To the Question of Fantine (and Anne Hathaway)

FILE - This publicity film image released by Universal Pictures shows actress Anne Hathaway portraying Fantine, a struggling,
FILE - This publicity film image released by Universal Pictures shows actress Anne Hathaway portraying Fantine, a struggling, sickly mother forced into prostitution in 1800s Paris, in a scene from the screen adaptation of "Les Miserables." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Laurie Sparham, File)

That our 19th century selves live alongside us should not be in much question. Considering the long-running success of Les Miserables on Broadway, its promised return, and the present screen incarnation, it seems that something about these struggles and their message resonates. Anne Hathaway suggested as much in her Oscar acceptance, wishing that "someday in the not-too-distant future the misfortunes of Fantine will be only found in fiction and not in real life." (Her speech, award and appearance were much raked over and criticized, although not, particularly, for that.)

Perhaps we still are living more or less in a society at war with itself about love, and sex. Like the Miserables, maybe we remain split along the lines of moral judgment, putting women in dire positions of dependency (financial, social) while placing on them burdens as heavy as the cart lifted by Jean Valjean off the back of a pinioned man. And setting them up, too, as martyrs, the unwitting victims of our belief systems... So lovely. So ephemeral. So lacking the grit and tenacity and strength -- spiritual and physical -- necessary for survival.

But real women, like Jean Valjean, often accomplish astonishing feats of living. They did it in the 19th century, as I know from their diaries, testimonies, court documents, and other records left behind -- and they do it now. They free themselves from impossible situations, do the equivalent of scaling high walls and swimming through sewage carrying the wounded on their backs; they look for a higher purpose, a different route, a path to forgiveness; they do not easily succumb. Their solutions come not from society with its habits of condemnation and confinement, from vaunting appearance and making a pretense of rewarding sacrifice, but from the depths of their stories and the details of their situations.

Nevertheless, here we are faced again with the hovering image that won't go away -- the fictional, dramatic and melodramatic one; and the real one that is put up large on our screens and over the airwaves when another woman's tragedy occurs in the world. Why is the sacrificed female (who is not endlessly fascinating herself) so endlessly replicated, so very often shown to us?

I wonder if the wave of scapegoating of Hathaway is in part a general discontent with the contradictions. Somehow we cannot accept a woman with human flaws and ambitions; nor, in the era of "One Billion Rising," can we embrace the sanctified martyr of Les Miserables. We argue over what makes heroines (and real women) likeable or sympathetic; we are often merciless in our judgments of them, and of ourselves.

But maybe too, feminine beauty, like the very Earth's beauty, seems to betray, to be withheld; is in some sense unconquerable and beyond grasping. The elusive siren maddens us; even when we murder her she comes again, this time haunting us with loss. Have we not yet learned how to be at one with beauty, to love without devouring, to fulfill ourselves without roaring greed? We've heard the arguments about society's continued, embedded, misogyny; about the sexism of the media, of Oscar judges and other judges. Feminist theorists explain why women's Valjean-type acts of strength are so difficult to fit to familiar narrative arcs and storylines, why they elude our very language. And we laugh with recognition at the greedy antics of the Thénardiers, and say "Human nature will never change." We also know that when any woman under stress considers her survival, the Fantine-option presents itself, or indeed is forced upon her. It's called "the world's oldest profession."

And, of course, it is forced upon boys and young men; it is a veiled or overt threat hanging over the young and vulnerable; and in a different way, casts a shadow over the lives of the clients, the patrons, the johns -- the muffes and michés of 19th century French slang; the desired, despised money-payers.

Prostitution is, in fact, a situation that goes beyond venal sex. We commonly extend the concept to include other acts of plundering our gentler selves and higher ideals. It's long been an accepted practice in our world; and is perhaps our truest link to the 19th century, when such choices for work became available on a wider scale than ever before, promising a route to middle-class prosperity and comfort and called progress. Valjean's real Houdini act is that he rejected such notions and lived to prevail. Victor Hugo's was that he wrote such a story that lived on, as well.

For the world to be a better place for women -- and also, by the way, for men, and for young people -- it will need to become a place where the main thrust of our work and our pleasure is conceived not as an act of plunder, but of something else. Whether this takes another thousand years or a day in the life of one person, it is the singular shift that must be made. It is also the lesson of Jean Valjean and Les Miserables. Perhaps that is why we carry its message onward.

Carole DeSanti is vice president, editor at large at Viking Penguin and the author of a novel, "The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R."