Embracing My Inner Eponine
Dan and I spent New Year’s Eve watching Les Miserables. I saw it on Broadway 23 years ago, in the cheap seats during my sophomore year of college.
As an insecure 19-year-old, what resonated most for me at the time was the story of Eponine. Perchance you haven’t seen Les Mis, it goes like this: Eponine loves Marius, but he just thinks of her as a friend. Then he catches a glimpse of Cosette, the heroine who represents all that is good and pure in this truly dark narrative. He instantly falls in love. Eponine joins the rebel group and dies saving Marius’ life. He is grateful for a brief moment. Then a bunch of other stuff happens and he marries Cosette.
Despite liberal doses of feminism at an early age, my greatest fear in the world — to be painfully blunt — was that I would never find a life partner. My 19-year-old world seemed full of Cosettes who were far more beautiful and thin and fabulous than me, and they all seemed to have boyfriends who would never even notice a lowly Eponine like myself. I wanted nothing more than to be Cosette.
Then, twenty-three years later, I watched the movie version with my husband. And I noticed something very quickly.
Cosette is lame.
I mean, when it comes to personal agency, this chick does nothing. The only thing she does is get rescued by men. First, as a child, she gets saved by Jean Valjean. (The 42-year-old version of me noticed it was a little creepy that an old man essentially bought a little girl, but there you have it.) Then Jean Valjean saves Marius from the barricade, and brings Cosette’s Prince Charming back to her so they can get married and live happily ever after. Cosette represents Jean Valjean’s salvation. She’s the one pictured as a poor suffering waif on every illustration or advertisement of the book, play, or film.
But she does nothing. She starts out as a victim, and graduates to maiden in constant need of protection and rescue. She doesn’t even get to sing her own song, at least as an adult. Child Cosette sings Castle on a Cloud, but the adult character just harmonizes with others. Central as she is to the story, she’s hardly ever on stage.
On the other hand, 42-year-old me was stunned to realize that Eponine is an absolutely amazing character. While Cosette is perfectly virtuous and mostly mute, Eponine is every bit as complex as the male characters in this tale. And she’s tough. Really tough. While Cosette is bemoaning that her father is keeping her away from Marius, Eponine is saving his life — and a whole bunch of other lives as well! She’s right up there on that barricade.
And unlike Cosette, she gets two songs, along with signficant harmonies in other songs. I can’t imagine that an actress would turn down the opportunity to play Eponine to play Cosette. Playing Cosette means you’re pretty. Playing Eponine means you rock. (On a related note, I was delighted to see that a virtually unknown actress named Samantha Barks beat out pop princess Taylor Swift for the role of Eponine. Can you just imagine — to the tune of Teardrops on My Guitar — “Marius looks at me, I fake a smile so he won’t see…”)
Now, of course, lest we mistaken Eponine with feminist goddess, part of her imperfection is that she spends an awful lot of time whining and crying about a man who doesn’t love her. But that doesn’t negate her role in the revolution. And part of the whining and crying isn’t just whining and crying — it’s about tying Eponine, as a complex character, into the themes of the narrative. Salvation is a crucial theme in Les Mis, and Eponine is portrayed as needing the same salvation that Jean Valjean seeks. She was cruel to Cosette as a child and lived a life of relative privilege while Cosette suffered, so her rejection by Marius and ultimate sacrifice to him reflects the narrative as a whole.
Another part of Eponine’s complex role is that she plays the same kind of counterpoint to Cosette and Marius’ happiness that Javert plays to Jean Valjean’s search for freedom. With every step that Jean Valjean makes towards freedom, Javert is there as his foil. Eponine plays the foil to Cosette and Marius, for the one potential sappy love story in the narrative brings Eponine (and her sympathetic audience) great pain. Even when they sing a “duet” of love, Eponine is singing in the background about her pain.
Cosette doesn’t get tied into the narrative’s complex themes. She’s just pretty and needs to be saved.
At any rate, I’d like to think that had she lived, young Eponine would have gotten over Marius, who was silly enough to overlook a loyal, brave potential life partner for an idealized beauty he barely knew. There were a lot of fabulous revolutionary fellows in Les Mis. Eponine would have found a better one. Or she would have done something else with her life.
Kind of like me.
There were quite a few Marius-types in my young life. Turns out, I didn’t need any of those fools. And upon further inspection 23 years later, it turns out that I don’t want to be Cosette after all. Far from it.