Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Character Study: Fantine from Les Miserables

I am very much a character person. As a reader, if a book does not have characters that I care about to some extent then I generally can't finish it. As a writer, my ideas and efforts tend to be character focused. I love characters. I love getting to know them and learning from them. So I thought I would periodically write posts about characters that I have read that I've learned something about storytelling from or that have had a strong influence on me.

Fantine: Prostitute with a Heart of Gold

Fantine, at first glance, doesn't seem like a very complex character. She was a typical young Parisian woman who made the mistake of falling in love with a jerk who left her before she told him she was pregnant with his child. Well, French society did not look kindly on single mothers, and so Fantine was forced to leave her child in the care of someone else in order to get a job. Poor, naive Fantine chose her daughter's guardians very poorly and spent the next several years being deceived and gouged out of as much money as the wicked Thenardiers could get from her. When misfortune struck her (she was fired from her job when it was discovered she had an illegitimate child) she did the best she could to get by. She lived a life of extreme poverty, she sold her beautiful hair and then her two front teeth to get money when the Thenardiers told her that her daughter, Cosette, was very sick. Still they continually demanded more money, and so Fantine in desperation turned to a life of prostitution in order to keep her daughter alive. But Fantine is ill herself and so even after she is ultimately rescued from her bitter existence by Monsieur Madeleine, she dies without ever seeing her beloved Cosette again.

Victor Hugo uses Fantine to illustrate the terrible way that society treated women at the time, forcing them into certain choices and then condemning them for their own survival. Fantine's fall from grace turns her into a kind of ferocious animal at one point, an example of the way society, by stripping away the rights and freedoms of such persons, also manages to strip away their humanity and turns them into the very thing it despises. She becomes a bitter, hateful, ugly thing at her lowest point, but that is not how she ends. At the end, with hope renewed, she is more angelic than human having never truly lost her pure and good nature, she dies in the light, redeemed and blessed by God.

At this point I'm going to compare her to another character from a modern novel I was reading recently. In Steven Erikson's fantasy novel Deadhouse Gates, there is a young woman called Felisin Paran who, like Fantine, was forced into dreadful circumstances where turning to prostitution meant survival. Here's the major difference between them: Fantine hates what she has become and only does it for the sake of her daughter. Because she is sacrificing herself for another she manages to retain her goodness (and my sympathy) and dies "luminous". Felisin lets her situation corrupt her completely to the point where she comes to like being a whore and actually chooses to whore herself out to anyone and everyone when she clearly doesn't really need to. Even when Felisin is freed from her slavery she remains a hateful, sick and twisted, unspeakably ugly person. She hates everyone around her (even those helping her) and she doesn't stop offering her body for favors. She is a truly reprehensible character with no redeeming qualities.

Like Hugo, Erikson clearly wants to expose the darkness within the human soul and within human society. The difference is that Erikson never stops wallowing in baseness. Hugo uses the darkness to juxtapose the light. From Erikson, there is no light, only despair. And this is the trend in modern fantasy fare, it seems. But Fantine reminds us that you can explore darkness and you can expose injustice without letting it consume your story and your characters. In fact, I believe that the very purpose of Fantasy is to use the darkness to make the light shine all the brighter. It seems a lot of writers have forgotten that. I intend to remember.


  1. Sarah, this post is wonderful! I agree: too many people focus solely on darkness for the sake of darkness. You hit the proverbial nail on the head when you said "the very purpose of Fantasy is to use the darkness to make the light shine all the brighter". That's what I intend to do with what I write. My fantasy leans towards the darkside, but my argument is this: without the darkness, we can never truly appreciate the light.

    I also wanted to say thank you for the comments you posted on my villain post. You've given villains a lot of thought! Having a good grasp on your villain will help make your story and your protag (all you characters) richer!

    Write on!

  2. Great post! Loved it and love Les Mis. :P

  3. This is phenomenal! I love character studies, and although I've never read either story (for shame) I can appreciate your points. I'm now going to dig deeper and hope to find more!


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