Something interesting happened a hundred or so pages into Les Misérables: The first week was a slog, but now on week three, I find myself looking forward to it. Maybe it’s the fact that more of the cast is starting to show up.
After Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop, the book jumps forward two years to 1817. Hugo picks up after the time skip with a snapshot of Parisian society and French culture in that year. A lot of the names are lost on me, but the bit about changes in terminology for Revolution-related topics is interesting.
He later makes the point that it’s difficult for modern readers to imagine a country outing from Paris “45 years ago” because so much has changed. It’s easy to forget that Les Misérables was already a historical novel when it was new. The modern equivalent would be a story written today that starts in 1965 and runs through 1982.
Fantine’s Day Off
Fantine makes her first appearance on page 123 of “Part 1: Fantine.” Hugo talks about the group of Parisian students being Oscars rather than Arthurs (no idea why), and when he gets to naming them, he starts out with “The Oscars were named Felix…” That seemed a bit *ahem* odd.
“Gold and pearls were her dowry, but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth.” You know where this is going, don’t you?
There’s an extended story about a blissful country outing that Fantine goes on with her boyfriend and their circle of friends. As I recall, it’s the only time in the book when she’s happy.
They finish the afternoon in a tavern, drinking. Fantine’s boyfriend Felix Tholomyès is a buzzkill, windbag…and ringleader of the group. He’s that philosophy major who lets his studies go to his head, thinks he’s smarter than everyone and holds forth constantly. And now he’s giving the women diet advice. And telling the men to screw around, and the women to let them. Stay classy. (And really, what does she see in this guy? Excuse me, this Oscar?)
At the end of the day, Tholomyès’ “merry prank” is revealed: essentially, it’s “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we all dumped our girlfriends at once by ditching them?” #jerks
Fantine’s boyfriend wrote a letter when he wanted to leave, but at least he took her to a park that’s covered with trees and told her on a Sunday.
I think Hugo was trying to do a twist ending here, between Felix’s “surprise” and the fact that he first mentions Fantine’s child in the last sentence of the 20-page sequence. Or maybe he was trying to prevent prudish readers forming a negative first impression of Fantine. He spends a lot of time pointing out how virtuous and modest she is in all other respects, and that to her, Tholomyès is the love of her life.
Fantine is devastated, but the other women are more stoic. One even had another guy picked out already. Presumably none had children, but who knows? It’s not as if Hugo mentioned Cosette until then.
A Poor Choice of Guardians
Ten months later, traveling from Paris for her hometown to look for work, a much sadder Fantine stumbles on Mme. Thénardier and her children on the one day she looks respectable. Oops.
Cosette, Éponine and her sister Azelma (also known as miss not-appearing-in-this-show) all get along wonderfully when they first meet as toddlers. You know it won’t last.
Cosette turns out to be a nickname for Euphrasie.
Mme. Thénardier is humming as she and Fantine arrange for the innkeepers to care for Cosette. Guess what’s stuck in my head now?
Madame Thénardier is described as looking like a wrestler, who would have scared Fantine off if she’d been standing instead of sitting. M. Thénardier is described as “a Jack-of-all-trades who did everything badly,” and promotes himself heavily by his (greatly exaggerated) reputation as a solider. This explains the coat he wears in the stage version. The names Éponine and Azelma are attributed to the fact that Mme. Thénardier reads the trashy novels of the day, which Hugo uses as a springboard to comment on the spread and reversal of prestigious vs. plain names as inspired by pop culture and social mobility.
As sad as it is to see Cosette toward the end of her time being mistreated by the Thénardiers, it’s worse to read how they got to that point. Things start out fine for the first month, but then they sell her clothes and put her in rags. Next they’re feeding her scraps. Resenting her despite the extra revenue stream from Fantine, Mme Thénardier directs all her cruelty toward Cosette and all her kindness toward Éponine and Azelma…who follow her mother’s example in treating Cosette. By the time she’s five, they’ve put her to work as a drudge, all the while resenting her presence. Meanwhile, M. Thénardier demands more and more money from Fantine, telling her how wonderful Cosette is faring, even as they treat her worse and worse.
Villagers take to calling her the Lark. “But this was a lark that never sang.” When I first wrote this commentary, I didn’t even note it, because I’d forgotten that the name keeps coming up throughout the book.
Fantine’s hometown of Montreil-sur-Mer has recently experienced an economic revival. A stranger came to town and invented a new manufacturing method for their main industry, completely transforming the local economy. He doesn’t talk about his past, and arrived only with a small amount of money which he invested in the project. But since he rescued the police chief’s children from a fire his first day in town, no one even asked to see his papers.
Who could he be?
On top of revitalizing the industry, building a new factory and employing a bunch of the townspeople, Pere Madeleine endows hospitals and schools, inspires political rivals to do the same, and is always helping random people out. He’s known to sneak into houses to leave money on the table. Eventually they insist, over his objections, on making him Mayor.
Uh-oh, official policy in his factory includes “pure morals” for women (along with goodwill from men and honesty from everyone). That makes him partly responsible for Fantine’s firing later, and probably makes him feel more personally responsible for her fate.
Hmm, M. Madeleine is known as an excellent marksman on the rare occasions he shoots. I wonder if that’ll turn up later…
Intrigued by rumors of skulls and crossbones, winged hourglasses and the like, young ladies of the town ask him, “M. le Maire, may we be allowed to see your bedroom? It is said to be like a cave.” (No, really.) They’re disappointed to only see his candlesticks.
I’m really not sure at what point Hugo expects us to figure out that M. Madeleine is Jean Valjean. But any reader who hasn’t figured it out by the time he goes into mourning for the Bishop of Digne hasn’t been paying attention.
Pages covered this week: 119-163. Continue on to part four, where we meet Javert for the first time.