Happy New Year, y’all! If you’re like me, then you spent at least part of December watching Les Miserables in a movie theatre, and considering how much money Les Mis has made, I’ll bet a LOT of you are like me. (And like Adam Lambert, apparently.) I mean… we’re just people, right? After all those months of watching Anne Hathaway look so perfectly bereft, how could we resist this movie?
Still… this movie was never going to be my favorite thing. There were moments I loved (most of them involving Annie Hath, Hugh Jacksy, and everyone’s new boycrushes, Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit.) But there were ALSO moments that made me feel depressed about the casting of Russell Crowe. I appreciate this song-by-song breakdown from Jezebel because it sums up the high-then-low experience of watching the film.
But also? I don’t really care for the musical, and there was nothing the movie could do about that. With the exception of “On My Own” and a few others, the songs don’t resonate with me—I’ve never cared for mid-80s Broadway bombast–and I find all the French Revolution stuff both vaguely drawn and yawningly stodgy.
More than anything, though, I cannot stand the adult Cosette. She’s a total blank, making no choices of her own and instead existing as a virtuous symbol that can inspire men to take action. It’s the most insidious kind of sexism, you know? When you present a woman as being perfectly virtuous, then you’re making her just as inhuman as someone who presents a woman as being perfectly evil. Either way, you’re turning her femininity into a… a totem that men can get hot and bothered by. There’s a good article in the Washington Post about how this stereotyping affects all the women in Les Miserables, and not just Cosette, but because Cosette is the one who gets a happy ending, she irritates me even more.
But just as the movie couldn’t save the musical for me, the musical couldn’t save Cosette. The way she’s written in Victor Hugo’s original novel, she is required to suck. Or at least, she’s required to suck by modern standards of what constitutes a satisfying female character.
Because Hugo’s novel, you see, is determined to make 19th century Europeans feel bad about the injustice inflicted upon the poor. It’s right there in the preface, where he writes, “So long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved… books like this cannot be useless.”
And if an author is that committed to making his audience feel the terror of poverty, then he has to create poor characters they can care about. To that end, Hugo creates a poor girl who is more morally perfect than we are. He tries to make us feel bad about a society that lets poverty tarnish her flawless soul.
Which brings us to Cosette: Her mother is a poor whore, yes, but her mother is only selling her body to make sure her baby can survive. Right away: Cosette is virtuously loved. And then she’s abused by the Thenardiers, who are supposed to be taking care of her. That makes us pity her even more. But then, hooray, Valjean rescues her and keeps her cloistered away from the rest of the world, raising her to be a woman of great bearing and greater means. And then she falls in love with Marius, who eventually leaves behind his brief dalliance with the Revolution to marry, return to the good graces of his wealthy family, and live out his days in rich person splendor.
See how messed up that is? The implication is that by becoming rich, Cosette is saved in every possible way. As though great wealth guarantees love, happiness, and moral impeachability. Eponine is also pure, but she never gets to be rich, so, oops, she dies. Not because of a poor person’s disease or anything, but if she hadn’t been poor, then she wouldn’t have been out on the street, running messages to Marius on Cosette’s behalf.
A reader is meant to be inspired by Cosette’s salvation and horrified by Eponine’s demise. Maybe this reader will think, “Mon dieu! If only we could lift all the perfect little girls out of poverty, then the world would be better! Think of all the angels we could save!”
And that’s really troubling. Because no one is as perfect as Cosette. As I suggested above, Hugo’s entire argument seems useless to me because he makes a flawless angel the poster child for “the ills of poverty,” as though that’s the only type of person we should care about. As though a Cosette with a little spunk or sass might suddenly be morally flawed and not worth saving. As though her situation would be less tragic if she were a bitch.
But as I ALSO suggested, I’m looking at this from a modern perspective. I’ve been trained to distrust morally simple characters and to doubt the appeal of a girl who gets locked in a fancy house then married off to the first rich fella she meets. To me, that seems like a recipe for loneliness, hidden behind the sheen of fiscal and moral success.
I realize that I am scratching at big ideas and leaving quite a few large subjects untouched. But let’s make this the start of a conversation. Do you agree with me? Think I’ve missed something? Let me know!
Mark Blankenship has written about film and theatre for The New York Times and Variety. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship