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The Standard of Faithfulness
By Bill Cushing
Editors' note: This piece first appeared in Drunken Monkeys in 2016.
In her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown focuses on the idea that vulnerability, rather than being a sign of weakness in one’s personal attributes, can actually reflect great strength in an individual. She identifies it as an “exquisite emotion” and clarifies that it “is not knowing victory or defeat.” One of her prime conclusions is that vulnerability—true vulnerability—is “understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”
One result of allowing open vulnerability, according to Brown, is its connection to personal strength. She further insists that “to feel is to be vulnerable,” and two fictional characters who exemplify and demonstrate the pinnacle of such emotional investment are Wolfram and Eponine.
One of my favorite operas is Wagner’s “Tannhauser.” Without question, my favorite musical is “Les Misérables” (or “Les Miz” if one prefers and used here for the sake of brevity). The argument could easily be made that “Les Miz” actually is an opera and not really a musical, but that is another argument for another time; what is important here is the character study I intend to indulge. Where “Les Miz” focuses its attention on several characters—mainly Val Jean, Javert, Cosette, and Fontaine, the primary focus of “Tannhauser” is on, well, Tannhauser himself. However, it is the secondary characters of these two works that draw my attention: Wolfram in “Tannhauser” and Eponine in “Les Miz.”
To start, here is a bit of a character “history” of the two. Wolfram, a fellow musician, is perhaps Tannhauser’s greatest friend and confidant. He is also, like Tannhauser, in love with Elizabeth. She is in love with Tannhauser but admires Wolfram. Eponine, the daughter of the Thenardiers, is raised in childhood with Cosette, and later meets and falls in love with Marius, an idealistic student-revolutionary. While Marius tolerates Eponine, he later sees and falls in love with Cosette, who herself is smitten with him.
However, to really study the characteristics of these two as they relate to the premise of vulnerability being strength, it is wise to summarize them individually, beginning with Wolfram—he being the first of the two to appear in artistic history. In “Tannhauser,” Wolfram, a fellow singer, almost immediately demonstrates his self-sacrifice when he prevents Tannhauser’s self-exile by relating the sorrow Elizabeth suffers following his absence.
“Stay for Elisabeth,” he pleads with Tannhauser, telling him that “when in your pride you left us,/she closed her heart against our song [. . .] O, come back, valiant minstrel, [. . .] Let her no longer be absent from our festivals,/and may her star shine on us once more!”
Note that Wolfram notes Tannhauser’s nearly-arrogant pride but maintains a shroud of humility when pleading his case, and the argument succeeds, but Wolfram realizes that by reuniting the couple, “So am I bereft/of all light of hope in this life!”
His loyalty to his colleague supersedes self-interest, and Wolfram effectively undermines his own opportunity to woo the princess. He even gets another chance after Tannhauser exposes his sinful relationship with Venus and is driven from the kingdom to seek forgiveness from the Pope among the pilgrims. However, Wolfram, rather than trying to take advantage of the circumstances, meditates on the question: “Will he return with them, pardoned?/That is her question; that is her prayer;/ye holy ones, let it be fulfilled!”
Although Wolfram desires to be with Elisabeth, he also wants what she wants. When he hears of her death, he then prays that she “become a blessed angel in heaven” in order to redeem his friend. He ignores any chance at self-interest up to and including Tannhauser’s relapse into future sin when, in desperation, the main character seeks to rediscover “the way to the Venusberg.” When Wolfram hears how the Pope declared Tannhauser’s sins humanly impossible to forgive—that his papal staff would sprout leaves before such blasphemy could be pardoned, Wolfram still blocks Tannhauser’s path, saying, “Heinrich, one word will set you free:/your salvation!/You can still gain pardon for your sins!”
“Never, Wolfram,” counters Tannhauser. “I must away!”
“An angel prayed for you on earth,” replies Wolfram. “Soon she will send her blessing down to you/Your angel pleads for you at God’s throne,/and her prayer is heard! Heinrich, you are saved!”
That delay is all that Wolfram needs to accomplish his goal of securing the salvation of his friend when, as Venus’s siren song fades, the chants of newly-arriving pilgrims declare the miracle of Rome: indeed, the Pope’s staff has grown fresh leaves. Tannhauser can now die cleansed of sin and meet Elisabeth in Heaven. Yet, Wolfram’s faith and self-sacrifice is every bit as important as Elisabeth’s in the final analysis. His willingness to “expose” his better nature facilitates Tannhauser’s salvation, and Wolfram proves himself to be both vulnerable and loyal: he allows Tannhauser to abuse him and Elizabeth to confide in him. He uses that character trait—the willingness to be exposed—to a final, greater salvation that supercedes self-interest. Then, there is Eponine.
Although seen briefly at the start of “les Miz,” it is Gavroche’s introduction of Eponine, in which the audience learns that “she knows her way about. Only a kid but hard to scare.” This sets her character up. She may be a beautiful young woman, but she is also a hardened criminal who is following in her father’s footsteps. She is hard, that is, until she is in the presence of the young rebellious student Marius. She prods him with humor, asking him if he is “planning no doubt to change the/world?/Plotting to overthrow the state?/Still living here in this old sewer/[. . .] still pretending to be poor/[even though] Everyone knows your Grandpa's rich.”
Despite her bravado, for example her boast that “there's lots of things I know,” she still has to admit that, despite her hopes for a relationship with the young idealistic student, she has little chance at establishing a lasting relationship with a man of his social and economic standing. A pivotal point in the show occurs when Marius asks Eponine to bring a written proclamation of his love to Cossette. She does so, knowing that she has effectively brought the two of them together. After that proclamation, Eponine, looking wistfully after Marius, realizes how “little he knows/Little he sees.” This despair increases when she realizes that Marius is infatuated with the older Cosette, who he has just seen for the first time. She recalls their brief time together as children, and she sings “Cosette! Now I remember/Cosette! How can it be?/We were children together./Look what's become of me.”
Marius yearns to meet Cosette, and realizing that Eponine’s “street smarts” can help him, he pleads to Eponine to “do this for me,/discover where she lives.” Eponine maintains her nonchalant exterior and retorts that “You see? I told you so!/There's lots of things I know!/Eponine, she knows her way/around.”
While Eponine understands that she is undermining her own desires, she brings the young couple together, and as they profess their mutual attraction, Eponine, in the distance, laments how “Every word that he says/Is a dagger in me!” However, she also also understands that “he was never mine to lose/Why regret/What could not be?” Even when her father’s gang gathers to rob the house, she is still impelled to loyalty for Marius and risks both wrath and rejection by defying her own father and his gang.
In her signature song, “On My Own,” Eponine returns to her fantasy when “the city goes to bed/And I can live inside my head./On my own/Pretending he's beside me/And I know it's only in my mind/That I'm talking to myself.” This entire scene constitutes her greatest (though in many ways ironic) epiphany as her solitary journey brings her back to her home, the Gorbeau slums: “I love him/But every day I'm learning/All my life I've only been/pretending./Without me, his world will go on/turning/A world that's full of happiness/That I have never known.”
After the barricades are erected and Eponine comes to him with information concerning Cosette, Eponine insists that “I know this is no place for me,/still I would rather be with you!” Delivering Marius’s message to Cosette and getting wounded in the process, she succumbs to her wounds as Marius informs the others that “her name was Eponine!/Her life was cold and dark, yet/she was unafraid!”
So while Eponine never receives his love, she dies gallantly with his (and the other revolutionaries’) respect.
Both of these characters share very similar traits in that they allow themselves to care deeply for someone who obviously was not about to reciprocate that personal emotional affection. Moreover, their love for those other people ran so deeply that they facilitated a pairing with another, even when given opportunities to circumvent and even undermine the “other” relationship. Both became vulnerable, so that both were “all in” personally, which may have been bitter experiences personally but ultimately became acts of spiritual salvation.
Of the two, Eponine reveals herself as the “superior” spirit since, while there is no real back story on Wolfram, it is safe to assume he came from an upper class background given his level of education and refinement along with his grasp of courtesy (in the word’s etymological sense of “manners in the court”). Eponine, on the other hand, rises above her family’s background and behavior, her socio-economic environment, and the crushing times that constituted her world. She also accomplishes all this without assistance—even from Marius, whose personal sphere she hoped to move into. This does not, however, diminish Wolframs’ own strength of character. So while both of these characters exemplify what Dr. Brown views as true inner strength that comes with laying one’s self open to vulnerability, Eponine, it is safe to assume, is certainly “self-made” and thus completely selfless.