For those of you that don’t know, Eponine Thenardier is one of the leading female characters in Les Miserables, the door-stopping classic written by Victor Hugo. Set (and written) in nineteenth-century France, the novel covers just about everything – including morality standards, the Battle of Waterloo, the concept of redemption, the French penal system, the history of the Parisian sewers and a hell of a lot of architecture – but mainly focuses around Jean Valjean, a former convict who redeems himself through good works and gets caught up in a rebellion while trying to avoid arrest. Eponine has a relatively small role in the overall story, but it actually ends up being quite significant because the original book is over 650,000 words long. She’s certainly one of the most significant female characters in the story, and – thanks to modern adaptations – has become one of the most popular.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Eponine is actually a pretty active character. It takes her a while to come into her own – as a child, she does almost nothing, and when we first meet her older self she’s very much following her father’s money-making schemes – but once she falls in love with Marius she starts to strike out on her own much more often. She prevents her father from hurting Marius by stopping the planned burglary of Cosette, lying about his whereabouts when her father tells her to look for Marius in his rooms, and slipping Cosette and her father a note telling them to leave. She also takes it upon herself to find out where Cosette and Valjean live, decides to withhold Cosette’s letters to Marius when she’s asked to deliver them to him, and sneaks onto the barricade dressed as a boy in order to die alongside Marius. She does all of this of her own volition, and it’s all out of love for Marius. I’ll talk about this more later on, but for now I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t see much of Eponine’s hobbies. It’s stated in the book that she’s a heavy drinker, and that this has taken a toll on her voice and appearance, but as I said in my Rachel Watson post, I’m not going to count alcoholism as a hobby, especially seeing as it’s likely a way of coping with the abject poverty Eponine has grown up in. Said abject poverty has, quite understandably, put a bit of a crimp in Eponine’s social life, so we don’t see anything along more conventional hobby lines. The most we hear of her hobbies is when we discover she enjoys walking by herself at night, and she helpfully sings a song about it.
Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. Her goals are to stay alive and to get as close to Marius as possible, by any means necessary. As far as her beliefs go, she’s clearly someone who doesn’t adhere to a strict moral code – all the scams she engages in are proof enough of that – but she is someone who has a strong sense of loyalty to those she cares about and is willing to risk her life for them. She’s got something on all three counts here, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Eponine is a pretty consistent character. She’s a brash, sometimes abrasive young criminal who thinks nothing of all kinds of petty crime, but she also has an extremely strong sense of loyalty, is very brave, and is capable of kindness and goodness despite the difficult life she’s lead. She’s very much a diamond in the rough – one of those characters with a harsh exterior, but who still is capable of empathy and selflessness because there’s still some good in them. Unfortunately a lot of Eponine’s harsher edges are omitted in the musical, which I think lessens the impact of this part of her personality, but I’ll still give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
Actually, I can’t describe Eponine without mentioning her love life. Such a lot of her motivations are influenced by her feelings for Marius, and that’s crucial to her trajectory as a character. Unfortunately, both her motivations and the better side of her personality – which are very important parts of her character – are only brought out by her feelings for Marius, so I can’t really let her pass this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Pretty much all of Eponine’s decisions are influence by her love life. She decides to stop Cosette and Valjean from being burgled because she knows it would hurt Marius, not because she’s met them and likes them. She decides to keep Cosette’s letter to Marius, because she hates the fact that he has fallen for someone else and wants to break them up. She follows Marius to the barricades out of love, as well, believing that there they will be able to die together. All of the independent decisions Eponine makes are motivated by her love for Marius, so she’s never going to pass this round.
That being said, much like with other characters I have to wonder if Eponine’s feelings for Marius are all that’s going on here. It’s made clear that despite a happy childhood, Eponine has spent a significant amount of time growing up in squalor. It’s not talked about in the musical, but in the book she expands on this, saying that she was once so hungry that she hallucinated and at one point she seriously considered suicide. It’s also made clear in the book that she’s been drinking from a very early age, looks like a wizened, toothless old woman at the age of fifteen, and has been participating in her father’s schemes for so long that she now sees burglary and embezzlement as a normal, and acceptable, way of life.
And then she meets Marius, who’s rich, and kind, and doesn’t turn her in when he finds out how her family makes their living. It’s implied that Marius is the first person who’s treated her kindly in a long time, so no wonder she falls so desperately in love with him. But I think that for Eponine, Marius doesn’t just represent the kindness she’s been missing – he also represents a way out. Marius is so clearly not a part of the world that Eponine grew up in that I have to wonder if he doesn’t represent some kind of hope for her – a hope that one day she will be able to leave poverty behind her and have a better, safer life. Unfortunately Victor Hugo doesn’t really expand on this, so it’s all speculation on my part. As we don’t get confirmation on this, I’ll have to do what I did for Daisy Buchanan and withhold the point, but hopefully this interpretation is at least something to think about.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
In the musical, Eponine doesn’t really develop much, but in the book, her character gets much more of a chance to grow. She starts the book as a spoilt child, but after ten years pass we see she’s grown into a twisted, malnourished young woman accustomed to an extremely hard life. We see she thinks nothing of a life of crime but then, when she meets Marius, the kinder and gentler parts of her personality are slowly drawn out of her. She starts to turn against her criminal associates (including her own family) and starts becoming a better person – culminating when she quite literally takes a bullet for Marius, sacrificing herself so that he will live. It’s a beautiful and actually quite inspiring piece of character development, showing that no matter what people have been through, they are still capable of love and redemption.
Unfortunately, the musical irons all of this out, which I think does a real disservice to her character. I’ll talk about this more later on, but for now I’m ignoring the musical and giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she have a weakness?
Once again, Eponine’s flaws are ironed out in the musical, but in the book one of her biggest flaws is her tendency to selfishness. She can be petty and jealous when things don’t go her way, and she’s perfectly prepared to stoop to all kinds of lows if that’s what suits her. It doesn’t really hold her back – personally, I think this developed as more of a self-preservation tactic – but it is something that she manages to overcome. Once again I’m giving her the point and saving my rant about the musical for later.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
In the book Eponine exerts quite a bit of influence on the plot, but more in the way she manages to manipulate other characters. She finds out information about Cosette for Marius, in an attempt to make him happy, and ends up engineering their first meeting. She warns off Cosette and Valjean, leading them to start preparing to leave the country. She takes letters between Cosette and Marius, and decides to hide them to make Marius give up on Cosette. And, of course, she saves Marius’s life – but she does get shot and die in the process so this last one’s a bit shaky. In the musical she has a lot less influence – but as they’re trying to cram a book that’s more than 650,000 words into the space of a couple of hours, I can kind of understand why her character got slightly overlooked here. I’ll be generous and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Eponine’s character works differently with gender stereotypes depending on whether you’re looking at the adaptation or the book. In the original novel, she’s a hardened criminal, drastically changed by her terrible adolescence, morally ambiguous and having lost her looks at a very young age, due to a combination of poverty, drink and malnutrition. It’s extremely rare to see this in a teenage female character, and this helps to offset the fact that she’s another teenage girl whose story is fundamentally about romantic love.
A lot of the more clichéd elements of her character are offset by the sheer depths of human misery she has been through, however. It’s worth noting that Eponine’s story is about how romantic love can redeem someone despite their past – but whereas in these kinds of story it’s usually the love of a pure and innocent woman who redeems a man who’s made some dodgy choices, with Eponine it’s the other way around. She is the one who has done bad things, and becomes a better person thanks to love – but there’s another spin on this old trope because that love isn’t even reciprocated. She becomes a much more complex character, as it’s not the act of love but the feeling of love that ultimately makes her a better person. Couple that with the fact that she has to keep struggling against the nasty, self-preserving elements of her own personality, and you get a character that critics have argued is one of the most complex in the whole novel.
However, the musical just doesn’t really pack the same kind of punch. Its main problem is that while Eponine has been through a lot, she’s nowhere near as nasty as her counterpart in the book. She already starts off from a very sympathetic position: as Marius’s best friend who’s secretly in love with him. She doesn’t grow into selflessness because she’s already there – leading Marius to the sickeningly saintly Cosette, even though she finds this heart-breaking. All her sharper edges are gone – there’s no alcoholism, no manipulation, and we don’t actually see her commit a crime. We are told that Eponine is tough and that she’s been through a lot, but we don’t actually see it for ourselves.
What this means is that she doesn’t get anywhere near the kind of character development that she does in the book, and her character suffers as a result. The kind of gender stereotypes that she’s associated with now are far more to do with the tragedy of unrequited love, and the idea that a woman will wait for a man to love her – which is a huge step back, considering the original novel was written in the nineteenth century. The idea of love bringing out the better elements of her personality doesn’t really apply here, because they’re already on display right from the beginning. The idea of redemption doesn’t really hold water, because Eponine doesn’t really need to be redeemed. In the book, it’s made explicitly clear that she has done bad things which have taken a serious toll on her personality. She’s got something she has to work against. In the musical, it’s difficult to believe that Eponine has done bad things at all.
The long and short of all this is that the musical irons out a lot of Eponine’s nasty side – but it takes a lot of her character’s depth with it. In the book, we know that Eponine starts out as a bad person, who has to work her way up to goodness. In the musical, Eponine starts out as a good person in bad circumstances, who doesn’t really have to work her way up to anything. When you take away that gritty side of her character, all that’s left is the romanticised unrequited love, and all the tired old tropes that come along with it. That’s still a feature of her character in the book, so she’d never completely pass this round, but that’s all there is to her in the musical.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
We don’t see a lot of Eponine’s relationships with other female characters. We know her mother spoiled her when she was little, but neither of them appear to really care about each other. She has a sister, Azelma, who looks up to her – but she’s so insignificant that she’s completely cut from the musical, and with good reason. The only relationship of substance is the one she has with Cosette.
Cosette and Eponine are clearly set up to be contrasts to one another. Eponine and her family mistreated Cosette as a child, dressing her in rags and making her act as a servant, but when they grow older the tables have turned and Cosette is wealthy, and Eponine is poor. Cosette is everything Eponine is not – kind, innocent, naïve, beautiful and obedient – and doesn’t really seem to think much of Eponine at all. Eponine, on the other hand, is wildly jealous of Cosette and resents her for being the object of Marius’s affections. Unfortunately the two don’t get much of an opportunity to really settle their differences, as they only meet a couple of times. Their relationship is really something for the reader to observe, rather than something the two girls create themselves.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
Eponine is a character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, who develops over the course of the story and who has a certain amount of control over her own destiny, but ultimately that isn’t enough to let her pass my test. Her character is so completely wrapped up in her unrequited love for Marius that it’s impossible to separate her from it, and that’s ultimately what brings her down. Whereas most of Hugo’s characters serve more than one purpose in the story, Eponine only serves one – to illustrate the power of redemption through tragic love.
It’s a real shame because she is still a very compelling character in her own right. Many modern critics think that Eponine is one of the most interesting and complex characters in Les Miserables, if only she had been developed a little further. In his book, A History of the French Novel, George Saintsbury described her like this:
“…Eponine, if Hugo had chosen to take more trouble with her, might have been a great, and is actually the most interesting, character.”
This, I feel, really sums up the problems with Eponine’s character. She simply isn’t examined in enough detail to really bring out the best in her. If her character was fleshed out a little more, perhaps she would have passed my test, but unfortunately that isn’t the case.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a new favourite of mine. Katherine North, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.