Some characters stay with us. A few because their stories promise hope, others because their endings reveal the cruel injustice of the world, still others because they urge us to run, fastly and furiously, away from the paths that lead to destruction. Victor Hugo’s Fantine accomplishes the lot. Many know her story because they’ve now seen the beautiful film just recently released. Many film-goers first loved Fantine when she graced the stage, dreaming of time gone by. That song that burrows into the heart. That entrance into the Light when her last breath fades. Oh, Fantine.
The musical version of Les Miserables and the film both redact Fantine’s final moments. True, she had grown weak, ravished by fever and dying of tuberculosis. True, she is under the care of the good Sisters. But there is more. Valjean had already promised, and she believed that she was going to see her daughter again. True, Fantine dreamed of Cosette. All these bits heighten her shock at discovering that Valjean (she knows him only as Mayor Madeleine) had not returned with Cosette. And her shock only increases when she sees Javert (who had attempted to arrest her) standing behind Valjean — “It was the face of the devil who has just regained his victim.” When she begs Valjean for her daughter, Javert silences Fantine with a heartless “Hold your tongue, whore!” and reveals Valjean’s true identity. “There’s a thief, a bandit, a convict named Valjean, and I’ve got him! That’s what there is!” Fantine reacts:
“Fantine sat upright, supporting herself on her rigid arms and hands; she looked at Valjean, then at Javert, and then at the nun; she opened her mouth as if to speak; a guttural sound came from her throat, her teeth clamped shut, she stretched out her arms in anguish, convulsively spreading her fingers, and groping like someone drowning; then suddenly fell back against the pillow.
Her head struck the head of the bed and fell forward on her breast, the mouth gaping, the eyes open and glazed.
She was dead.” (292 – 93)
Novel, musical, or film — Fantine’s death resounds with injustice. The musical and the film give us “Come to Me.” On stage, the lighting is superb, powerful, hinting at a great truth that only the novel fully explains:
“Jean Valjean put his hand on that of Javert, which was holding him, and opened it as he would have opened the hand of a child; then he said, ‘You have killed this woman.’
‘Stop this!’ cried Javert, furious. ‘I’m not here to listen to sermons; save all that; the guard is downstairs. Come right now or it’s the handcuffs!’
In a corner of the room stood an old iron bedstead in dilapidated condition, which the sisters used as a camp-bed when they watched over a patient at night. Jean Valjean went to the bed, wrenched out the loose head bar — an easy thing for muscles like his — in the twinkling of an eye, and with the bar in his clenched fist, looked at Javert. Javert retreated toward the door.
His iron bar in hand, Jean Valjean walked slowly toward Fantine’s bed. On reaching it, he turned and said to Javert in a voice that could scarcely be heard, ‘I advise you not to disturb me now.’
Nothing is more certain than the fact that Javert shuddered.
He thought of calling the guard, but Jean Valjean might take advantage of his absence to escape. So he remained, grasped the small end of his cane, an leaned against the framework of the door without taking his eyes from Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean rested his elbow on the bedpost, his head on his hand, and gazed at Fantine stretched out motionless in front of him. He stayed this way, silent and absorbed, evidently oblivious of everything in this life. His face and body expressed nothing but inexpressible pity. After a few moments’ reverie, he bent down to Fantine, and spoke to her in a whisper.
What did he say? What could this condemned man say to this dead woman? What were the words? They were heard by no one on earth. Did the dead woman hear them? Certain touching illusions may be transcendent realities. One thing is beyond doubt; Sister Simplice, the only witness to what went on, has often said that as Jean Valjean whispered in Fantine’s ear, she distinctly saw an ineffable smile spread across those pale lips and those dim eyes, full of the wonder of the tomb.
Jean Valjean took Fantine’s head in his hands and arranged it on the pillow, as a mother would have done for her child, then fastened the string of her nightgown, and tucked her hair under her cap. This done, he closed her eyes.
At this instant Fantine’s face seemed strangely luminous.
Death is the entrance into a great light.” (293 – 94) (emphasis mine)
Fatine: the cruel world’s injustice, the paths of destruction, and the hope of glory. She ‘dreamed a dream.’
(all textual references from the Signet unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables ©1987)