlike Fantine, one gets the impression she actually enjoyed her work until she was forced to go downmarket, and she only sees it as a sin that merits penance because she loses her daughter, which she probably sees as a divine punishment.
It's interesting that Victor has a strong belief in the parenting abilities of single men. In NDdP, I think there's a case to make that Claude's struggle with his sexuality hits when it does because of "empty nest syndrome". He first became a 'father' at about 19, when his parents died (Aug-Sept 1466) and he was left with Jehan (who, at least, could be shared with the miller's family for wet-nursing), and several months later (April 1467), adopts Quasimodo, who is already about 4-and-a-half, physically disabled and seems to have some learning/developmental disabilities also. Around 1475, he has to teach Quasimodo a sign-language of his own invention because he has gone deaf, and also takes on Pierre (a bright but illiterate 16-year-old war orphan) as a pupil. When we catch up with him in January 1482, Pierre has flown the nest, Jehan is a student who only shows up when he needs money, and Quasimodo, while still dependent, is a boy of 19, no longer a child. And it becomes clear that for at least the last 6 months (since he saw Esméralda) Claude is cracking up. He no longer has the other 'safe' outlets for his ability to love.
*This sometimes happens in 19C fiction because of the notion that the young female lead must be 'innocent', regardless of her background. Tess Durbeyfield is another example, although Hardy does slyly poke fun at the conventions that forced him to make her more naïve than she should be. It's the indirect censorship of publishing and distribution at the time. It just makes characters look hopelessly gormless.