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Portrait of Fantine in "Les Misérables"
The iconic song I dreamed a dream from Schönberg and Boublil's musical has made Fantine the most coveted female role in Les Misérables on both stage and screen. However, the length of the musical and the nature of other dramatic adaptations unfortunately cause the exclusion of several key elements necessary to understanding the nature of Fantine. First, we have to take a trip down history lane:
The French Grisettes
The popular image of a grisette is a can-can dancer who leads a bohemian lifestyle in Paris. However, the term grisette originally had an entirely different meaning: grisette is a word which basically means “a girl who wears a grey dress” (gris being the French word for grey). During the 17th century, grey material was cheap and was, therefore, worn by nearly every girl of the middle to lower classes. Such girls usually worked in shops and factories. Many of these young women most likely turned to prostitution as a way to supplement their income.
Grisettes later became solely associated with the French bohemian life. Although some were streetwalkers, most had at least somewhat of an income from honest work and often began relationships with men merely for fun. Many grisettes were artist’s models and served in the role of muse as well. Those who took up with richer men would not necessarily be paid “per session”, but would be rewarded with fine clothes and a comfortable life. Grisettes were, without a doubt, kept-women. However, they could not be ranked with courtesans in that they were usually shunned by the nobility and shut out of their social circle.
Madame du Barry (1743-1793)
The degradation of the term grisette was undoubtedly caused at least in part by Madame du Barry. Her climb to the top began when she was working as a grisette – not in the sexual sense, but as a milliner – and came to the attention of a local procurer who set her up in his brothel. Her career as a courtesan began when her increasingly prestigious clientele created a way into the palace of Louis XV. Du Barry was unmarried at the time and was known as Jeanne Lange. Her procurer arranged a marriage for her with his brother, Comte Guillaume du Barry, thus giving her a title and the ability to be known as a royal mistress rather than as just a common whore.
The Story of Fantine
When Les Misérables begins, Fantine is a grisette and is living happily, thanks to the favors of Cosette's father. Once she is abandoned, however, Fantine is unwilling and unable to continue her grisette lifestyle and eventually becomes a streetwalker.
She is described as having no origin and as existing only on her dowry of "gold and pearls", namely her yellow hair and beautiful teeth - both of which are eventually sold in an attempt to support Cosette. Fantine clings to her child's father (in the book, Hugo gives him the name Félix Tholomyès) as he is most likely the first person she has been able to love in any way. After her abandonment, Fantine's love transfers entirely to Cosette - and it is for this she dies.
Jean Valjean's soul is redeemed and his ways are mended immediately after his encounter with the bishop. However, he is unable to love until after the death of Fantine when he rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers. Jean Valjean's love for Cosette came about through the sacrifice of Fantine; and this is why when, on his deathbed, Valjean reveals to Cosette her mother's name, he says "you must bow your head whenever you speak it".