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fantine-les-mis-poster

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 had 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.

Sound familiar?

American audiences applaud Fantine’s courage to fight for her child’s well-being instead of abandoning her at the doors of a hospice, yet we don’t give a second thought for the 3500 children that are abandoned in the halls of an abortion clinic each and every day.

We praise Fantine for sacrificing all she has for her daughter, while we teach 21st century American women that it is the child who should be sacrificed for the convenience of the mother.

We celebrate with Jean Valjean as he rescues Cosette, adopts her, and at last makes a family for himself, yet we do not afford wanting families of our day the same opportunity as we kill the very children who could complete their families.

Fantine is the epitome of life-affirming motherhood – and moviegoers celebrate her. Yet when we look into our cultural mirror, we see a society dismissing the virtues of motherhood that she embodied – the virtues of sacrificial love and tenacious loyalty.

Today, thousands of Fantine’s will be making the decision to either provide the gift of life for their child or abandon their baby at the abortion clinic, where like the children in the 19th century French hospice, they will die an obscure death and be carelessly discarded.

We are the Jean Valjean’s of our day and must come to the rescue of these women and point them on a different path.

Whether it’s material provision or emotional support, the young Fantines of our day must be shown there is something intrinsically heroic and natural about sacrificing your plans, your career, and even your dreams for the sake of your own child.

fantine

 
 
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  • http://jeannie-ology.com/ Jeannieology

    Awesome article Amy!!!

  • Beverly Haynes

    Well said, Amy!

  • Catherine

    The irony of this is admitting that abortion was illegal but still available. That’s what pro choice people have been saying all along. Banning it just causes more women to die in underground, unregulated abortion clinics. It does little to affect the abortion rate
    .
    Don’t believe me? Take a look at abortion rates in Latin America and how many women die from them there each year and compare it to America. Western Europe has the lowest abortion rate in the WORLD and they have less restrictive laws than we do. Abortions are even paid for by the government.

    If you’re pro life and want to bring down abortion rates then support research for effective contraception, the HHS mandate and fight for comprehensive sex ed in schools. When women have access to long term effective contraception abortion rates plummet.
    Banning abortion isn’t pro life. It’s just anti woman.

  • http://www.facebook.com/patricia.sorensen.79 Patricia Sorensen

    I don’t think it’s just the self sacrifice that draws people to Fantine. I think it has more to do with the fact that she suffers more than any of the characters in the story and
    for so little.
    You say : “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.”

    In return I can’t help but wonder what would have become of Cosette
    if not for Jean Valjean. What do you suppose the the Thenardiers would
    have done with her? They were already mistreating her and using her as
    forced labor. Once the money ran out, how long do you think it would be
    before they tossed her out on the street or started pimping her out?
    Think that’s harsh? Think about how willing they were to sell her to
    Valjean without knowing what he wanted with her.
    You could also ask why did Fantine not pass Cosette off as her sister or some other relation? In the context of the story it makes sense to have
    Fantine live her truth and suffer for it in direct contrast to Valjean.
    Valjean is the one who abandons his past and name to make a new life for
    himself and it works (for a while) he becomes successful and wealthy.
    It’s also worth mentioning that while Valjean does commit a
    punishable offense in stealing a loaf of bread, Fantine committed no
    such offense. Valjean gets the benefit of the doubt from a kindly priest
    who covers for him and gives him money. Fantine commits no crime yet
    she is abandoned and failed by every single person she and Cosette
    encounter (including Valjean) and for this she dies and is referred to
    as “misguided” in your article. In the end I connect with Fantine
    because I know a raw deal when I see one.