nuclear relationship between a mother and a child is complex enough without
factoring in various situations where that relationship can go awry.
Taking into consideration the circumstance where a mother is paid for sexual
submission opens up an interesting situation that begs the question of
motherly love: how much will a mother suffer, endure, and sacrifice for
her child? This question can be analyzed by making use of two nineteenth-century
literary works: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Elizabeth Gaskell’s
Mary Barton. In these two cases, the actions that (respectively)
Fantine and Esther adopt typify the actions of middle-to lower-class woman
in situations where there were few if any options.
In Hugo’s Les Misérables, what is important to examine is the pure selflessness that the mother, Fantine, exhibits for her daughter, Cosette. This can be seen from the various social stations Fantine traverses, all for the health and happiness of her child. Hugo introduces Fantine in two steps, first her background, and second her, for lack of a better word, possessions.
In reference to her background, Fantine is first described as “something of [a] workwoman still [having] not wholly given up the needle” (117). Coming from “unfathomable depths of social darkness” in which any family claim was “anonymous and unknown,” it is most probable that she was an orphan due to her illegitimacy (118). She is twenty, and despite her destitute childhood, she is not entirely a member of the lower class. Socially, she is elevated enough to be the mistress of Tholomyès, a student, who in his ability to pay for his studies and education in Paris, is above her in rank. In reference to her ‘possessions,’ it is here that Hugo presents the most important fact about Fantine, the description of her beauty. It is because this is her only commodity that her selfless acts have meaning. Fantine is known as “the Blond, on account of her beautiful hair, the color of the sun” (116). She is also distinguished as being a “pretty blonde with fine teeth. She had gold and pearls for her dowry; but the gold was on her head and the pearls in her mouth” (118). In following chapters Hugo adds that her “splendid teeth had evidently been endowed by God” and that she is a “nymph, [with] the modesty of a nun,” the “fair daughter of chimeras,” and a “jewel of the purest water” (121, 132). All of these descriptions are used to achieve two goals: one, that coming from poverty her only claim to wealth lies in her beauty, and two, having only this commodity makes her fall from “the modesty of a nun” all the more tragic.
In Chapter 9, in order to appease his parents, Tholomyès abandons Fantine who has recently discovered that she is with child. Fantine next reappears three years later, and she is no longer a mythic beauty, but rather is “pale, and looked very weary, and somewhat sick” (141). The “purest water” is now “tanned and spotted with freckles, [with her] forefinger hardened and pricked with the needle” (141). No longer living as Tholomyès’ sole mistress, Fantine has returned to work to provide for her child. And, in traveling to her home province in search of higher wages, she encounters a seemingly kind woman by the name of Madame Thenardier, the wife of an innkeeper, and her two children. She sees the happiness that this mother has provided for her two girls and imagines that Madame Thenardier could do the same for Cosette. She also knows that the possibility of her employment will seriously be hampered if her employer ever finds out about the illegitimate status of her child, so, in a heartbreaking decision, she leaves Cosette with the Thenardiers under an arrangement in which she will pay seven francs a month for her room, board, and keep.
The Thenardiers are important since they serve as the device that makes Fantine sacrifice all that she has. Monsieur Thenardier, a dishonest man perpetually in debt, sees Cosette as a source of income to pay his creditors. As such, he raises Cosette’s prearranged fee from seven to twelve to fifteen francs. Due to jealous gossip, Fantine is put out of her position in the factory of her hometown. Being also in debt, she is forced to sell off and return whatever comforts she has acquired, only keeping the barest of necessities, “having nothing but her bed” (173). With the help of her neighbor Marguerite, Fantine learns “how to do entirely without fire in the winter . . . how to save her candle in taking her meals by the light of an opposite window” (173). All these things she suffers so that she can make payment for Cosette.
This, however, is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. When Monsieur Thenardier asks for ‘necessary’ things for Cosette, Fantine continues to sacrifice for her child. When she receives a letter saying that “her little Cosette was entirely destitute of clothing for the cold weather, that she needed a woolen skirt, and that [she] must send at least ten francs,” she promptly goes to the barber and sells her praised hair. With the ten francs the barber pays, she buys a woolen skirt and sends it the Thenardiers. Fantine has no qualms about selling the beautiful hair she was so proud of for her child, “My child is no longer cold, I have clothed her with my hair” (175). Furious that he has received a skirt instead of money, Thenardier begins to fake Cosette’s illnesses so he is assured money for her drugs, “Cosette is sick of an epidemic disease. The drugs necessary are dear. Unless you send us forty francs within a week the little one will die” (176). Fantine encounters a traveling dentist who offers her two Napoleons (forty francs) to have her two incisor teeth. After some investigation as to what miliary fever is and its effects on children, Fantine returns to the dentist and sells her God-given teeth, content that her “child will not die with that frightful sickness for lack of aid” (178). In Thenardier’s next note, he asks for one hundred francs “immediately, or else little Cosette, just convalescing after her severe sickness, would be turned out of doors into the cold” (179). Not able to bear the idea of her child perishing, and with nothing left of value to sell, Fantine resolutely says, “I will sell what is left” and as Hugo writes “[the] unfortunate creature became a woman of the town” (179).
When Fantine next appears, she is being jeered at by a bourgeois citizen who calls her “ugly” and insults her because she has “lost [her] teeth” (181). The citizen throws snow down her dress prompting a fight, the result of which is her capture by Inspector Javert who sentences her to six months in prison for attacking a private citizen. Her only defense is that the citizen has provoked her. She asks Javert to find it in his heart not to sentence her so she may continue working to provide for her child who is on the brink of being turned out. Despite all that Fantine has sacrificed and suffered, she willingly wishes to continue in prostitution so that her child may have a better life.
Because of the severe cold of the winter, the recent situation she has been faced with, and the constant money demands of the Thenardiers, Fantine succumbs to her consumption and faints. As fortune would have it, the Mayor, Monsieur Madeline, takes her into his care. In Madeline’s infirmary, Fantine’s health is only bettered with talk of how he is going to bring Cosette back to her. Indeed, it seems that she is only living now out of her sheer need to see Cosette. It is in this act that we see her absolute selflessness: forsaking the wealth of her physical beauty and her social comfort, Fantine suffers the effects of consumption all so that she may once again see Cosette.
In Gaskell’s Mary Barton, it is the character of Aunt Esther who makes similar sacrifices. Gaskell starts by first describing Esther’s beauty, “[she] was as pretty as a creature as ever the sun shone on” with “fresh rosy cheeks [and] such black lashes to gray eyes” (5-6). Next she foreshadows Esther’s fall with dialogue from John Barton: “I see what you’ll end at with your artificials, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you’ll be a street-walker” and again a few pages later, “I’d rather see [Mary] earning her bread by the sweat of her brow, as the Bible tells her she should do . . . and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God’s creatures but herself” (6, 8). Esther is a minor character but highly important as she is the illustration of the alternative that Mary very well could face if she follows the path of choosing wealth and status over love.
After the first chapter, Esther disappears doesn’t reenter until chapter ten. In this chapter, titled Return of the Prodigal, Esther tries to warn John about the path that Mary is taking. Unfortunately, John does not listen. She attempts to persuade him but what results is her arrest by a nearby officer to whom it appears that she is attacking John. The officer rounds up Esther and imprisons her for a month, her last free words being, “sinner that I am! Can my prayers be heard? How shall I save her? He would not listen to me” (145; ch. 10). In chapter fourteen, Esther appears again after her one month internment to persuade Jem Wilson to save Mary. Here, in a matter of a few short paragraphs, Esther tells of her sufferings, sacrifices, and what she has endured. In doing so Gaskell achieves two objectives: first, she shows what a mother will do for her child. Second, she sets up a mother-child relationship between Esther and Mary.
In the former, Esther tells Jem how she loved a regiment officer who was ordered to Ireland and could not take her with him. Having some money from him, about £50, she settles in Chester, setting up a small-ware shop and hiring a room close by. Says Esther, “[we] should have done well, but alas! Alas! My little girl feel ill . . . things grew worse and worse” (188-189). With a pestering landlord, she is forced to sell him back the remaining bobbins and tapes to pay off the shop-rent. In addition, the “mean” person she has rented the room from “threatened to turn us out unless his rent was paid” (189). She continues with the circumstances that caused her fall, “it was winter, cold bleak winter; and my child was so ill, so ill, and I was starving” (189). With the child’s father not answering any of her letters for further financial assistance, and not being able to see “her [child] suffer . . . her moans, moans, which money could giving the means of relieving” she is left with no alternative: “I went out into the street one January night” (189).
The mother-child relationship is seen in Esther’s actions towards Mary. Having learned that Mary is entertaining advances from a son of a wealthy factory owner, Esther fears that she too will be seduced, bear a child, be abandoned, and be left with no choice but to rely on her looks to provide for the child. Esther has the deepest wish to prevent Mary from following the same path; she becomes a mother figure by trying to protect Mary, seeing her as “my little girl” (190). Two prime examples of this are when she charges Jem to “take care of her” and in an almost Medea-like moment says, “I suppose it would be murder to kill her, but it would be better for her to die than to lead such a life as I do” (191). And, after her fourteen year disappearance, she appears to Mary as an unfallen respectable woman with a trumped-up excuse as to why she has been absent. Esther appears so she can give Mary a small ripped piece of paper that could implicate Jem in her gentleman caller’s murder. She leaves the paper with Mary so that she may dispose of it as necessary to protect Jem. In this act, Esther breaks the law to protect Mary from losing Jem, her one true love. And, as in the natural cycle of things, this relationship reverses so that at the end of the novel the child is now taking care of the parent. Finally learning of Esther’s occupation after the murder trial, both Mary and Jem search for her and when it seems that they have exhausted all leads, she finally turns up before them on the verge of death. Mary cares for her and on her deathbed and is never absent from her side until “[Esther] spoke word never more . . . and then she died” (463).
Gaskell intensifies the tragedy of Esther’s fall by the use of a butterfly metaphor. When Jem and Mary go in search of Esther, they find that she is commonly referred to on the streets as ‘Butterfly’ and when Esther finally appears to them again, Gaskell describes her as “fallen into what appeared simply a heap of white or light-colored clothes, fainting or dead, lay the poor crushed Butterfly -- the once innocent Esther” (462).
Both characters, Fantine and Esther, are redeemed by the extreme actions they undertake to attest to their motherly love by how much they suffer, endure, and sacrifice for their child. Fantine suffers the loss of her looks, endures social attacks, and sacrifices her health, all for Cosette. Esther suffers the loss of her soldier whom she deeply loves, endures hunger and the cold winter, and sacrifices the only thing of value which she has, all for her nameless child. When put into this context, Fantine and Esther cease being the harlots, wanton women, ladies of ill repute, brazen hussies, prostitutes, and whores that society abhors, the same society that has given no help or little choice but to become the evils it rallies against. Both Fantine and Esther are fully expected to be the caretakers of their children. But, as both Hugo and Gaskell point out, as mothers they were called on to suffer, endure, and sacrifice whatever luxuries, necessities, and commodities for the benefit of their children. As both authors depict, there is very little a mother will not do for the sake of her child; what should not be lost are the acts that women do to express their motherly love. For the sake of Cosette and the nameless child, Fantine and Esther become fallen women. It is not that they should suffer the stigma of this lowly status rather, it is admirable that they joined.