How Do You Solve a Problem Like Cosette? Femininity and the Changing Face of Victor Hugo’s 'Alouette'

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This article opens a new dialogue between French literature, gender studies, and adaptation studies by examining the conception and reception of the character of Cosette from Victor Hugo’s bestseller 'Les Misérables' (1862). Adaptation studies has increasingly theorized the comparative rather than simply evaluative use of fidelity, in part encouraged by the ongoing push beyond the customary adaptive media of film. However, there has been little development of this methodology to ask how the relationship between literary works and their adaptations might help to nuance – if not revise – the masculinist notoriety of canonical male writers like Hugo. Cosette provides an apt test case. She is the modern face of 'Les Misérables' thanks to the hugely popular Boublil and Schönberg musical version (1985) and its trademark logo, which is based on Émile Bayard’s wistful 1879 illustration of her. Cosette’s poster-child status is deeply problematic but has never been explored. Her objectification as the ingenuous alouette (“lark”) and her rags-to-riches tale tout a conservatism that is at once in line with Hugo’s patriarchal renown as a grand homme and yet at odds with Les Misérables’s reputation for progressive ideals. I argue that both these clichéd contexts of understanding Hugo’s work are unsettled by Cosette’s changing faces in the novel and across its adaptations. My approach is twofold: it draws on Hugo’s non-categorical poetics to rethink the construction of femininity in his novel as equivocal rather than patriarchal; and it emphasizes the relevance of applying a hermeneutical and intermedial analysis to the source/adaptation relationship by considering a range of different adaptive forms (literary sequels, film, video-gaming, and animation) and contexts (book illustrations, advertising, and fandom) since the musical’s debut. Understood together, these representations of Hugo’s lark cast much-needed light on one of western literature’s most recognizable faces.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5
Number of pages28
JournalModern Languages Open
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2019


  • Victor Hugo
  • Gender Identity
  • Adaptation Studies


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