Casual reminder that Fantine CHOSE to…
- sell her hair,
- sell her teeth,
- and ultimately, to become a prostitute.
She also took a lover (who abused her) and did any odd jobs she could find to support both herself and Cosette.
She was modest and sweet and pretty, but she was also…
Are you for real?
lets explain a thing.
In the time period that Les Mis is set in, sex work wasn’t the sort of thing one entered into because they had an alternative.
There were courtesans, who were generally educated (and also generally married), but they were the few and blessed, and even they tended to die in poverty.
But a woman like Fantine? She wouldn’t have had many options. Firstly, she sells her hair. Now, since long hair was a sign of status, and women weren’t exactly rocking the pixie in 1800s France, this was a pretty clear marker of a woman in some pretty severe economic straights. It’s unlikely that, having cut her hair, Fantine would be able to secure legitimate and reputable employment until it had grown out, which could take upwards of three years during which she would instantly be recognized as untouchable.
Then she sells her teeth. Now, missing teeth wasn’t AS unusual in 1800s France as it is today, but it was still something to be remarked upon, especially in a young woman. That’s another social marker, and a visible one at that. Once she’s sold those, they’re a permanent sign of her debasement. She’s literally been reduced to what would have been known then as “desperate circumstances”.
Lastly, she sells her body. She sells it to sailors at the docks, and as any basic knowledge of prostitution (in either a historical OR modern context) demonstrates, outside survival sex workers in industrial areas tend to have the highest rates of disease, STI’s, assaults, abuse and mortality. Even as recently as 2006, Vancouver’s Downtown East Side experienced a serial killer preying on women who were in that exact position. He claims to have killed 49, and was hunted for almost ten years before he was caught.
Fantine is a fictional counterpart, but the social structures are the same. Fantine may have “chosen” to sell what little she still possessed, but it wasn’t a choice she made freely, any more than someone who jumps from a high floor of a burning building can be said to be suicidal, or that a sweatshop worker making pennies a day while working 18 hours in abominable conditions can be described as an “employee”.
Fantine demonstrates a LACK of agency, because there were literally no other options left.
That’s the entire point of her arc, the entire commentary Hugo was trying to make about how “immoral” actions weren’t sinful if done for ethical reasons (“sex out of wedlock is a sin, BUT Fantine did it for a good reason so she reappears as an angel to guide Valjean to heaven”).
I don’t understand how someone can know the story of Les Mis and not understand how little choice she had. That’s not a misunderstanding, that’s willful ignorance. I feel like the words “she chose to do it” are often followed by a silent but implied “therefor it’s no one else’s responsibility to help her.” Which completely and entirely misses the point of Valjean’s arc.
And let’s not forget that the reason serial killers can often get away with killing prostitutes for so long, is that the criminal justice system rarely prioritizes the murders of prostitutes. The attitude that no one is obligated to help sex workers “because they chose this life” is what makes it so easy for monsters like Robert Pickton to stay hidden. This is why the “choice/agency” narrative is so harmful. It encourages victim blaming.