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May 6th, 2016

firestorm717: The Long Firm: Harry Starks Smoking a Cigarette (Default)
Friday, May 6th, 2016 11:46 am
“I’ll be father and mother to you.”

That's my favorite line from the Les Miserables (2012) movie. Valjean has just saved little Cosette from a lifetime of abuse by the Thenardiers. As they walk away from the wretched couple, he gives her a beautiful doll - the first she's held - and Cosette asks him with a sweetly innocent smile whether he'll be like a papa to her. That's when Valjean sings the above line.

Notice how Hugh Jackman emphasizes "mother." I have no doubt this is a deliberate choice. Cosette asks Valjean to be a father to her, and Valjean replies he'll do one better: he'll be a mother as well. It's a major shift in his character, and one of the key themes in Victor Hugo's classic. Up till this point, Valjean's main identity was a mayor and factory boss in Montreuil-sur-mer. He was a compassionate one to be sure, but ultimately a man who sat at the top of a privileged hierarchy, disconnected from the lives of his subordinates. This mirrors the role of fathers in his society.

Back in those days (and many places today), a good father’s duty was simply to be a financial provider and protector of his family. He made money, he dealt with threats, and in return, his wife and children were to show him obedience whether or not he actually enriched their lives. There was no expectation of nurturing, sensitivity, emotional support, heart-to-heart communication, or engagement in the daily work of raising a healthy, happy child. Fathers were supposed to be invulnerable, and they maintained this facade by keeping their distance. For Valjean to be a father in this cultural context is similar to his role as the capitalist boss: he’s a benevolent patriarch in a position of power who provides materially for his children/workers, but doesn’t care about them personally.

Now, for Valjean to be a mother is a different story. Hugo depicts the archetypal mother, Fantine, as a heroic figure, her unconditional love for Cosette a sublime and noble quality, which stands out against the cold indifference of society. She sacrifices everything for her child and is rewarded in the end with God’s grace. This motherly love is held up as an ideal. To be clear, by "motherly" I don’t mean a female and the child she birthed (Mme. Thenardier is a poor role model despite being a biological parent), but the genuine holistic love displayed by both men and women in the brick. It's a love that is strikingly vulnerable: Bishop Myriel risked being robbed or worse by sheltering Valjean, Enjolras lost his life in a failed revolution to improve the lot of his fellow man. Neither asked anything in return. Valjean promising to be a mother to Cosette is a promise to strive for this kind of love, the kind that is tender, compassionate, and most of all, human in a way that is unexpected - and indeed unusual - for men even today.