From that blessed holy moment when a kiss betrothed these two souls, Marius came every evening. If, at this period of her life, Cosette had fallen in love with an unscrupulous man, a libertine, she would have been ruined; for there are generous natures that give themselves, and Cosette was one. One of the generosities of woman is to yield. Love, at that height where it is absolute, is associated with an inexpressibly celestial blindness of modesty. But what risks you run, O noble souls! Often, you give the heart, we take the body. Your heart remains to you, and you look at it in the darkness, and shudder. Love has no middle term; either it destroys, or it saves. All human destiny is this dilemma. This dilemma, destruction or salvation, no fate proposes more inexorably than love. Love is life, if it is not death. Cradle; coffin, too. The same sentiment says yes and no in the human heart. Of all the things God has made, the human heart is the one that sheds most light, and, alas! most night.
God willed that the love Cosette met should be one of those loves that save.”
victor hugo, les miserables (translated by lee fahnestock and norman macafee, based on the earlier english translation by charles wilbour)
okay, one serious post from the ecstatic, melodramatic, adorable, flighty chapter (amazingly called “enchantments and desolations”) detailing marius and cosette’s chaste courtship of the soul in her garden by cover of night. this passage, for me, takes on a very different resonance than it might otherwise have — especially that last line — because of the legacy of fantine. because in her easy inclination towards adoration, cosette is like marius (which itself is a welcome slice of gender parity — there’s an amazing bit earlier, actually, when they’ve never spoken, still, and haven’t seen each other for months, and marius is wasting away purposelessly and cosette is kind of like, “marius who?”), but she is also very much like the mother she never knew. in the book fantine was part of a quartet of working class girls who spent nearly two years messing about with a quartet of working class boys, who break up with them collectively via a letter that lets them know that it’s been fun, but their parents are on their necks (no, really), and
We are returning to society, to duty and order, at a full trot and the rate of nine miles an hour. It is necessary to our country that we become, like everybody else, prefects, fathers of families, country policemen, and councilors of state. Venerate us. We are sacrificing ourselves. Mourn us quickly, replace us rapidly.
by this time, of course, fantine — who naively thought the person “she had given herself to […] as to a husband” might care something at all for her as well — had a child. fantine during the long passage of her young romance with this guy is drawn in many of the same strokes as the adolescent cosette, with an almost supernatural beauty stemming from innocence, joy, purity. it gets tiresome to modern ears, i won’t deny, and it’s not that it doesn’t veer into condescending, weird, sexist territory, because it does.
but the idea of a woman’s purity as a sacred trust to be protected i think, here, does need to be taken in the context of a world where being careless with an eager girl could destroy her life, socially and materially. fantine’s descent into ever grimmer poverty at the extortion of the thenardiers, her desperation, the long extinguishing of the once lovely flame, is absolutely brutal to watch, all the more so because VH is so unwavering in his compassion for the world’s most abused. fantine isn’t perfect; she’s dreamy and not very responsible and, yes, she made some “wrong” choices by following her heart — but never once does the novel blame her for own misery.
so much of the novel’s grace rests, i think, in its fierce embrace of an idea that underlies a lot of progressive/liberal stances (and whose opposite certainly underlies a lot of conservatism): the idea that sheer luck (or as VH would have it, inscrutable divine prudence, which is basically the same thing) is responsible for a huge part of the shapes our lives take. there’s the luck of how we come into the world — jean valjean’s life of poverty and crime is spun out for us so as to emphasize how cruel it is to demand righteousness out of those the world has scorned from birth, long before they could have done anything to “earn” such treatment. but there’s also the luck of how, and among whom, we move through it. what separates fantine and cosette is accident; the same temperament, the same feelings, that bring about fantine’s fall usher cosette into bliss. in the likeness of mother and daughter we can see even more clearly how little fantine deserved her fate, how in a just world, populated by just men, she would have been given the same lifetime of ecstasies cosette receives. being young and in love and stupid about it isn’t a punishable crime; it’s closer to a human right.
and so placing modesty as a feature of true love isn’t, for VH, merely a creepy patriarchal construct (although it’s not flawless either). rather it’s linked to certain truths, biological and social, about what can happen when such lovers succumb to the fires of earthly passions, and furthermore — crucially — to the question of who bears the burdens, physical and economic, of childbearing. the emphasis on marius’s chastity (he turns away when she bends over to pick up something she has dropped, lest he accidentally glance at an extra inch of decolletage), even or especially in the wildest throes of amour, is less about bodily purity than about responsibility. it’s a sign of character in marius that it would never occur to him to endanger cosette’s fate without linking his own destiny to hers. to marius, the idea of doing to her what cosette’s father did to fantine is so abhorrent as to be unthinkable; it’s a conception of uprightness grounded in the duty of the one in power to the one he would be able to destroy.