While the song "Come to Me" was probably not intended as a treatise on astronomical timekeeping or 19th-century French child-rearing, some of Fantine's lines (taken at face value) fit together for a remarkably specific implication about her daughter's bedtime. Cosette is roughly 8 years old at this point.

it's past your bedtime

So the bedtime is earlier than the "now" of the song.

soon it will be night ... Don't you see the evening star appearing?

So "now" is twilight, just after sunset.

Don't you hear the winter wind is crying?

And it is winter, so we know that sunset is relatively early. Because in this period I believe clocks were set locally by the sun rather than by time zones, the sun would be highest at noon and would set no later than 6 pm in the winter. The lines seem to fit together like a logic puzzle.

Is the month of Fantine's death known? Once source puts it in December, another in March -- both consistent with the "winter" reference. At the latitude of Montreuil-sur-Mer, sunset would be about 4:15 pm in December, reaching 6 pm in March. The expectation for 8-year-old Cosette to be in bed before 6 pm, and possibly much sooner, seems unreasonably early.

There are many potential ways to explain the apparent implications:

  1. Fantine is emotional and hallucinating as she dies, and her time references are not precise.
  2. Fantine has not been caring for Cosette day-to-day and may not know what a reasonable bedtime for her child would be.
  3. "Bedtime" might mean the time to begin getting ready for bed -- although in modern English it seems to refer to "lights out".
  4. Attempting a scientific interpretation of the lyrics is inappropriate.
  5. Or maybe the lyrics are actually telling us something interesting, that children in this time and place did go to bed very early by modern standards, perhaps due to the need to get up and perform chores well before dawn.

Is there any literary or historical insight on the interpretation?

  • 2
    I might also add 6., the requirement of poetic tropes for song lyrics to eke out maximum melodrama so that the tragedy of Fantine's death will spur Valjean to take responsibility for Cosette. Fantine could have sung about Cosette coming in from playing and setting the table for dinner, but her images are all about ending (evening/night/bedtime as the end of the day) and grief (crying winds). Fantine's life is ending, it's a sad thing, and the audience should be tearing up so Valjean's rescue of Cosette is a catharsis. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 10:03
  • @LaurenIpsum Thanks, I think that could be a variety of #4, if artistic requirements determine the references in the song regardless of literal meaning. This would leave the question of whether the images create a notable distraction for the listener (like a mixed metaphor), as a child going to bed before nightfall is familiar but is associated with summer (see Stevenson's "Bed in Summer"), so upon being told it's winter some of us say "wait, what?" and think about what that would entail.
    – nanoman
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 15:03
  • My money is on hallucination... After all, Fantine is singing to Cosette as if she were present, which is clearly not the case. Invoking the cosiness and connection of bedtime, in a time and place where it was not uncommon for less wealthy families to share a bed, could also come in to play. Fantine is already in bed, 'night is coming' as things start to get dark, and she wishes for her daughter to be cuddled up with her.
    – Meg
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 16:18

1 Answer 1

  1. "Bedtime" might mean the time to begin getting ready for bed -- although in modern English it seems to refer to "lights out".

"Lights out" is the underlying answer.

Nighttime in our present world is dominated by video screens and artificial lighting. But a few hundred years ago, before electric lights, before gas lights, before kerosene lights, nighttime meant either dim candle light or darkness.

Typically people would go to bed not long after sunset, perhaps pray or think about things for a while, and then have their "first sleep". A few hours later, they'd wake up and spend an hour or two and engaged in whatever thoughts or activities they could manage, and then have their "second sleep" until morning.

Throughout history, there have been numerous accounts of segmented sleep, from medical texts, to court records and diaries, and even in African and South American tribes, with a common reference to "first" and "second" sleep.

In Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge (1840), he writes:

He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream."

Anthropologists have found evidence that during preindustrial Europe, bi-modal sleeping was considered the norm. Sleep onset was determined not by a set bedtime, but by whether there were things to do.

Historian A. Roger Ekirch's book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past describes how households at this time retired a couple of hours after dusk, woke a few hours later for one to two hours, and then had a second sleep until dawn.

During this waking period, people would relax, ponder their dreams, or have sex. Some would engage in activities like sewing, chopping wood, or reading, relying on the light of the moon or oil lamps.

Ekirch found references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th century. This is thought to have started in the upper classes in Northern Europe and filtered down to the rest of Western society over the next 200 years.

Interestingly, the appearance of sleep maintenance insomnia in the literature in the late 19th century coincides with the period where accounts of split sleep start to disappear. Thus, modern society may place unnecessary pressure on individuals that they must obtain a night of continuous consolidated sleep every night, adding to the anxiety about sleep and perpetuating the problem.

Humans Used to Sleep in Two Shifts, And Maybe We Should Do It Again : ScienceAlert

So, it wouldn't be unreasonable to send Cosette to bed at 6 pm if the adults themselves were going at 8 pm, after a couple of hours of tidying, talking, praying, etc.

The key to look for is "biphasic sleep".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.