“I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the most memorable and powerful songs from the musical Les Misérables (French for “the miserable ones” or “the wretched poor”) that first premiered in London in October of 1985 and in New York in March of 1987. The musical is based on Victor Hugo’s monumental ( and long — 1,200 pages in English, close to 2,000 pages in the original French!) novel of the same name published in 1862. The song was written by Herbert Kretzmer (based on the French original written by Alain Boubil) with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and John Cameron.
Due to its soaring melody, lush orchestration, poetic lyrics, and moving (seemingly uplifting) performances by some of the music industry’s most acclaimed divas, the song is often misunderstood as a celebration of dreams; however, it is quite the opposite — it is full of pathos, anguish and expresses the singer’s heartbreaking disillusionment of her dreams. The song mirrors the novel’s overarching theme: the journey from falsehood to truth, or more precisely in the case of Fantine, from joyful dream to harsh reality.
The soulful song is sung by Fantine who is a very naive, destitute working-class girl who is seduced by a wealthy student, Felix Tholomyes. Tholomytes gets Fantine pregnant and abandons Fantine and their illegitimate daughter, Cosette. In order to support Cosette, Fantine asks the Thenardiers, corrupt owners of The Sergeant at Waterloo Inn, to care for her while she works at a factory, owned by Jean Valjean, to earn money to support her daughter. The Thenardiers then begin to extort money from Fantine, claiming that Cosette is ill and requires costly care. When the factory manager discovers that Fantine is an unwed mother, she is fired from her job. Subsequently, she turns to prostitution to support Cosette and soon, because she is living in the streets, Fantine becomes very ill.
It is at this nadir in her life, that Fantine sings this poignant — but paradoxically beautiful — passionate song of regret, the delusion of dreams, despair and the road not taken.
The first stanza focuses on the aspects of naive first love and the seduction that leads to a troubled future. The second stanza describes how Fantine has deluded herself with empty dreams, and she hoped that God would not hold her accountable for her foolish, carefree behavior. The tigers in the third stanza represent preying older men who seduce and impregnate young women, and then abandon them. The fourth stanza illustrates unrequited love — a woman who is hopelessly in love with a man who is simply using her as a plaything, walking away from her when he gets bored. The last stanza is Fantine’s realization of her naiveté and the crushing disappointment of dreams never realized. The coda expresses her final lament — full of poignancy and anguish.
There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong
I dreamed a dream in times gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted
But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame
He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came
And still I dream he’ll come to me
That we’ll live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
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For further reading: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Penguin (2012). Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen by Benedict Nightengale, Applause (2013).