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.
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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.
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.