This is part I of a II part series. Part II will publish on 9/25/2013, and will focus on the life of Jean.
Today, I am concerned with the life of Fantine though. For those who have not seen Les Miserables (either the musical or the movie) I will offer very little back story because I want to get right to the meat of what I want to say. Suffice it to say that I highly recommend that you remedy your current situation and see either incarnation and/or read the book. There will be spoilers in this post, so proceed with caution. Also, keep in mind that this writing is not meant to cover every parallel, but merely to start a conversation of seeing and recognizing Gospel truths when they appear around us in non-correlated formats.
Fantine’s lowest moment and her shining moment are both contained within the song “I dreamed a dream.” It is a heartbreaking song that tells her story up until this point. A young mother who has been left behind to raise her child alone by the child’s father. This of course was not a time where it was easy for women to earn a living, especially “spoiled women”. So, after much struggling Fantine is forced to leave her daughter Cosette in the care of others while she works to pay her maintenance. Her job is lost and now she finds herself with no way to support herself or her daughter. Times being what they are, she turns to a street life (here there is differing accounts of what happens to her, and so I am going to focus on the movie version).
Alone friendless and penniless, Fantine finds herself on the street. First, she sells her beautiful hair to get some money. Then she sells her teeth. Then in the ultimate act of degradation, and the final nail in her ambitions Fantine is forced to sell her body. It is after this scene that she sings “I dreamed a dream.” She is not exactly at her lowest point yet, but pretty close to. Within the song we get a true sense of just how crushed she has become. The song starts out “I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living…” From this first strain we find that she feels her life is no longer worth living, that she is useless. I think many who have stared down these dark roads know how she feels. She would have been better off never being born.
The darkness of the world has fully engulfed her soul as evidenced by the next lyric “I dreamed that love would never die, I dreamed that God would be forgiving.” We see from this that she feels she has done something wrong and is being punished by God. This horrible life she is now forced to live is her penance, and God is not a forgiving being. We feel Fantine’s pain through her singing that she is both sad and angry with God for doing this to her.
Now that the stage is set for all of this heartache, the song plunges the final knife into the hearts of the audience “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living. So different now from what it seemed now life has killed the dream I dreamed.” Fantine goes on to die shortly after this without ever having seen her daughter again.
Her situation is not so unheard of that it is not something we could easily imagine even today. We see Fantine as she sees herself—wasted potential. Why would God do this? Why and how could a loving God allow someone to live through such hell? If this type of hell is not something that you have experienced, I would ask that you do what you can to try and empathize with the situation. Try and imagine these were situations that applied to yourself and how easily it could under the right wrong circumstances.
As Mormons we believe that we are here to be tested, here to constantly improve and the only way we could accomplish this task was through gaining mortal bodies and being subject to the wonders and horrors that come with the human condition all while leaving our free agency intact. We needed to be able to make our own choices so much so that we even fought a war over it. Sometimes I think to myself what must I have been thinking? I fought for this? I thought this was a good idea? All this sickness, hunger, homelessness, poverty, degradation, inequality, etc…? How? How could this be worth fighting for?
Then something struck me. There is a lot to be said for an eternal perspective. We don’t have a pre-mortal life, a mortal life, and a post-mortal life. We have an eternal life. This is a portion of it. Certainly for some it goes a lot smoother than others, and that spurs us to anger rightfully so, but it also spurs us to make it better. When one has suffered, how can they stand by while someone suffers also? The trials and tribulations that come with mortality should bring us closer together as brothers and sisters. I submit that if they don’t, we are doing it wrong.
Ultimately, we come to find that Fantine has received her glory. That she has seen the face of God, and she finally knows the comfort that lies therein. Les Miserables is a story of redemption, and Fantine’s life and trials are nothing if not redeemed in that moment of pristine glory.
I appreciate your post, and it offers comfort for suffering. I have another thought, however.
To quote another movie, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
Yes, I believe we are in the glorious middle of our eternal lives, to quote Pres Uchtdorf. But the reality is that if we think only about the idea that joy for fantine would only be in the redemption in the next life, then what are we to do with this one?
Does thinking that the suffering of fantine will be recompensed in the next life relieve us of the obligation to assure that the next fantine will not suffer for an alleged sin? Do we do all we can do to make this life “as good as it gets”, or are we so focused on the other two legs of our eternal life that we cannot?
Wayfarer, thank you for your comment. Fantine was absolutely failed by those around her in her mortal life. She did what she did to survive, and to support her child in the only way she could, and for her troubles all she got was to be held under foot.
I was afraid that I would not be able to adequately get my message across in this post, and from your comment I do see that I have failed. I would never dream of suggesting that our earthly trials should be ignored and poo-pooed because “Hey, we have an eternal life!”.
I wanted to convey that the type of suffering that Fantine has experienced, is experienced by too many among us. If we have also suffered I believe it gives us the knowledge, and the duty to help those who are in the same type of need for grace and love from their fellow human beings.
Fantine’s redemption is still important though, because it debunks what I believe to be a popular myth which is that blessings, and conversely curses are awarded to us based on something we have done/not done. “…for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
I am looking forward to the other parts of this series of essays on Les Miserables. I found a lot of gospel in this movie!!
Absolutely. I did as well.
Very good post. I just thought I would share what might be my very favorite part of the book, the author’s preface-
SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; 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; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.