Now Playing: On My Own by Lea Salonga (without me his world will go on turning, a world that's full of happiness that I have never known)
I've always loved Eponine from Les Miserables; unsurprisingly, I see a lot of myself in her, in her circumstances, in her motivations, the emotions that are conveyed throughout the musical (and yes, I am just talking about the musical here). But I also think she's a very...misunderstood character.
In the musical Eponine (or, at least, 'grown-up' Eponine) is in love with Marius, who, surprise surprise, is in love with some ditzy blonde. Eponine despairs, and then decides to join the revolution; her motivation for this in the book is so that she and Marius can die together, but in the musical this is a little more ambiguous). And, because Marius is a twat, he gets shot - or he would have gotten shot, if Eponine hadn't literally taken a bullet for him. She dies in his arms, and gets what she wants; just a few moments of undivided attention, a heartbeat when she is the centre of his world and he genuinely cares for her. And then five seconds after she dies he's back pining for his ditzy blonde.
A lot of the slap that Eponine gets is that Marius is an idiot, and a superficial reading of her character arc suggests that Eponine wastes all of her song time and her life on West End's biggest asshat. And he is, really - a bourgeois pretty boy doing something trendy. But it's not Marius; it's not Marius at all. Eponine grows up in a time and place devoid of eligible lovers, a time and place totally bereft of love or kindness or romance. She's a rough girl on the streets and that is universally looked down upon, even today, and so she has confused happiness and success with the perfect conformity to societal expectations that Cosette manages because she has become wealthy. Love - higher, poetic, romantic, pure love, is represented in Les Miserables as a luxury for the upper classes; it is only when Valjean is wealthy that he receives an object for his affections in Cosette, and Cosette and Marius' relationship is criticised by some critiques of Les Miserables as being utterly sexless, which is a defining feature of 'honest love' in literature and popular culture.In contrast, the love in Eponine's world is vulgar and sexual - not love but crude lust, in which sex and love are reconstructed as something totally other; Fantine descends into poverty and prostitution and claims that her clients are 'making love to one already dead', and the closest Eponine's mother Madame Thenadier can come to words of endearment for her husband is 'master of the house, isn't worth my spit' and describes him as a 'cunning little brain, regular Voltaire/thinks he's quite a lover but there's not much there'. Eponine's dreams of finding love is one and the same as the universal desire to find social status and wealth via some bastardisation of the 'American Dream'; when this is taken from her she thinks not of the man she has lost, but the life she'll never know - 'what a life I might have known/but he never saw me there'. In Les Miserables happiness is wealth; only the wealthy love, and only the wealthy live. Marius is just a representation of Eponine's ambitions; when she realised that she has been overlooked in favour of Cosette she laments 'what a life I might have known/but he never saw me there', and bitterly acknowledges the absurdity of regretting what could not be. Marius is her golden opportunity, the closest she'll ever come to a happy life and her pain isn't that she's lost a rich asshat, but she came as close as she'll ever come to getting what she wants and then that's taken away by some ditzy blonde. That is the catalyst for Eponine's despair, which is so tragic and fatalistic it cannot possibly be inspired by a single human being, even a human being of Eddie Redmayne's gorgeousness.
It's also important to note that when Eponine mopes her way through all of her lines she's not really fixated on Marius - the only time she actually says his name is at the very end, when they finally become 'lovers' of sorts; and even then he is her 'Monsieur Marius', even when he calls her his 'dear Eponine'. Her song is called 'On My Own', not 'Why Doesn't This Asshat Love Me' - her tragedy is loneliness, not rejection. Eponine is a fascinating study on the human condition; we are social creatures, biologically engineered for company and for intimacy, and that is the primary drive of a lot of our actions. The prologue to her song is 'and now I'm all alone again, nowhere to turn, no-one to go to/without a home, without a friend, without a face to say 'hello' to' - and this is something we can all sympathise with, and an element that is missing in a lot of other Eponine-esque characters. It is outrageously unfair to be angry at Marius for not loving Eponine, but more importantly it's outrageously unfair to be angry at Eponine for loving Marius; it's outrageously unfair to be angry at anyone for loving or not loving anyone else. That's not the point, of Eponine's story; it's not enough to be sympathetic that the asshat she loves doesn't love her back. Eponine's tragedy is that she is lonely to the point of despair and slips into self-destructive melancholia by joining the revolution and nobody can pull her out of it - unlike all the other calamities that befall the other characters, Eponine's dilemma has no solution other than death, because all life gives her is 'one more day all on my own/one more day with him not caring'.
Eponine deals with her depression like we all do - pretending certain people don't exist and pretending that other people behave how you would like them to. The daydreaming that is the main theme of On My Own proves my point that Marius isn't really that important to Eponine; it's just what he can give her - he is referred to only as an ambiguous 'He' and not 'Marius'. I don't think it's weak or unfeminist that Eponine recognises that companionship, or even the illusion of companionship, makes the world a better place - when she is 'happy with the company I'm keeping' the pavement 'shines like silver' and the trees are 'full of starlight'; in contrast to when she feels lonely and 'the trees are bare and everywhere the streets are full of strangers'. But despite being lonely Eponine is torn between so many different people - she cannot bring herself to tell Marius she loves him, because she's afraid, as we all are, of his inevitable rejection; which incidentally does wonderful things for her self esteem. But she cannot bring herself to just cut ties with Marius and constantly follows him around, living off his company - and it is important we don't see this as a sexist representation of female dependence on men but simply a human dependence on other humans; there is nothing else and, although Marius is totally blind he understands Eponine in a way no other character does, and cares for her in a way no other character does and for that, I'll give the asshat some credit. Eponine is also conflicted in her attitude towards Cosette - the things that make Marius so deeply attracted to her are actually quite shallow, but of course telling a lover that his motivations for love are laughably superficial isn't a good idea when you are friends/in love with said lover. We've all had to watch on as people fall in love with ideas or facades or bank accounts and no-one and nothing can convince them of the truth, because the truth hurts. We all love to think that we love people for who they are but nobody actually does; we don't love ourselves for what we are and we don't love others for what we are because what we all are, essentially, is lonely; and we love and make things about ourselves worth loving so that people will make us less lonely. All that being said, Cosette is not a bad or malicious character and Eponine realises that; if anything Cosette is almost too good, too faultless, and so on top of hating Cosette simply for being Cosette Eponine has to grapple with the guilt of wishing someone who is perfectly lovely to just evaporate, but at the same time Cosette cannot evaporate; even if Eponine had taken matters into her own hands and ensured that the bullet had lodged into Cosette and not into herself Cosette is a character that exists, eternally, in history and literature and reality - our lives are full of perfect people who make our lives perfectly miserable, and you just wish they would for once in their perfect lives do something that could justify your rage. Cosette is a villain of circumstance, because fate has made her infinitely more desirable than Eponine and through no fault of anyone or anything (except maybe Marius's inability to do anything except think through his dick) Cosette is the direct cause for Eponine's pain, and so Eponine's dislike of her is also nothing to dislike about Eponine; you'd be pretty cheesed off too. Well, at least, I know I am.
We all love to laugh at things that make others look pathetic - we are such social creatures we don't realise how much of ourselves we owe to other people, how much of our will to live and our very existence we owe to the inexplicable and indescribable joy of having friends, of having lovers, even having enemies. What are we, alone, without family, without friends, without love? We are people without hope; that is what Eponine is and we are so afraid of that happening to us, and we have all been Eponine at some point in our lives. Eponine is alone, humiliated, heartbroken and rejected - these are all things we all go through and yet we have almost no sympathy for people who are in the thick of it, because company and love and fulfilment erases all our memories of harder times like amnesia. And Eponine hates herself, for her inability to pull herself out of her own misery - 'and I know it's only in my mind/that I'm talking to myself and not to him' and 'I love him but every day I'm learning/all my life I've only been pretending'. But this idea that we can pull out of anything by ourselves is a fallacy - through delusions of grandeur we attribute far too much of our recovery from despair to ourselves rather than to others. When I talk about getting over depression I often gloss over the fact that I was suicidal until I reconnected with a few friends and that quite literally saved my skin - because that unsavoury detail just reeks of patheticness. We glorify the Prince Charming who fights the dragons and rescues the princess that we forget to give thanks to the fairies who make the hero's quest possible. Eponine is the only character who is truly alone in Les Miserables, and she's a perfect example of how little we can achieve alone, and how the idea of the solitary rise to greatness is a farce; we all need people, and we are all at the mercy of whether or not we get that help, that support, that company, that love. And if you don't...
The most relatable and, I think, heartbreaking part of Eponine is her feelings of worthlessness that progress steadily as the plot progresses. Because Eponine is a representation of loneliness and how much we owe to the company of others her descent into depression mirrors Marius's growing love for Cosette and therefore the inevitability of Eponine being the girl come second - Eponine bitterly remarks that 'without me his world will go on turning/a world that's full of happiness that I have never known', which is in perfect contrast to how much Marius means to her in her world - he makes starlight appear in trees and turns the pavement to silver and when she is lost she needs him to find her. Although Javert is the only character who actually commits suicide in Les Miserables Eponine is actually the suicidal character - Eponine embraces reality and its infinite miseries, in contrast to the revolutionaries who fruitlessly try to change the world, or Marius and Cosette who find happiness in a miserable world of miserable people, or Valjean who throws himself at the feet of God or Javert who lives in an alternate reality of black and white morality and then loses it when his illusions are shattered. But it is in this single line in a single song - 'without me his world will go on turning' Eponine encapsulates the one fear we all have as human beings, a fear that will never go away. A fear of irrelevance; a fear of meaninglessness, a fear that we mean nothing to no-one and that death, which is supposedly what we are most afraid of, will not provoke the expected feelings of grief and fear and despair. Eponine gets her dramatic last words, in which she relentlessly guilt trips Marius the Asshat and finally gets meaning as a character, and as a person in Marius' life; it is only when she is dying he realises how much she loved him and, I think, how much he loved her. We all hope our deaths will have a similar effect, and our greatest fear is that we will die as we have lived - meaninglessly, so meaninglessly that the world will go on turning; and we know it does.
Why do we hate Eponine so much for loving Marius? What is the difference between Eponine's love and Cosette's love? If anything, I admire Eponine and her love for Marius more; hers is a real love, a mjore genuine emotion from a more genuine character - real love is dying for someone, giving to someone who gives you so little in return. Jealousy...we hate it in other people because we hate it in ourselves. It is such a sin, in our society, to want what we can't have - we're not allowed to want something until we have it. Cosette is blameless because love arrives quite literally at her door; Eponine is desperately needy because she is somehow blamed for the fact that love will never show up at her door. Why do we blame women when the things we want don't fall in our laps? And why do we hate them when they go out to get what they want?
You might have gathered that I don't really like Cosette - Cosette in the musical or the Cosettes in my life. Men never like being reminded of what they are not, and what they can't have, and it is no different with women but...but it's more than that. Because relationships are such a status symbol and such an important part of our societal construct of femininity it is perceived by most as a prize - and a prize usually implies some kind of fight, some kind of struggle, some kind of achievement that merits a reward. Girls like me, we've been brought up with this myth that whatever we want, we just have to work hard for it. Love doesn't work like that. I have waited and fought and waited some more but it's always the most undeserving girls who get what I want; the ones who have everything and still take everything from me. And these girls...they don't need my love, they have the love of everyone who has ever broken my heart. They have everything, and so I think they can live without my smiles. Eponine doesn't like Cosette, and it is incredibly harsh and hypocritical to condemn her for that; do those who lose out ever genuinely applaud those who humiliate them? We would never expect such selfless charades from men, so why do we demand them of women?
Eponine can also be read as a representation of problems that cannot be solved - unrequited love cannot be solved by lovers of other people; loneliness cannot be cured by people who are undesirable company. These are two lessons I have had to learn, but the latter is very interesting - Eponine acknowledges that the 'streets are full of strangers', but it is not in them or in her family or in the other revolutionaries that she can cure her loneliness; it is with her friend, Marius, because no matter what there are just some people you will like more than others and no matter what that person will almost always not be yours to have and never able to put your name at the top of their list. Eponine's woes can really only leave her in death; it is only in death that Marius can give her what she so desperately needs - love, and to be a priority. Eponine was a character that could not live; only those totally blessed by fortune (Marius and Cosette) survive Les Miserables; all the other characters cannot be cured by life. It's such a bitter reflection on our society, isn't it? We've damned the less fortunate, the unlucky, those who have problems too complicated for our selfish selves to try and solve - only those perfect, blessed by society, can enjoy society. Marius' world really is full of happiness that we will never know; I have never before seen someone lose so much and spend so little time dwelling on it, because Cosette is the shallow bubbly balm for all his wounds. Whoever knew that Cosette is our manic pixie dream girl?
I think it's rather obvious that my life is one big Eponine moment right now, but it's not for what you might think. People are...people are people, and I am under no delusions - nobody I know is perfect. But Eponine and I...we know what we need, not as women, but as human beings, and we're not getting that. So next time you mock someone for being desperate, think about what you're mocking. You're laughing on an island and we're drowning out at sea and not one of you, not a single one of you, bothers to come and save us, and if we ever make it to shore we'll be shot for sure. We hate the women who are more fortunate than we will ever be, and you cannot blame us - it's not a female thing, it's a human thing. Want and need and love and hate is all so forgivable in a man and so sinful in a woman and perhaps...perhaps I am right in feeling relieved when Eponine dies, dies in a lover's arms, dies happy, never knowing that six seconds later he'll be banging on about Cosette again and her death doesn't mean anything to anyone. Maybe that's all I ever wanted - not someone, or a life with someone. Just death to provide me with one last good show before the curtain falls.
But even in death, Eponine is restless - as a ghost she reappears to sing what she spent her life singing: 'take my hand and lead me to salvation/take my love, for love is everlasting'. And maybe that's what I'm most afraid of - not of death, or of a meaningless death. But that death, like everything else in life, won't give me the answers I am so desperately searching for ever since I forgot all the questions I called home.