Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Sinners We Love--Fantine

Due to the mature themes explored in this blog post, if you are not familiar with the story of Les Miserables, I would strongly recommend it for ages 15 and up, or bringing it to an adult to scan through first. 

To read my review of the full book of Les Miserables, click here: (Part One, Part Two, Part Three

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high,
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted.
But the tigers come at night...
-Les Miserables Musical

When I first began my series on Les Miserables, the book, I had every intention of delving quite extensively into Fantine's story and themes. Alas, the space I had allotted to the entire book quickly ran out, and didn't allow for a proper evaluation of her, so I merely touched on her in passing and bookmarked the idea for a later date. Today, at last, I can talk about her to my heart's content. 

For those of you who read Les Miserables, and are somewhat wary of any article I might write on Fantine, be assured that it is my intention to deal gently with her, and kindly, without excusing the sin to be found in her life. I approach this post with some fear and trembling, due both to the absolute horror of her life, and the nature of what I mean to say. Fantine is perhaps the best-loved sinner on earth right now, and I don't want to be heartless in my portrayal of her.  Please come and give it a fair try; I promise not to be either harsh or unduly dogmatic in my assessment of her. This is, after all, a series on the sinners we love--and why we love them in the first place. Readers who love Fantine are amply justified in doing so--and while I pick a point with reading Les Miserables in the first place, it isn't Fantine that my problem is with.

Her Story
Fantine, of course, is well known for getting thrown out of the factory where she works, because she's a single mother, and struggling to find the money to support herself and her child afterwards. It's heart-wrenching--she can't keep her child with her, so she gives Cosette to a wicked couple pretending to be good caregivers, and as she never has the money to come see her child for herself, she doesn't suspect all their kind words and appeals for money are a trick. To give her credit, she does everything she can before she takes a more questionable profession-- she takes up sewing, and sews a great deal to make both ends meet. She sells her two front teeth, which are hers to sell, and all she has to make money. Then she sells her hair, a common practice and not one to be condemned, however hard it is to see her sink to such grief and misery. These are none of them sins. They're a sad commentary on the state of the church, and how little help it actually gave to the destitute in that time. 

But then, when Fantine is all out of options, she does the last thing she can: she sells herself into a life of prostitution.

The cheers that go up when Valjean bring her out of this horrible existence are well-merited. She's a broken women, desperately in need of grace--and the redemption she is given rings true to the redemption that we find for ourselves, sold into a life of sin, and given escape through the work of Jesus Christ. 
Why We Love Her

Fantine is commonly used by advocates of social justice as an example of the oppression of woman. Women should never have to sell themselves to keep their children alive. Do we love her because she was oppressed, and wounded and used? Maybe. I don't think so, though. The majority of us reading Les Miserables have no personal experience of those things; it's a faraway, hazy world to us, and though we look at it with pity and horror, we certainly don't personally identify with it.
We really identify with the musical Fantine, more than the book. After all, the book Fantine never discussed her broken dreams so eloquently. It's her dead dream of a happy life that we are sorry for--dreams are such fragile, elusive, glorious things that take us up to the heights of heaven or down to the pits of hell in our pursuit of them--sometimes they take us to both places. Because there are so many people with dreams that have been killed, and they are  hurting for the loss, we have ample personal experience in that side of Fantine's feelings.
It's the loss of hope. When we see Fantine without hope, we want to take her up and hug her and wipe away her sin and sorrow and give her a second chance at life. Because, especially as Christians, there is no sorrow like seeing people without hope when they have a Savior available to them.

Whether or Not We Should

Now that we've laid the groundwork, let's evaluate and see whether our love of her is a well-merited one, or perhaps needs a little re-evaluation. First of all, let me begin with a question: 

Why did she lose her dream? 

Think on that for a moment. Was it due to the oppression of a heartless society who refused to hire a women with an illegitimate baby? No. Not to excuse their sin; they should have been there to lift her out of the pit she found herself in. But that's not why she lost it. 

She lost it because her dream was one of sin. And dreams of sin are always turned into a living horror, just like she found out. 

Her sin didn't start with the prostitution. I'm not even going attempt to critique that, because it's a weighty subject and I don't want to be unduly cruel by saying "She should never have done such a thing, no matter what." I believe that every sin is avoidable, but I also understand that we are weak, and when life gets so dark that we struggle for our mere existence, sometimes we don't always make clear moral judgments. God is compassionate, and remembers that we are dust. Fantine had no protector, no advisor, and to give her justice, she didn't enter into prostitution for her own sake or pleasure. She did it to keep her child alive. Again, I'm not excusing it, but I do understand her reasoning behind it.

However, she did commit a sin that we often gloss over in the first place, and since the purpose of this article is to better understand the true redemption of her life, we must first start with the sin that she could not possibly be excused for: the sin of fornication. Fantine was lover to a man in her girlhood, in an age and a culture where being a mistress was hardly wrong. We read her story in an age when there are plenty of illegitimate babies in the church itself. I think our shock at this sin has lessened a bit over the years simply because we're exposed to so much of it. And we don't even blink when Fantine finds herself with child because, number one, classic literature is full of it, and number two, many of us know, and are related to, someone who has committed the same sin. 

It was her first love affair, as we have said; she had given herself to this Tholomyes as to a husband, and the poor girl had a child. --Volume 1, Book 4, Chapter 1
This is where her downfall begins. God will not be mocked: a man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7) And sometimes in our sympathy with her attempts to provide for her child, we forget one very important thing: if Fantine was the woman she was supposed to be, she would never have had the child in the first place. Cosette wouldn't have existed. 

Poor Marius.

It would be very boring, unrealistic, and unbiblical to write stories in which characters never sin. Lovable people do sin. People do have children out of wedlock. But sometimes we hate the fact that the character has to undergo the consequences rather than the fact that the character committed the sin itself.

Back to the question: Why did Fantine lose her dream? Well, first we have to look at what her dream was in the first place.

I realize the book and the song are two different things, but take for a moment the lyrics to this well-loved piece. 

I dreamed that love would never die.

Fantine dreamed that human love was worth so much, she could give herself as a lover to a man instead of going through the holy act of marriage. 

I dreamed that God would be forgiving. 
 And since love was worth so much, she also dreamed that it would have no consequences, because love was justification in itself. 

 Accordingly, in Les Misérables we see Hugo demonstrating his belief that human beings are not totally depraved. Instead, they have the capacity for moral goodness in and of themselves. It is only through forces outside of them that this innate innocence can be lost.--Toby J. Sumpter

We can see this attitude in Fantine herself: 

 But the tigers come at night/With their voices soft as thunder/As they tear your hopes apart/As they turn your dreams to shame.
She doesn't realize that it's not because of her sin that she's suffering--she thinks it's due to the 'tigers' of society, throwing her out of her work because of their legalistic ideas about good women and purity. 

Fantine is a heroine because she meant well, tried to do her best, and died suffering brutal mistreatment — even though she had started a fight in the factory (but she was provoked) and did let that man have her for money (but she was desperate)...Valjean and Fantine and Cosette and the revolutionaries are all innocent victims of their circumstances, and they meant well and did their best and died trying to be good and since their good deeds and good intentions and good attitudes outweigh the few (unavoidable) sins, they get to go to heaven at the end.--Toby J. Sumpter
Again, let me reiterate that the inclusion of Fantine's sin isn't a problem. You can make a biblical, redemptive story about a single mother who sinned and found grace. Fantine bore a child out of wedlock and sold herself for money. Well, there were plenty of prostitutes in literature that God incorporated into the line of the Messiah himself. Look at Rahab--she too, was given grace and forgiveness. Nor is it wrong to love Fantine: she's pretty lovable, and her sufferings are heart-wrenching.  It would be in the character of Javert to throw her outside in the dust, and none of us should really be like Javert--he took law entirely too far. I'm glad Valjean found her and rescued her and gave her wounded heart healing and hope. Bravo, and well done on his part.

 I Dreamed a Dream is not the song of a woman who was unduly tormented by society. It's the song of a woman who dreamed that she could enjoy the pleasures of sin, and then had to face the sobering consequences of her choice. One sin always leads to another, and had she kept her principles in the case of Tholomyes, she would never have had to sell it the men she didn't even know.

In spite of her sin, she's also a picture, when properly understood, of our relationship to Christ. We start off with a sin because we cannot say no to our desire. None of us can, in the futility of our sin. We are just as broken as Fantine is, and just as in need of an outside power to lift us out of our mercy. The only slight difference--Hugo excuses sin because it's society that makes us lose our innocence. God doesn't excuse our sin. It's dirty and wicked and heinous. But he takes it away, and gives us the righteousness of his Son as a free and unmerited gift.
So in the end, what's the point I'm trying to draw from Fantine's story?

Sinners in literature must be given "informed grace". 

An odd phrase, informed grace, but a good one. 

Is it wrong to love Fantine? Absolutely, positively not.We can love sinners who should have chosen differently.  We can love them during their sin--because after all, while we were still sinners, Christ loved us, and gave Himself up for us. He didn't wait until we were good to love us.

We must however, be absolutely positively sure that in our love, we don't give her empty grace--just because they suffered hurt for their sin, like Fantine did. We don't give Fantine free grace because she had the motive of providing her child when she became a prostitute. We must be fully aware that she is suffering the results of her choices, and reaping the harvest that she has sown.

We can't give her empty grace, and pretend that her sin was justified. But in every case where we love a sinner, we can give them informed grace--a free forgiveness, not in excuse of their sin, but in spite of it. Empty grace glosses over our sin and makes light of it. Informed grace acknowledges our sin and provides a way of escape.

 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. -James 1:12-15

Fantine's desire gave birth to sin, and sin brought death to her--death of hope, death of virtue, and ultimate death as well. In spite of that, she found a measure of hope before she died, because one man took the responsibility of her sin, and brought her out of it.We love her because we understand the grace that she was given. And I hope that perhaps this blog post has helped challenge those of us who love her to give her the right grace. A full and free pardon, rather than an excuse of her wrongdoing.

And not only her, but all the sinners we love.

Lady Bibliophile

P.S. Junior B and I made this for all of you during our trip to WA. :)


  1. Lady B,
    Excellent handling of a delicate subject. I really appreciate the thought you put into all this and your constant measuring of it against Scripture.

    Good post!

    E.H. ;)

    1. Thank-you very much! I enjoyed having the time to go through Fantine specifically, as she's probably one of the top three reasons people love Les Miserables (the others being Jean Valjean, and the barricade boys.) Certainly she was the perfect example for this series!

      Schuyler :)

  2. I have neither read nor watched Les Mis, but I loved this post! You dealt with it all in detail and you presented Biblical reasons clearly. If I ever read/watch it one day, this post will be in the back of my mind. Nice job. :)


    1. Thanks so much, Kal. :) Les Mis is such a huge book, that, though I don't endorse the story, it gives ample exercise for evaluating and critiquing situational ethics from a biblical worldview. I always enjoy another round with it. :)


  3. A Beautiful post, Schuyler, detailing something so important in our understanding and viewing of the character of sinful, poor Fantine in a God-honouring yet merciful and compassionate way. I definitely enjoyed reading this :)
    God bless!! Looking forward to part 3 in the series!

    1. Thanks Joy! Fantine, I think, is actually one of the best characters to give food for thought in Les Mis. (Not as an example to be imitated, certainly, but one that has the most depth and points to be learned from her character arc.)She gives a poignant illustration that sin has its consequences, whether the sinner is rich or poor, loved or unloved. :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!



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