The Wretched Ones
By N Mark Castro
The much-anticipated and most recent film adaptation of Les Misérables brings out memories of the legendary stage artists that gave life to the Broadway show that took its inspiration from Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same title.
One of the key roles in Les Misérables is the tragic tale of Éponine Thénardier. She is symbolic of redeemed types found in Hugo’s work — the Mary Magdalene fallen woman redeemed by a deep, albeit romantic and impossible love.
Literary historian, writer, scholar, critic and wine connoisseur George Saintsbury argued that Éponine is the most interesting character in the novel, but that Hugo, like Marius, did not take enough notice of her:
The gamin Gavroche puts in a strong plea for mercy, and his sister Eponine, if Hugo had chosen to take more trouble with her, might have been a great, and is actually the most interesting, character. But Cosette — the cosseted Cosette — Hugo did not know our word or he would have seen the danger–is merely a pretty and rather selfish little doll, and her precious lover Marius is almost ineffable.
QUIENES ESTA NINA?
The name Éponine derives from the ancient Gaulish heroine Epponina, wife of Julius Sabinus, who rebelled against the Roman empire. She “became the symbol of great patriotism and virtue” by protecting her husband for many years and by choosing to die with him when he was finally captured. The name was quite common in post-Revolutionary France among Republicans and Bonapartists.
Her sister’s name “Azelma” is also derived from the name of a loyal wife who dies with her husband, supposedly the wife of “Abdul-aziz” a north African warrior who fights Napoleon.
Hugo explains both names as the product of Mme Thénadier’s love of “stupid romances”: melodramatic novels on exotic themes with exaggeratedly noble characters. “Madame Thénardier was just intelligent enough to read this sort of books. She lived on them. In them she drowned what brains she possessed.” Hugo says such names were typical of the period, when there was “an anarchy of baptismal names” as working-class people increasingly gave their children exotic or grandiose names, while the upper classes intentionally adopted lowly-sounding names.
The two sisters were originally named Palmyre and Malvina, but in 1860 Hugo changed them in the drafts of the novel. He may have used the name Éponine because of Charles Baudelaire’s poem Les Petit Vieilles (Little Old Ladies) from Les Fleurs du Mal.
The poem is dedicated to Hugo, and also describes broken-down former beauties:
Ces monstres disloqués furent jadis des femmes,
Éponine ou Laïs! Monstres brisés, bossus
Ou tordus, aimons-les! ce sont encor des âmes.
(These dislocated wrecks were women once,
Were Eponine or Laïs! hunchbacked freaks,
Though broken let us love them! they are souls.)
It isn’t surprising, therefore — with such central significance of Éponine’s role — that she would own one of the most heart-wrenching expression of unrequited love that thousands of girls all over the world have felt kinship to.
Samantha Barks, reprising her Broadway role as Éponine onto the big screen, says:
Girls can relate to unrequited love and that’s one thing, but what not a lot of people can relate to is exactly how dark Eponine’s life is. She has a line in a song where she says, ‘Without a home, without a friend, without a face to say hello to,’ and that’s her life — Marius is really Eponine’s everything and it’s not just about falling in love with somebody on a teenage level, it’s also about somebody being your only piece of light in a very dark life, and that’s heartbreaking about Eponine.— Samantha Barks
Proof of Samantha Bark’s ownership of the song ON MY OWN is her rendition of the song she performed during the 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables.
Which explains why her onscreen performance is as arresting as her stage experience.
Of course, it cannot be helped that most people would tend to compare Samantha’s great performance against Tony-Award winner Lea Salonga, who likewise took ownership of the same role onstage and was personally invited by Sir Cameron Mackintosh to reprise the role yet again for the show’s 10th Anniversary.
Over the years, Lea Salonga would perform other roles on Broadway while becoming the only two-time Disney Heroine, lending her musical voice to Jasmine and Mulan; but when Les Misérables celebrated its 25th Anniversary, she was invited yet again but this time to take on the role of Fantine, which she likewise played in Broadway in the past.
What’s quite amazing is seeing both Lea Salonga and Samantha Bark — who took on the role of Éponine, singing together on the 25th Anniversary celebration of Les Misérables (on Track 6:00) … and later joined by the original London cast.
How Can You Not Love Lea?