Seeing the “Jondrette” family in utter poverty is sad. He’s not lying about the kids not having eaten. They don’t even have a full set of clothes for everyone. And Thénardier mistreats them all, making things worse to elicit more sympathy. It’s stomach-churning.
The parents may be terrible people, but Éponine and Azelma don’t deserve it. You can see why Gavroche left. He and the younger brothers are better off on the streets.
On February 2*, Éponine and Azelma bump into Marius and drop a packet of letters they’re carrying. He picks them up, but they’re long gone. So he decides to look at them for a clue to return them.
They’re Thénardier’s scam letters to prospective marks. All different identities, all different stories, all different schemes…but also all badly spelled. I’m not sure the letter promising to dedicate theatrical verse to the prospective
markpatron is likely to succeed. Then again, terrible grammar and spelling are endemic in modern scam emails too, and they still catch people.
I’m not sure why Marius finds it odd that the same person wrote letters “from” four different people. We’ve already seen that letter-writing is a professional service. Though perhaps the professional scribes tend toward better spelling?
One of the letters is actually addressed to Valjean (though only by description). It’s the one with the fewest lies (that and the one he later sends to Marius, their next-door neighbor), because he’s invited him to come see the sorry state in which they live, hoping for direct charity rather than pushing a more elaborate scam. Anything complex would be caught.
The first clue that the old man is Valjean: he’s surprised when Éponine tells him their address.
It would be too much coincidence even for this book for them to live in the same apartment, though. Valjean lived at the top of the stairs, the Jondrettes at the end of the hall.
*I was surprised to see the groundhog day tradition cited, even by another name, since I thought it was an American oddity. Apparently groundhog day grew out of an older German Candlemas tradition which states that if a bear sees sunlight on February 2, it will return to its den to prepare for six more weeks of winter. The Candlemas tradition is brought up here.